From ‘Why the sudden decision to conserve Pearl Bank?’, 5 June 2015, ST Forum
(Loke Chee Meng): I AM surprised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) decision to consider conserving the Pearl Bank apartments based on a submission by the owners (“URA sees merit in conservation plan for Pearl Bank”; last Saturday, and “Conservation ‘can unlock Pearl Bank’s value'”; Monday).
Until recently, Pearl Bank would have met the wrecking ball had the owners’ last attempt at a collective sale been successful. The owners’ representative made no bones about conservation being hatched up as an afterthought to salvage the dwindling value of the ageing property after previous collective sale attempts failed.
Integral to this conservation deal is a consideration for an increase in the property’s gross floor area. If this increase were not granted, would the owners still be keen on pursuing conservation?
URA’s principle in conserving the building befuddles me. It was perfectly willing all along to allow Pearl Bank to be redeveloped after a collective sale. Why does the URA now deem the development worthy of conservation, after three attempts at a collective sale failed?
Conservation rules should not be so arbitrary that they can be exploited for self-interests. It is the authorities’ responsibility to proactively identify potential conservation buildings, as owners would make submissions only as and when it benefits them.
With more leasehold properties ageing, we may see more frivolous submissions, if the authorities do not step in, and this will undermine the process of conserving genuine historical buildings.
The 40 year old horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank Apartment (PBA) was once described as a 38 storey 3-D jigsaw puzzle, housing 272 units, plus 8 penthouses, in a single block. One ST writer waxed poetic about its ‘cylindrical design inspired by rounded river pebbles, fabricated to exact tolerances with just the right balance between tightness and looseness’. Its interlocking facade has also been compared to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, an example of the style known as ‘Brutalism‘. Though described as a complex structure created by an alien space race to inspire us pathetic earthlings, it was really the brainchild of local pioneer Tan Cheng Siong.
Unlike other conserved buildings which include shophouses and bungalows, PBA may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye at first glance, which could be said the same of other buildings of the era, including People’s Park Complex and the vertical slum that is Golden Mile Complex. They’re like the ugly forbears of the sleek condos and DBSS flats that we have now, but like the recently gazetted national monument Jurong Town Hall, what ultimately matters if how influential and aspirational the structures were at the time, even if they look like discarded engine parts of a Borg mothership. Not so lucky was Eng Cheong towers, also a child of the 70’s, which was torn to the ground to make way for the Southbank development. Another relic that was quietly removed from the face of the earth, as I was surprised to discover, was the 7th storey Hotel in Bugis. In its place now lies the Downtown Line Bugis station.
Yet beauty and heritage value alone may not preserve buildings in their entirety. In 2007, a petition was launched against the demolition of the century-old ‘Butterfly House’ at 23 Amber Road, the only bungalow with curved wings and designed by the same Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Raffles Hotel and Goodwood Park fame. Today, only the porch sans wings remains and it serves as a ‘world-class entrance lobby’ to the 18 storey Aristo condo, described as a juxtaposition of ‘classic charm and modern luxury’.
Personally, it looks like colonial bungalow with a giant concrete tumour sticking out of it. How URA could allow this token monstrosity to exist eludes me. Regent Alfred would rather see his work burnt to ashes, than having a gorgeous house latched onto a condo like a princess forced to carry a tower of bricks on her back. Now that is Brutal. Let’s all pray that PBA doesn’t meet the same fate.