Pearl Bank Apartments

Text by Eugene Tan

In 2013, we interviewed architect Tan Cheng Siong, recipient of the President's Design Award 2012, to find out more about Pearl Bank Apartments, one of the earliest and most iconic apartment projects in Singapore. The property was recently sold to CapitaLand for $728 million in a collective sale.

Pearl Bank Apartments (Photo source: Archurban Architect Planners)

Q: What motivated the development of Pearl Bank Apartments?

TCS: With independence came the need to expand the economy, and the tendency at the time was to go modern: building a modern city to support a modern economy, providing the resources to support economic growth and increase productivity. Urban development is definitely the spirit, bones, and body of economic growth.

One of the issues then, was the housing of people. In those days there were only shophouses, two, three, stories high, so The URA Urban Renewal Programme was set up to search for land to intensify, creating space for the city. One of its strategies was to create housing in the city core, as well as business opportunities in the city core. This can be seen in Peoples’ Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex, which came out in the same period.

So as the first completely residential development in the city core, we tendered, with the developer, for the third site under the URA Sale of Sites Programme in 1969. We were very lucky to be awarded the site based on design, something the government knew was crucial to a country’s development. The chief planner then, who was also an architect, understood the ideas embodied in our proposal, and selected it, seeing that we were going for community in a super high rise building.

Pearl Bank Apartments on Pearls Hill

Q: We understand there were difficulties faced in realising the design, leading to its completion only in 1976. What were they, and how did you resolve them?

TCS: Pearl Bank was completed in 1976 because it took a bit of time, with difficulties in construction and financing; building such a building in those days was rather taxing, especially when many new technologies needed to be employed.

Because there was no precedent to the construction of such a high building locally, financing the project involved great risks. As architects, we had to struggle to work with the developer to reduce the costs, making sure things worked economically, and convince the bankers of our methods.

We incorporated several new design and construction ideas. The first was bore piling, necessary for to support that amount of weight. These bore piles also made it easier to construct the high retaining walls for the carparks, saving costs there as well.

The formwork for the building was also a challenge, given its height. This was resolved by using slip form construction, technology we imported from the west. Instead of fabricating a complete wooden formwork, we only needed to create one platform which moulded the formwork, moving upwards centimetre by centimetre. This achieved a building speed of two days per storey, which was quite fast for the time. Unfortunately the wooden slip form platform caught fire, delaying construction for a few months.

Another strategy to save on the cost of formwork was to not have any beams, by using the walls as both column and beam. This was reinforced by the split level sections we created, which indirectly created some beams, contributing to the structure of the building. We also used factory fabricated reinforcement nets instead of reinforcement bars for the floor slabs, reducing the cost of labour.

The authorities also posed another challenge, and we had to refine our design to align with regulations at the time.

In a sense, this building was not built on any fancy feelings. It was based on community needs, technological needs, cost needs: We had so many requirements to cover. But it was fun, I learnt a lot from it, it was a fantastic learning process – that’s what architecture is, I think, it makes you smarter.

View upwards from garden of Pearl Bank Apartments

Q: But as a designer, what inspired the initial conceptualisation of this design?

TCS: At that time, low-cost housing had already begun showing the way to living in high spaces. One of the main complaints then was the straight corridor, which residents had to walk through to get to their units. There was a problem with privacy, as walking along the corridor meant also looking into the neighbours’ living rooms. This was justified as a strategy for the creation of community, but the inability to create privacy when necessary still disturbed me.

I wondered – how to create a row of apartments with a common corridor, but still retain absolute privacy. The solution to this was an individual elevator inside the apartment, serving only two units per floor. The common corridor was now a back garden, adjacent to the kitchens. And because the corridor was a curved one, when you looked out, you could see your real neighbours, and had access to them via the corridor, unlike in normal straight blocks, where the neighbours you saw lived in an entirely different block.

With the individual lift lobbies came the problem of having too many stops for the lifts. This was resolved by having split levels, which halved the number of stops and reduced travel time, because each lift only stopped at alternate floors.

We also factored in a kindergarten, demonstrating the idea that this apartment could have family. This building was perfect for newlyweds, and was also a building to grow old in. The split level system allowed some bedrooms backdoor exits, so grown children could have their own pads, living with, but not disturbing their parents. The unit could then be further segregated into two units with two entrances, which the older parents could rent out when their children moved out, supplementing their income.

Pearl Bank Apartments plan

Q: We know now how strongly residents and other locals feel about the conservation of Pearl Bank Apartments. But what was public reception like back then, upon completion in 1976?

TCS: When the building was complete, all those design elements became part of our marketing strategy. We even had to build a show apartment, which was something new at the time. While there was a lot of interest from the public, some people had certain misconceptions, including the fear that their dinners would get blown away because they lived so high up. We had to explain our strategies and intentions to these people, but at the time, buyer reception was still reserved.

I hadn’t realised that earlier, people already understood these architectural breakthroughs, with many architecture students being brought to pearl bank apartments when they had to study housing. And I’m so happy to have learnt lately, that all the good things have been understood, and that people appreciate the architectural solutions. That was a great consolation.

Section of Pearl Bank Apartments unit