Parting Glances: the cylinder on Pearl’s Hill

2 05 2019

A last look at Pearl Bank Apartments, a Chinatown landmark and a celebrated modern building.


The time has come to bid farewell to Pearl Bank Apartments, that cylinder-shaped apartment block sticking right out – perhaps like the proverbial sore thumb – of the southern slope of Pearl’s Hill. Sold to us here in Singapore Southeast Asia’s tallest residential building during its construction, it is thought of as a marvel of innovative design in spite of a rather unpretentious appearance. Emptied of its residents, it now awaits its eventual demolition; having been sold in February 2018 in the collective sale wave that threatens to rid Singapore of its Modern post-independence architectural icons. CapitaLand, the developer behind the purchase, will be replacing the block with a new development that with close to 800 units (compared to 288 units currently).

The residential block, photographed in 2014.

Pearl Bank Apratment’s development came as part of a post-independence urban renewal effort. Involving the sale of land to private firms for development, which in Pearl Bank’s case was for the high-density housing for the middle class. The project, which was to have been completed in 1974 with construction having commenced in mid-1970, ran into several difficulties. A shortage of construction materials and labour, as well as several fatal worksite accidents, saw to the project being completed only after a delay of about two years.

An advertisement in 1976.

After the completion of the project in 1976, its developer, Hock Seng Enterprises, ran into financial difficulties and was placed into receivership in August 1978. This prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to step in to purchase all eight of the block’s penthouses in 1979. The 4,000+ sq. ft. penthouses (the area included a 1,000 sq. ft. roof terrace) were resold to Civil Servants and Statutory Board officers at a price of $214,000 for an intermediate unit, and $217,000 for the corner unit – a steal even at the prices of the day!

A view from one of the penthouse units.

The 38-storey apartment block also saw problems with its lifts and for over a month in 1978, only two were in working order. Another incident that imvolved the lifts occurred in November 1986 when a metal chain of one of the lifts fell a hundred metres, crashing through the top of its cabin. It was quite fortunate that there was no one in the lift during the late night incident. The building developed a host of other problems as it aged, wearing an increasingly worn and tired appearance over time. Even so, it was still one to marvel at and one that had photographers especially excited.

Built on a C-shaped plan, a slit in the cylinder provided light and ventilation. The inside of this cee is where the complex nature of the building’s layout becomes apparent, as does its charm. Common corridors provide correspondence across the split-level apartment entrances as well as to each apartment’s secondary exits via staircases appended to the inner curve. The apartments are a joy in themselves, woven into one another across the different levels like interlocking pieces of a three-diemnsional puzzle. The result is joyous a mix of two, three and four bedroom apartments.

There have been quite a few voices lent in support of conserving the building and other post-independence architectural icons, which even if not for their architectural merit, represent a coming of age for the local architectural community and a break away from the colonial mould. Several proposals have been tabled previously to conserve the building, including one by one of its architects, Mr Tan Cheng Siong and another by the Management Corporation Strata Title Council.

Part of the waste disposal system.

That sentiment is however not necessary shared by all and the sites central location and view that it offers, does mean that the site’s development potential cannot be ignored. Among its long-term residents, a few would have welcomed the opportunity to cash in. Those occupying units on the lower floors might have had such thoughts. It seems that it was increasingly becoming less pleasant to live in some of the lower units due to choked pipes. One could also not miss the stench emanating from the rubbish disposal system.

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The view from a penthouse roof terrace.

Architectural or even historical perspectives aside, the person-on-the-street would probably not get too sentimental over the loss of Pearl Bank Apartments. Unlike the old National Library, the National Theatre or the old National Stadium in which memories of many more were made, there would have been little opportunity provided to most to interact or get close enough to appreciate the building.

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A last reflection.

All eyes I suppose are now on CapitaLand, to see what in terms of the site’s heritage –  if anything – would be retained. Based on noises being made online, the launch of the project is due in 2H 2019.


More views:


 





Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 





A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





A look down the Orchard Road of the early 1970s

20 01 2014

A photograph that would probably have been taken from the top of the Hilton in the early 1970s offers a view of that show how different Orchard Road was back then. The Mandarin Hotel, which was completed in 1971, and the two-way traffic system along the stretch from the junction with Scotts/Paterson Roads provides an indication of when the photograph would have been taken. This was period when I probably enjoyed Orchard Road the most, a time when the crowds we now cannot seem to escape from were non-existent, and a time before the modern shopping malls descended on what has since become a street well-known throughout the world for its shopping offerings.

Orchard Road early 1970s

Of some of the main landmarks seen in the photograph, only the Mandarin Hotel and Liat Towers stands today. In place of Orchard Road Police Station is the Orchard MRT Station and ION Orchard above it. Across the road, the complex that houses Tangs and Marriot Hotel (ex Dynatsy Hotel) now stands in place of the two rows of shophouses and the iconic old CK Tang Building.

Lucky Plaza (1978), one of the first malls to arrive on Orchard Road, stands where Champion Motors (a former Volkswagen dealer) used to be and Tong Building (1978) stands where the Yellow Pages Building and an Esso Petrol Station were, right next to the old Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket.

Fitzpatrick’s went for the Promenade Shopping Centre (1984) to be built. The Promenade, best remembered for its spiral walkway up, has since been demolished for an extension of Paragon (2003) to be built.

The original portion of Paragon (1997) would have been where The Orchard, a shopping centre that was converted from the former Orchard Motors showroom in 1970, had stood. The Orchard would be remembered for its famous Tivoli Coffee House.

Another icon along that old Orchard Road, would be Wisma Indonesia beyond Orchard Road Police Station and separated from the road by an uncovered Stamford Canal and a service road. That housed the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and was very recognisable for its Minangkabau styled roof. In its places stands Wisma Atria (1986).

Beyond the Wisma was Ngee Ann Building. It was where the once well-known Mont d’Or Cake Shop was located. The site of Ngee Ann Building (and the then empty land beyond it) is where Ngee Ann City (1993) stands today. The canal one had to cross both to Ngee Ann Building and the Wisma, was covered up in 1974 and its is on top of this that the wide pedestrian walkway running down that side of Orchard Road, now runs.

More related to Orchard Road in the 1970s and 1980s can be found in several posts:





Where dogs, politicians and the postman once met

6 11 2012

One of the quieter stretches of today’s Orchard Road has to be the less trodden path that takes one from Killiney Road towards what is today a four way junction with Buyong Road, across from where the Concorde Hotel (ex Le Méridien Hotel) is. Walking down it I am often taken back to a time when Orchard Road was a very different place, a place lined with car showrooms, the odd supermarket, and lots of old shophouses that lined both sides of what has today become a sea of malls, and when the stretch that I speak of was where the headquarters of the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party or PAP, had been located.

Orchard Circus in days when Orchard Road was a much quieter place. To the left of the clump of palm trees is where the entrance to the Istana is.

Map of general area today with overlay of road layout in 1978.

Besides the PAP having their headquarters there until 1978 (when they moved to another of their former HQs at Napier Road), the stretch was home to headquarters of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The SPCA occupied a premises the entrance of which was by the side of a building that was the former Orchard Road Post Office (across from where Buyong Road met Orchard Road) – a sign over its entrance could not be missed. The former Orchard Road Post Office which was built in 1902, had by the time I got to see the building, long moved out when the Killiney Road Post Office (which opened in 1963) was built to replace it when that magnificent building it occupied proved too small (there were initial thoughts to expand the building – but due to limitations of the site, a new building was instead planned).

The shophouse lined stretch of Orchard Road is seen between Specialist Centre at the top of the picture and United Motor Works (building seen with the AC Spark Plug Advertisement – with words “Hot Tip”) in 1974 (source: http://picas.nhb.gov,sg). The gap in the buildings just beyond United Motor Works is where the SPCA / former Orchard Road Post Office was.

The former Orchard Road Post Office building in 1982, with the entrance to the SPCA next to it (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009). The post office closed in 1963 when the Killiney Road Post Office was opened.

Another photograph of the SPCA on Orchard Road from the SPCA’s website.

The premises of the SPCA were used since the organisation moved to into in 1965 (although they had maintained kennels behind it since 1954 when it was still the RPSCA), paying a nominal $1 in rent per year. The kennels were one that were regularly visited by student volunteers including some of my classmates in primary school – I recall my mother dropping me off at the premises on a few occasions in 1976 when I did accompany a classmate who helped out at the SPCA. The SPCA’s premises was acquired for redevelopment in 1983 and the SPCA moved into their current headquarters at Mount Vernon built at a cost of $1 million with money obtained from the organisation’s fund raising efforts.

The area where the SPCA / Orchard Road Post Office was.

Approximate position of the former post office building / SPCA seen against what the area is today (image of Orchard Road Post Office from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The stretch today bears little resemblance to the stretch back when the SPCA was there. Cleared completely of the buildings that had occupied it as well as with the realignment of the roads in and around it, it is hard to imagine what is today a relatively quiet and pretty green stretch, lined with shophouses all along to where its junction was with Clemenceau Avenue (where the Orchard Circus, which went in 1967) had once been.