Friday, October 12, 2007

UOB Plaza - Straits Times article (Part 1)

Most of you know by now my staunch support for informed commentary on architecture in the Singapore’s mainstream press. I just realised that this article on Kenzo Tange’s UOB plaza was published in the Straits Times a few days back. It was definitely a pleasant surprise.

As a next step, I look forward to seeing more in-your-face criticisms and critical questions being raised, instead of just an explanation of why-this-building-is-so-great. This article is nevertheless a wonderful step in the right direction. I will post my personal response the next post. Enjoy.

Twists and turns of UOB Plaza -
by Calvin Low

The process of constructing the building's iconic rotated motif led to an unexpected discovery about its original design

WHEN the Dubai developer of Bawadi, billed as the 'largest hospitality and leisure development in the world', put out full-page advertisements worldwide to draw investors last year, it borrowed one of Singapore's architectural icons for its pitch.

In the artist's impression of the mega-proposal, Singapore's UOB Plaza rose majestically in the night sky, as resplendently lit as you would see it when you walk down the side of the Singapore River.

Only, in this ad, it rubs shoulders with other montaged international landmarks such as Malaysia's Petronas Towers.

Clearly, Bawadi's developers wanted to attract the best in the world and, in its eyes, the UOB Plaza stands for the best of Singapore and its architecture.

A trait of classic architecture is its ability to remain timeless in its appeal - a result of balancing between seizing an inspired idea and honing it until it reveals its most essential expression.

The UOB Plaza, designed by the late Pritzker Prize laureate Kenzo Tange in collaboration with Architects 61, exemplifies this balance.

It demonstrates Tange's genius in reconciling a pre-existing design with his own architectural vision.

The octagonal form of the towers is derived from the original 38-storey UOB Building by pioneer architect Lim Chong Keat of Architects Team 3, completed in 1974.

Instead of demolishing the original eight-sided tower, Tange followed up on its sculptural promise with a literal twist by adding more floors that are turned 45 degrees to the original geometry, thus giving the building's iconic rotated tower motif.

An additional unexpected situation, however, awaited the architects when re-cladding the original tower as Kenzo Tange's son, Paul, revealed in an interview last year.

It was discovered that the old building had been constructed with a slight, irregular twist along its height. This required fine-tuning the size of the supports of the new cladding panels to take up the geometric imperfection.

Today, most people would not associate UOB Plaza, completed in 1992, with a 33-year-old development. But look closely at the lower of the twin towers and the shape of Lim's original octagonal scheme is still clearly discernable, albeit dressed in grey granite instead of its original copper-tinted reflective glass.

Once the rotating architectural motif had been established with the original tower, it was applied to the design of its taller twin, which rises to the maximum aviation-regulated height of 280m. At 66 storeys, UOB Plaza joins Republic Plaza, by Kisho Kurokawa, and OUB Centre, also by Tange, as the three tallest buildings in Singapore.

A testament to the perseverance required in the creation of this prismatic paragon, the twin-tower scheme for UOB Plaza took 10 years to hone and involved, according to Paul Tange, 'about 100 different schemes'.

UOB Plaza's urban design is also exemplary. Sited between two historic nodes - Raffles Place and Boat Quay - a typical 'max out the ground floor' approach would have eliminated any connection between the two.

Instead, UOB opened about a quarter of the prime ground-floor area to the public in the form of a 'city room'. Flanked by its banking hall, the four-storey, sky-lit 'city room' is both a physical and visual bridge between Raffles Place and the Singapore River. That a constant flow of pedestrians passes through here at all times of the day and night is evidence of its civic importance.

Other public amenities in UOB Plaza include a mosque in the basement and an observation deck on the 42nd storey which offered mesmerising views of Singapore before access to the space was restricted.

From the ground, however, in sunshine or by moonlight when its chiselled charm is enhanced with architectural lighting, the UOB Plaza's twin towers will continue to be of allure long after flashy new icon-wannabes have become victims of architectural fashion.

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