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.

JeromeLim-1626

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.

JeromeLim-0816

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: