Monday, September 03, 2007

PUB Building - my response

As mentioned in my earlier post, I found myself rather impressed with the tone and content of the article that appeared in Straits Times, though I disagreed to certain points being made. I wrote an email to the email address provided at the end of the article and it turned out to bounce back. I shall hence reproduce my unread email here as an 'open letter' to the journalist... to stimulate the thoughts of anyone interested in the topic.

Dear _______,

Allow me to congratulate you on your article on the Singapore Power Building. I have long desired to more sophisticated critiques on Singapore architecture in the ST than the usual "nice, sleek, chic, trendy, elegant" lifestyle issues and I think your article did justice to the building. I felt that you would appreciate some comment/disagreement by someone else who is interested in the subject matter, and so I thought I'd drop you an email.

Judging from the tone of your article, I was unsure whether you felt that the recladding of the Singapore Power building was a success, or whether you felt that the recladding did some damage, but was at least better than total demolition.

Given the brightness of the Singapore sun and the reflection off the new cladding, I feel that the newly refurbished Singapore Power building has lost some of its weight. The weight of the massing in brutalist architecture, in my opinion, depends greatly upon solid mass, shadows, and matte surfaces (which explains Corbusier's love for beton-brut as a finishing) In this regard, the metal skin is unsympathetic to its massing.

Also, the shiny metallic reflection makes the building uncomfortably conspicuous, a bit like coloured gables added to a naked HDB slab block to ask for attention, or a girl who dresses in an uncomfortably flashy blouse. I wonder if the building is comfortable in its new skin. It perhaps epitomizes Singapore perpetual discomfort with oldness and aging, and her insecurity complex of having to always be new and modern.

Another key disagreement that your designation of the PUB building as a "corporate building". Corporatisation of Singapore infrastructure only took place in the 1990s, starting with Singtel in 1991, then SBC and PUB in the mid 1990s. As such, at the point when the design
competition was organized in 1971, this was to be a public/civic commission that would house a government statutory board (the then PUB).

I raise this point because the vision of a modern Singapore in the years of early independence (1965 – early 1970s) was that of a modern socialist state. The idea of global capitalism / corporatism only started to sit in toward the mid-late 1970s when the government pushed for more capital-intensive industries instead of labour intensive industries. (Architecturally, this would perhaps correlate with the completion of Pei's OCBC Tower in 1976.)

I find it hard not to infer a link between a brutalist aesthetic and the prevailing public commissions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in socialist states. (ie. most of western Europe, for example) In my personal opinion, the PUB building belongs not only to the same family
as the Subordinate Courts, Jurong Town Hall, and Science Centre, but also to the family of similar publicly commissioned Brutalist buildings in Europe and USA. It was but part of an international wave that Singapore eventually picked up, with some lag time.

I strongly agree with you that Couvent the Sainte Marie de La Tourette should not be compared with PUB Building because its nature, patronage, etc (basically everything except its massing) is different. However, I feel that the PUB Building rightly deserves to be examined
alongside Kallman, McKinell & Knowles' Boston City Hall. Both are inherently different buildings, suited to different program briefs, in different cities, but both are important public commissions housing government functions. Also, the Boston City Hall was completed in
1968, whereas the PUB building design competition took place in 1971.

Boston City Hall - by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles

Hence, I would not be surprised that the architects of the PUB Building were indeed aware of the Boston City Hall and its "inverted ziggurat" massing at the time of the design competition. I believe that the PUB Building was definitely not a conscious copy, but my basic argument is that it was definitely under the influence of the prevailing trends.

Lest I get carried away I should end here. All in all, I just wanted to say that it was very refreshing to read your piece on the Singapore Power Building (despite my disagreements) and a welcome respite from the usual articles couched in "design-lifestyle" terms. Perhaps it's time ST got a proper architecture critic in the likes of Nicolai Ourousoff or Ada Louise Huxtable.

Best Regards
Ronald Lim