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Portrait Mode: A S’pore photographer’s poignant diary of the Pearl Bank Apartments over 5 years

Darren Soh visited, photographed and reflected on this iconic specimen of architecture over the past five years.

Mothership | May 3, 09:10 am

Portrait Mode is a new photo essay series of Singapore and all the people and things in it, seen through the lenses of our young photographers at Mothership.

This photo essay is a guest contribution from Darren Soh, a sociologist by training and an architectural photographer.

Soh documents places that are in danger of disappearing, especially buildings from Singapore’s early years of independence which are of cultural importance.

“These buildings may not stand out today or mean very much to the general public, but they were all built when Singapore was finding its footing in the international arena as a new nation and embarked on a massive building spree in its bid to become a First World global city.

These modernist mega-structures pushed the boundaries of what could be built back then and were really one-of-a-kind for that era.” 

“I have no illusions that we can save every building from the modern era built by local architects, but I can ensure that should their fate be decided for them that I photograph them as well as I can possibly do so, leave no stone unturned, so that our children and our children’s children can see for themselves what magnificent buildings once stood in Singapore.”

Pearl Bank Apartments is one of these, built by Singaporean architect Tan Cheng Siong.

The iconic horse-shoe shaped residential block was sold to CapitaLand for S$728 million last February, kickstarting a countdown to the last day for its residents to move out — April 30, 2019.

Soh had from as early as 2014 been taking photos of the Pearl Bank Apartments, which he recently shared in an album on Facebook.

Along with the photos, he penned his thoughts on various aspects of the structure up until Tuesday.

Here’s his perspective on how Pearl Bank Apartments has changed between 2014 and 2019:

April 28, 2014

Pearl Bank Apartments. Singapore. Built 1976. Architect Tan Cheng Siong. 37 floors of modernist beauty. This face of the facade can only be photographed in the afternoon as it is South West facing, so in a way, all this great afternoon light because of the drought we’ve been having is working to my advantage.

Photo by Darren Soh.

There have been many photos of Pearl Bank Apartments shot from bottom up showing the curve of the building, but fewer images shot from the top down.

Here’s one of those I made from the 28th floor:

Photo by Darren Soh.

A closer view of the corridors and multiple staircases in Pearl Bank Apartments.

Photo by Darren Soh.
Photo by Darren Soh.

Even the staircase leading to the garden has a sense of grandiose to it.

Photo by Darren Soh.

The requisite external elevation views:

Photo by Darren Soh.

Another view of the inner curve, this time in horizontal:

Photo by Darren Soh.

August 7, 2014

I’ve always wanted to photograph Pearl Bank from afar in a more reductionist approach, making the facade become a blend of repeating shapes and patterns.

I finally got the chance to do it yesterday; here it is against some new and newer buildings in the Singapore CBD:

Photo by Darren Soh.

 

December 11, 2014

Photography has a way, through the use of perspective and the appropriate lenses, to emphasise a subject. There have been many views made of the Singapore skyline as well as the iconic Pearl Bank but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an image that has placed Pearl bank as the centrepiece in a vista of the Singapore skyline.

Photo by Darren Soh.

June 10, 2016

Standing at 113m, Pearl Bank was the tallest residential building in Singapore when it was completed in 1976.

It’s also on top of a hill, so the building really looks taller than it actually is.

Because Pearl Bank is going to reach half its lifespan in 10 years, many residents unaware or unconcerned about its amazing architecture are starting to panic that they are just sitting on a piece of depreciating real estate.

Hopefully it can attain some form of conservation status so it can live on instead of going for an en-bloc sale.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

July 29, 2016

Because Pearl Bank is shaped like a C, with a wide enough lens, you can stand in the middle of the curve and capture both ends of the building, which is what I’ve done in this image.

Here you can make out the highly complex design of the split level units manifested in the over-150 small staircases that dot the inner facade of the building.

Yesterday’s light was really amazing (can’t say the same about today) and you can get a glimpse of the Singapore General Hospital through the gap.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

 

I’ve not been to Pearl Bank many times, but every time I am there, I feel like a kid in the world’s best playground and go absolutely crazy.

There are just so many ways to photograph the beautiful complex that I could spend each visit studying how the light hits the building at different times of the day and how to form new images of the place.

The interesting thing about Pearl Bank is how it’s currently hanging in conservation and renewal limbo, but I do hope it doesn’t get demolished.

Whatever the case, the 40-year-old building will either be sold collectively or receive a makeover, both of which will alter it for good.

Photo by Darren Soh.

January 12, 2017

The sun rises over the CBD this morning as seen from Outram Park with Pearl Bank Apartments in the foreground.

The complex is at a very important juncture in its existence right now with several factors in play that will determine its future.

Due to its age, it could go on en-bloc sale (a pity really) or it could somehow attain heritage status.

Whatever the case, this would set precedents for future buildings in similar circumstances and I’m watching developments closely.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

December 18, 2017

There are some serendipitous images that you just cannot plan for unless you are faced with the same view 365 days a year and can read the light as the sun moves from a Southern arc to a Northern one and than back again.

Anyway, this is a view I have photographed before, from this exact vantage point, and the light sure did not look like this even at the same time, probably because I had photographed it between April and September when the sun traces a Northern path as it moves from East to West.

Today, because the sun is doing the Southern thing (rises in the Southeast and sets in the Southwest), the angle of the light falling on Pearl Bank and the steeple at Robinson Centre was just right to illuminate two very similarly coloured buildings and nothing much else.

I will be trying to make more images of Pearl Bank since they have gotten their 80 per cent majority to go ahead and put the property on the market for an en-bloc sale, so its days could really be numbered.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

 

Don’t put the subject in the centre of the frame.
Don’t have a vertical line that cuts your frame in half.
Don’t place points of interest away from the intersections of the rule of thirds grid lines.
Don’t photograph a building without its base.
Don’t plaster your building against the sky without any context.

Everything I’ve stated above are “good guidelines” to follow.
But this is Pearl Bank Apartments.
And she’s an unmistakable stunning icon that may not be with us for much longer.

Photo by Darren Soh.

Pearl’s Hill and its surroundings as seen from Tiong Bahru.

Photo by Darren Soh.

February 14, 2018

I apologise for the deluge of images from Pearl Bank Apartments, but I suppose this is a way for me to still feel, instead of tuning out and numbing myself to what seems to be the inevitable end of most modernist buildings in Singapore today.

What next? Golden Mile and People’s Park Complex? They aren’t conserved and are held privately, so perhaps if the “right price” was offered by market forces, they too will go on the chopping block.

Collectively as a nation, if we have to wait more years before structures from Our Modern Past become important enough to consider conserving, there may not be many of them left to act upon.

Photo by Darren Soh.

The view from the bottom. Pearl Bank Apartments.

Every unit is split-level, and the small staircases are all access-ways to the units from the common corridors.

Such intricate design would probably be considered superfluous and excessive today — so unless I’m proven wrong, I don’t think anything like this would ever be built again.

Photo by Darren Soh.

I’ve been photographing buildings for many many years and only once in a long while do I come across a building that while deceptively straightforward looking from afar, can actually be really really complex and such a joy to photograph, with the image changing as you change your vantage point by a few steps.

Pearl Bank is one such building, and while its highly photogenic nature isn’t nearly a good enough reason to save it of course, it just means that there will be one few breathtaking piece of brutalist architecture to behold in the not so far future.

Photo by Darren Soh.

The sensory overload one experiences from the top of Pearl Bank Apartments is really hard to describe in words, and I suppose this image is probably the closest it comes to showing you what its like when you exit one of the elevators that brings you to the top and then look down from one of the small staircases you will need to use in order to get into some of the units. The view will literally take your breath away.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

February 23, 2018

I have to admit that I never explored Pearl’s Hill Park until I heard the news of Pearl Bank’s en-bloc sale and wondered how I could add to images I already had of the Apartments and that drove me to take a walk around the hill.

I was there earlier last night and realised that from Pearl’s Hill itself, there are so many ways by which one could frame and visualise Pearl Bank because of its immense height. This has to be one of my personal favourites of the building, made from Pearl’s Hill Park, an image I am hoping can help convey the grandeur and scale of Pearl Bank Apartments.

Photo by Darren Soh.

Many places look different at night, and Pearl Bank Apartments is no exception, and its panoptical, Bladerunner-ish visage really shows through when photographed after the sun sets.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

I cannot imagine this is really going to go.

Word on the grapevine says the residents have till March 2019 to move out.

Goodbye Pearl bank Apartments; hopefully, your sacrifice will not be in vain.

#BeforeItAllGoes

Photo by Darren Soh.

June 18, 2018

Can you imagine an image of the Singapore skyline from this angle without Pearl Bank Apartments in the photo?

For me, I know it is a building I will miss should it go, but at the same time, I’m not kidding myself that the chances of it being saved are anywhere close to high.

Its fate hangs in the balance of a very select few now, and rather than worry about the outcome, I’d rather make more images and tell more people about this architectural marvel from Singapore’s early independence years, when we wanted to show the world what a small unlikely new nation could be capable of in our own hands, with our own architects.

Heroic architecture indeed:

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

January 15, 2019

One of these buildings was here long before the other, and unfortunately for the other, will probably be here for a while more yet after the other is demolished.

Such is the fate of many modern buildings in Singapore built in the 1970s and 1980s, too new to be deemed valuable on any level, too old to be restored and repurposed economically in any way.

This will continue to be the way as long as buildings and the land that they sit on are seen first and foremost as economic assets before all else.

This is also the reason why many historical buildings left in Singapore are buildings of worship, like the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple pictured here that was built in 1925. Religious buildings have a value that transcends the economic, and they stand a much better chance of survival.

Pearl Bank Apartments there in the background? Built in 1976 and probably won’t survive till 2020.

Photo by Darren Soh.

April 29, 2019

By this time tomorrow, Pearl Bank Apartments will have become completely silent — as the deadline for all former residents to move out of Pearl Bank is 30th April 2019.

And so just like that, a chapter of the storied history of one of Singapore’s most unique pieces of modernist (and formerly brutalist before its paint job) architecture will have come to an end.

I have told many stories about Pearl Bank Apartments, but nothing can prepare me for its impending redevelopment. One can only hope that the scheme that Capitaland will have already chosen to replace this icon is worthy of the big big shoes it will be filling, and in time to come, perhaps it will establish itself as well.

So long, farewell.

Photo by Darren Soh.

One of the charming quirks of visiting someone at Pearl Bank Apartments was this because every unit had two entrances and toward the end of its life, many units were unfortunately subdivided by the owners to be rented out to different tenants and notices like these were necessary.

 

Photo by Darren Soh.

April 30, 2019

Former residents at Pearl Bank Apartments were given till 1700hrs earlier today to fully vacate their units and handover their keys to management.

I made this photo tonight, and even without any lights left, Pearl Bank Apartments continues to stand as a silent sentinel, as if watching over Outram Park and Pearl’s Hill.

The last remaining light is emanating from the public toilet on the level 28 void deck — which, if I remember correctly, operates on a motion sensor. (edit: OK maybe not considering how there isn’t supposed to be anyone left. 😱)

It is done.

Photo by Darren Soh.

 


You can see all the photos of Pearl Bank Apartments taken by Soh here:

All photos courtesy of Darren Soh

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