Monday, September 03, 2007

PUB Building - and architecture criticism in Singapore

Early last month, an article appeared in the design pages on the Straits Times Life! section on the PUB Building. I found myself impressed with the article for its relative sophistication (as compared to the standard articles on "sleek lines", "chic", "resort touch") The author carried the tone of an "architectural critic" rather than a "design correspondent", and took into account the history of its making.

I personally believe that it would be a good thing for Singapore's architecture scene if the Straits Times had a resident architectural critic who writes "think" pieces on Singapore architecture in relation to its history and culture - for the discerning public. [ My reference points are personalities such as Ada Louise Huxtable, Nicolai Ourousoff, Paul Goldberger, Edwin Heathcote who write/have written extensively on architecture in The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Financial Times] I reproduce the article on the PUB Building here. I will post a personal response to the article separately.

Staying Power - The 30-year-old Singapore Power Building, with its recently refurbished facade, is an enduring symbol of modern architecture

AT A time when Singapore's modern architectural heritage is at the mercy of being sacrificed for quick gains in en bloc sales, the Singapore Power Building (SPB) in Somerset Road is a beacon of hope and reason.

It may be argued that unlike residential developments like Beverly Mai, Futura or Pearl Bank Apartments which have been sold or are waiting for buyers, the SPB faces no such danger since it is a commercial building and corporate headquarters.

History, however, has shown that this is no guarantee of survival. The iconic Singapore Airlines Building (1969), designed by Lim Chong Keat, was demolished and replaced by a pedestrian, if much larger, building for the same owner.

The Alfred Wong-designed Hotel Malaysia (1968) in Tanglin Road was torn down for an unremarkable residential development.

Thankfully, Singapore Power chose not to redevelop its corporate HQ, opting instead to refurbish and reclad the 30-year-old building in silvery metal last year. Even so, the success of the latter exercise was not a given.

Directly across Devonshire Road from the SPB, the Orchard Telephone Exchange (1970), one of Singapore's last good examples of Brutalist architecture, has been brutalised with the insensitive application of similar metal cladding.

Its masculine Brutalist look, originally expressed in the rough Shanghai plaster finish, is now hidden by a shiny new skin.

Thankfully, the SPB's architecture proved more resilient than its Brutalist neighbour's as it is less dependant on its original ceramic tile finish. Its newly clad fins also manage to retain their original delicate proportions, a key element of the SPB's tropical modern architecture.

The SPB was originally called the Public Utilities Board (PUB) Building. A contest to design its corporate HQ was launched in July 1971. Of 23 submissions, four were picked by a jury headed by then PUB chairman Lim Kim San.

The proposal by the now-defunct Group 2 Architects, formed by Ong Chin Bee and Tan Puay Huat, won.

While the other three finalists sought to project a corporate presence with imposing towers, the winning design, in the jury's words, allowed 'natural form and function to achieve character and dignity' for the building.

The design proved that 'corporate' need not mean 'tall'. Instead, the horizontal was emphasised in the design, rendering the building approachable and accessible, and befitting PUB's role as a public supplier of gas and electricity.

Beating the tear-down mood The building, completed in 1977, is a 'ground-scraper', comprising two parallel slab blocks facing north and south connected by a lift and stair core. Between the two blocks is a landscaped court.

The horizontal emphasis of the building's facade is achieved with distinctive rows of vertical fins, arranged in a staggered manner that emphasises horizontal movement and reportedly limiting exposure to the sun by 60 per cent.

A secondary horizontal rhythm is established by grouping two or more rows of these fins in blocks, and emphasising them with chamfered parapets at the ends.

In the original facade finish, two-tone bands of tiles further accentuated the horizontality of these grouped rows of fins. Unfortunately, this subtle but important effect has been lost in the current monochrome metal cladding.

The SPB's defining architectural motif is its 'inverted ziggurat' facade. Again, this breaks down the vertical scale of the building and emphasises its horizontality, while leading the eye to the building's entrances.

As a result of this architectural manipulation, the SPB appears considerably lower than its 17 storeys. Instead, it projects a welcoming human-scaled street presence.

The 'inverted ziggurat' motif achieves two further functions. It reflected the actual distribution of office spaces required by PUB's departments at the time, with more space needed on the upper floors. And they also create overhangs that help shade the finless floors below.

Hence, though critics have compared the SPB with the 1962 Boston City Hall by Gerhad Kallmann and Le Corbusier's La Tourette monastery (1957-60) for the use of fins and the inverted ziggurat motif, the similarities are stylistic and superficial. The SPB's architecture, an organic response to its functional and climatic requirements, has become an enduring symbol of the PUB and SP.

One of the hallmarks of corporate buildings of the 1970s was its dedication of the ground floor to public access and use. Despite today's overriding concern with security, the refurbished SPB has managed to retain just that.

The building is entered via wide steps under columns that soar three- or four-storeys high. Graced by the original wall-relief sculptures, this public concourse visually and physically connects Somerset and Devonshire roads.

From the concourse, steps lead to upper and lower public service areas, a cafeteria and carparks. This naturally ventilated concourse offers an airy, shaded tropical experience where the line between what is interior and exterior space is blurred.

While the refurbishment is to be applauded, a conservationist would still prefer a faithful two-tone ceramic retiling of the facade and express regret at the much enlarged penthouse, which is draped in contrasting green glass and aluminium panels.

But, given the tear-down mood of the times, better this than be relegated to the pages and panels of architecture books and exhibitions.

Calvin Low is a writer who is trained in both architecture and journalism.