Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Demolishing the City of the Future

The architects of 1970s Singapore tried to build 'socialism that works.' What will be lost now their buildings are being demolished?

The Pearl Bank development is one of Singapore’s landmarks. Sculptural, ambitious, elegant; it’s an architectural masterpiece, a welcome reminder that Asia was modern long before the ‘the rise of Asia’, and that there was much more to this modernity than simply having a lot of money. It is also going to be destroyed. Pearl Bank is just one of a number of iconic modernist buildings in Singapore marked for demolition. This is a disaster for multiple aesthetic, economic and environmental reasons. It also represents the annihilation of a unique vision. The destruction of the architecture goes hand in hand with the erasure of important political memories. 

Completed in 1976, Pearl Bank was a product of the first wave of the city state’s rapid development. Ideologically, the People’s Action Party (PAP) which led Singapore to independence advocated multicultural social democracy as an alternative to ethnic nationalism or Communism. In practice, the PAP focused on consolidating its control over the machinery of government and doing whatever it could to create as many jobs as possible. Then known in the Western media as ‘the Castro of the East’, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, made a decent stab at doing what his friend Harold Wilson had promised to do in the UK. The white heat of technology was used to transform the west of the island into an international centre for manufacturing.

The young architects of the new state set to work obliterating the old ways of living. Tan Cheng Siong, the architect of Pearl Bank, had been given a job in the planning department aged twenty-two. He did not know what ‘planning’ was when he started; eight years later he had his own architectural practice. The sheer pace of  development meant that the earliest buildings of the post-independence period were more engineering solutions than architecture, with the main aim being to simply bring the cost down as much as possible. For housing the government tried to bring the cost of apartments under $4 (around 2.50 GBP) a square foot. Thousands of people were moved out of villages (Kampongs) and into something akin to army barracks. Colonial ideas about keeping the city of Singapore separate from its rural periphery were swept away: the entirety of Singapore was to be urbanised. It was a burst of visionary philistinism.

‘It was an interesting challenge for young people like us, remembers Tan Cheng Siong, ‘I can remember thinking “very good, we are a free people now” but at the start we were so badly informed and had nothing to hang on to.’ He continues, ‘the neighbours, the community, the streets and the shops all these things were lost in some of the early apartments, but young people like me were rushing to fulfil our ambitions. Our parents were the ones that felt lonely every now and then.’

‘Socialism That Works’ – a 1970s Singapore government brochure.

Pearl Bank was designed to help address this social dislocation. Its horseshoe shape and curved corridors were designed as an antidote to what Tan Cheng Siong saw as the ‘anti-social’ long corridors of the slab blocks that had dominated the immediate years of post-independence construction. The kitchens faced inwards encouraging people to invite neighbours and passers-by ‘in for curried chicken.’ The flats were a mix of sizes to prevent the development being colonised by one type of resident. The twenty-seventh floor was given over to the community. There was a kindergarten and shops. ‘We never knew the power of architecture at the beginning,’ he remembers, ‘but the idea of creating permanent shelters to build family and community – I could see it was something special.’

This first generation of post-independence architects took their vocation seriously. They were supported by politicians moulded by anti-colonial struggle, figures like Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam, who possessed a cultural hinterland that their successors have often appeared to lack. The Commonwealth Association of Architects encouraged Malaysian and Singaporean architects to meet with Indian pioneers such as Charles Correa and BV Doshi, as well as to visit Chandigarh, the city designed by Le Corbusier. Added to a local ethic of self-improvement and Nehru’s developmentalism was the impact of Expo 1970 in Osaka, where Kenzo Tange’s visionary example encouraged Singaporean visions of the future that rejoiced in the fact that they did not look like yesterday. The results were buildings like the Golden Mile Complex (1973), Jurong Town Hall (1974) and the Public Utilities Board Building (1978): Sci-fi constructions crash landed on a landscape then often still dominated by prawn farms, mangrove swamps and rainforest. Signature buildings supplemented by modernist churches, car parks, swimming pools and housing estates. A revolutionary period in Singapore’s history had led to a revolutionary public architecture.

We’re used to a story that says in the second half of the twentieth century the austere international style of architectural of modernism in the West gave way to a theatrical, historicist Postmodernity. But the story of these architects illustrates that in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia it could be the other way around. For much of the late colonial period Singapore’s modern architecture borrowed its stylings from a Western past. The engineering and construction processes might have been modern but the façade was often neo-classical. The non-Western modernism that flickered into life in Singapore and South East Asia in the second half of the twentieth century was something else entirely.

There’s another interesting political tension here. Despite the Singapore government’s authoritarianism, the rapidity of development made rigid oversight impossible and gave the post-independence generation of architects’ enormous freedom. The government might have banned Cliff Richard and long hair but to a degree they outsourced the opportunity to radically reshape the urban environment. Today Singapore is a very different place. The government has become hyper sensitive to a narrow range of social demands. Inspired by Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’, substantial investments in the creative sector have expanded the boundaries of the permissible in civic society and enabled the staging of challenging artistic works, but arguably the overall context is one of tighter social control. While the PAP remain in office, one mode of what is effectively one-party government has given way to quite another.

‘After the initial twenty, thirty years (the PAP) just try to keep themselves in power and the population has become increasingly difficult, increasingly demanding,’ says Tan Cheng Siong, ’and yet while the PAP are very good for the economy, for global trade, maybe tourism, the actual human community and at the human level, well, I think our people at the moment are feeling weak and have nothing to make them feel strong about.’

A contemporary advert for the Pearl Bank building in Outram, near the Chinatown area of Singapore.

Despite their achievements the key architects of this period, such as Lim Chong Keat, William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon, are dimly known to the wider public. This lack of name recognition is one of the reasons the buildings can now be knocked down without great complaint. ‘There’s a situation where even students of architecture in Singapore will know about the Bauhaus’, says the architectural historian Dr Jiat-Hwee Chang, ‘but they may struggle to name any Singaporean architects.’ Because the state was the driving force in shaping the urban environment, Singapore’s buildings from this era tend to have been built by nameless organisational men and women. ‘While post-war municipal architecture in the UK had champions like Leslie Martin, in Singapore politicians took the credit,’ explains Chang. Recent efforts at raising the status of Singapore’s modernist buildings rest heavily on the individual initiative of enthusiasts like the photographer Darren Soh.

Today’s supporters of Singapore’s modernist heritage are less likely to sign up to the values of family and community that remain central to Tan Cheng Siong’s vision. Disproportionately, they’re wealthy and educated professionals who work in international industries and who are attracted by the raffish air of Singapore’s run-down modernist buildings. Because leases in Singapore are short and tricky to renew, residents are financially incentivised to run down and rent out rather than refurbish buildings, knowing that they can eventually sell en bloc to the developers of luxury flats and shopping malls. The result is that as buildings age they begin to attract people with unconventional lives who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Supporters of modernist heritage therefore tend to brand themselves in muted opposition to mainstream Singapore. They indulge the buildings and position them as safe spaces for vaguely alternative living. This does have the benefit of demonstrating the value of the buildings and how they can easily be turned into fashionable places to live, but it also seems to rest on an aloof and comfy romanticism that is a world away from the radical transformative vision that inspired the buildings. It is one of the reasons the battle to save many of Singapore’s modernist buildings is likely lost already.  

At the moment few tears are being shed about this. In Singapore new is still pretty much always taken to mean better. The relentless effort to manufacture iconic new architecture is tied in with an impatience for progress and prosperity. Today’s supporters of Singapore’s modernist architecture are also unlikely to have been supporters of the authoritarian brand of socialist development that inspired Pearl Bank. There are very good reasons for this. The drive for rapid industrialisation led to the suppression of free speech, political activism and independent trade unions. It was for these reasons that the People’s Action Party was kicked out of the Socialist International in 1976, the same year that Pearl Bank was completed. But it was also a socialism that for a generation rapidly promoted working people and their concerns. Housing like Pearl Bank was built to service the needs of upwardly mobile families in the city centre as slums were cleared. It was also a period when the Singaporean government were invested in nurturing a mixed economy rather than the heavily regulated ‘globalised’ economy of Singapore today, which is dominated by the big battalions of state intervention and multi-national corporations. It was a period when the Singapore government unashamedly published a book entitled Socialism that works.

The destruction of mid-century modernist architecture is not a story unique to Singapore. It is a trend accelerating across South East Asia. This destruction is happening because of Chinese investment, urban development and rapid economic growth, but there are also less obvious motivations. In Cambodia and Laos buildings with American, colonial or Siamese influences are being knocked down so that the state can tell a longer story of ethnonationalism. Radical architecture that invokes a plurality of future possibilities is being knocked down to buttress a sense of the continuous present; the architectural stasis gives succour to the political stasis of Communist governments that no longer believe in Communism. The example is less extreme in Singapore, but the destruction of Pearl Bank can also be understood as part of the same phenomenon. Pearl Bank belonged to a Singapore whose visual icons were mass housing and public utilities, the centrepiece of the Singapore skyline today is the five-star hotel, shopping and casino complex Marina Bay Sands.

An article on ‘South East Asia’s tallest flats’

In the 54 years since independence Singapore has established itself as a global city and has the clichés to prove it; modern yet in touch with its traditions, local hospitality in a unique contemporary setting, a city of contrasts where east meets west. Mid-century modernism has made way for the buildings of vogueish superstar architects, while the preservation movement focuses on buildings from the pre-independence period that are admired by tourists.

The sociologist Chua Beng Huat has described Singapore’s development as resting on the unusual pairing of social democracy and anti-liberalism. Social life in Singapore remains underpinned by socialist policies enacted in the mid-century, but socialism no longer informs the nation’s political imagination. Singapore emerged at a point when authoritarian regimes were almost the norm in postcolonial nations but while the rule of the PAP’s peers invariably collapsed or ended in economic failure, Singapore has become a favourite of right-wing American think tanks. The government is currently pondering increasing the population from five and a half million to ten million over the next seventy years; it’s less a political vision than an insatiable demand for more. There are a plethora of plans being drawn up but there is very little in the way of moral purpose. 

‘When you become a free country you either make it or you break it, psychologically speaking, everyone says, “Okay I am part of this fantastic challenge!”’ argues Tan Cheng Siong, ‘now the young people look around but can’t find a way to contribute. It’s part of a very serious global issue, a global negativism. People want to share creative energy; they want their life to be more than a bank account.’

While aspects of life in Singapore illustrate how modernist, planned cities can become crushingly predictable if not parochial, Pearl Bank shows that the opposite can also be true. Bought into being by a wave of post-independence nationalism, it was imbued with an outward-looking and internationalist vision so inspirational it has to be pulled down.