Monday, December 24, 2012

Room at the top

Singapore's Pearl Bank Apartments designer Tan Cheng Siong brought condo living to China
Dec 24, 2012

We may live in land-scarce Singapore but we should not live in shoebox apartments, says veteran architect Tan Cheng Siong.

He speaks from experience.

After World War II, his father's trading business failed and the family - including four children - had to live in a two-storey shophouse in Chinatown with many other families. All the space they had for themselves was a 3m by 5m room.

At the time, he says "space was tight" but he and his siblings were young and their "needs were simple".

However, housing needs have changed and we now "need space to find ourselves and be ourselves", says Mr Tan, 75, who gets all fired up when we touch on his pet topic of residential housing.

He has devoted his life to building upwards in the quest to provide quality homes - something he insists can still be done, even in crowded cities.

His status as a pioneer was cemented when he designed Pearl Bank Apartments - the first residential super high-rise in Singapore. Completed in 1976, the apartments in Outram opened many doors for him, then 39 years old.

He went on to introduce condominiums to the middle-class in Singapore, with Pandan Valley condominium off Holland Road, built in 1978. Subsequently, he worked on other private housing projects such as Meyer Road's The Atria - where he now lives on the top floor - and Hawaii Tower, also along that road.

His contributions to Singapore's residential landscape led to him clinching the Designer of the Year award at the President's Design Award earlier this month.

Mr Tang Guan Bee, 71, principal architect of Tangguanbee Architects, who received the award last year, had nominated him.

He says Pearl Bank and Pandan Valley are "enough to make Mr Tan a recognised figure in architecture". On top of that, his passion for architecture, which still continues, can "help set the tone for the younger generations", says Mr Tang, who has known Mr Tan for 40 years.
Pearl Bank Apartments, Mr Tan says, was his "first good work". It was visited by architects in the region and even written about by academics, he adds.

But in the beginning, not everyone was comfortable with the concept of living in a 38-storey building. "People were asking, 'Is it dangerous? When the wind is strong and I open my window, what will happen?'" says Mr Tan with a laugh, whose horseshoe-shape design helped to maximise the sea view from Pearl's Hill.

He also came up with a structure of interlocking duplex apartments so that the place could be easily configured into two-, three- or four-level apartments to accommodate different needs.
Anticipating concerns from home- buyers about not getting to their flats should the lift break down, his design included eight lifts servicing every floor.

Eventually, Mr Tan says, they sold the 280 units. Many of the buyers were educated civil servants.

But everyone was curious about the new building. Even Mr Tan's father - a merchant of commodities such as rubber and pepper - snuck into the construction site and climbed the half-completed building to experience his son's creation.

The bold design was a statement of nationhood, says Mr Tan. "This was the new Singapore. We wanted to show that it has what it takes to survive," he says, punching his fist in the air.

He was influenced by French architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of Modern architecture: "His work inspired us to build a brave new world."

But for all his passion and enthusiasm, being an architect was surprisingly never part of the childhood dream.

Born here in 1937, he is the second of four children and only son. After his senior Cambridge examination - the equivalent of the A-level examination - "I wanted to be a teacher", says Mr Tan, whose mother was a housewife.

But when a job at the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) - the predecessor of the Housing Development Board (HDB) - came up around 1957, it piqued his interest. He applied and got the job as an architectural technician. So he stumbled into the field almost by accident.

While working at SIT and HDB, two things sparked his interest in architecture. Studying plans of SIT buildings at Tanglin Halt and trying to figure out how to lower the cost of construction by 2cents per square foot was one of them.

"We found that if we didn't have a water pipe and just had a spout for rainwater, we could save money," he says proudly, making a spout with his hand.

He was also part of a team tasked to look at the redesign of Toa Payoh town. "That sparked my interest in housing," says Mr Tan, who took night classes for seven years which culminated in a diploma in architecture from Singapore Polytechnic in 1965.

He worked in the day, attended class from 5.30pm to about 9pm and went home to complete assignments. He later earned a master's degree in urban planning at the National University of Singapore, once again studying part-time, which he completed circa 1972.

This work ethic held throughout his career. His son Tan Zie Chon, 33, an architect at his father's company Archurban Architects Planners, says: "When I was young, I remember I would spend time in his office helping to make models."

Mr Tan has two other children - a daughter, 35, who is an artist, and another son, 31, a writer. He is married to Mrs Tan Ping Ping, 65, a housewife.

Mrs Tan says in Mandarin: "He would wake up early in the morning to work on his projects. And besides work, there is nothing else but work.

"Ok, maybe some golf," she adds good-naturedly. The pair was introduced by mutual friends and married in 1973.

After HDB, Mr Tan worked for a year at Seow, Lee and Heah Architects. Once he was a registered architect, he started his own company Archynamics Architects in 1967 with Mr Chan Fook Pong and Mr Kenneth Chen.

At the time, he had rented an apartment in River Valley Road. Its two rooms served as an office while its living room was used for drafting. "That was fun," he recalls. Business was smooth for him, he adds, as he had gained experience working at his previous firm.

An amicable split between partners resulted in his second company Archurban Architects Planners in 1974.

Singapore is not the only landscape he has left his mark on. In the 1980s, the Chinese government invited him to help develop residential projects. "We saw only worker housing and urban housing such as shophouses in Singapore. It reminded me of my days in Chinatown."

In 1993, he helped build the first public housing project in Shenzhen. He then introduced the idea of condominium living with Dong Hai condominium.

"It was an eye-opener. People were surprised that they could live in such lush surroundings. It was like a Shangri-la."

At this point in our conversation, he excuses himself and picks up a call from a friend congratulating him about his President's Design Award. "I'm just lucky, again," he says humbly, thanking the caller profusely for the well wishes.

Once he is off the phone, he apologises and continues where he left off, telling Life! how mayors of different Chinese cities and waves of developers would visit Dong Hai to learn from it.

"Now they are doing it better than us," he says, adding that 80 per cent of his business is now in China as the country is "urbanising relentlessly".

He set up an office in Shenzhen in 1997 and has since been shuttling between there and Singapore. He is back here once every month for about a week.

Over the years, he says he has become more of a thinker, philosophising about the way cities are built and the direction they are headed. "Society needs ideas to solve problems," he says. And these ideas are of a cultural nature, he adds.

His message for Asia is this: "We must build cities for people."

Looking back in history, he says, cities were built for gods, kings, warriors, merchants, for industrialisation, for the government "but never for people".

In such cases, he says: "People either rebel or they abandon the place."

He says public housing in Singapore has been an "amazing feat", compared to squatter housing in other Asian or South American cities, but more can be done.

This is when he unleashes his new theory of "Bionicas", which comes from the root word bionic.

Buildings age, he says, but there is no need to discard them - just change the parts. "Just like a bionic man or woman, the parts change to become better."

With changeable parts, "people and buildings can act as one unit and grow old together", he says, interlocking his fingers for impact.

One feature of his theory is what he calls "skyland". He says that in the future, every HDB unit could be built with an attached piece of land so owners can use the land however they wish. The land could be the size of another flat.

For example, a young couple might use the land next to their apartment as a garden, but as they start a family, they could create a new room in that plot.

So these pieces of land in the sky would be altered "to fit your lifestyle as you grow". This do-it-yourself model, he says, would help Singapore retain "quality people and a talented population" as they would not feel stuck in their HDB apartment for life.

He has proposed his idea at seminars but is not working on any project just yet.

The vision can also be applied to his beloved Pearl Bank Apartments. "Keep the structure but change the interior, retrofit it with energy-saving features," he says. "We should not allow a building to remain a ruin or a relic. Rejuvenate it."

He understands buildings are torn down for private profit but says that that happens only when the authorities increase a site's plot ratio and developers stand to gain from rebuilding.

So the authorities can save important buildings by maintaining the plot ratio, he adds.

As for accommodating a projected six million people in Singapore, he says not that many more apartments need to be built. What needs to be built are quality apartments, which people can grow old in and call their own.

Although Pearl Bank has had several collective sales attempts - in 2007, 2008 and last year - none was successful. Now there is a website ( by residents to raise awareness of its architectural importance. Mr Tan says: "I will cry if they tear it down. If they must do it, do it after I'm gone."

But with a mind as active as his and a body as fit - he plays table tennis on alternate days with his staff members in China - it looks like he still has it in him to see through his vision for the future.

Walking Life! to his apartment door after chatting for two hours, he slips in one more example to justify his new theory. He says homes should be looked upon as infrastructure such as airports, roads and schools, which are not just torn down but changed and improved.

"Humans change so fast, buildings change so slowly - my Bionicas can help," he says.
As we shake hands, he adds: "I'm not a dreamer. But I dream a little sometimes."

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G)

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