pearlbank apartments

A Singapore Housing Icon

   data.entry 19 | 01 | 2003

As  featured in Singapore Architect


05 | 03 | 2001

Pearlbank Council installs new building security access system to eliminate undesirable tenants


31 | 07 | 2001

Pearlbank Council evicts 86 tenants from 4 flats for illegal overcrowding - property agent banned from entry






01 | Archive

Particulars of original consultants & construction photos

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02 | Archive

Building: Materials & Equipment Southeast Asia 1.03.1976

Cover story - 'The tallest apartment block in Southeast Asia, but within your reach'

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03 | Archive

The original Pearlbank Sales Brochure

ca. 31 | 12 | 1972

Hock Seng Enterprises (Pte) Ltd

Chinese text

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04 | Archive

The original Pearlbank Sales Brochure

ca. 31 | 12 | 1972

Hock Seng Enterprises (Pte) Ltd

English text

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05 | Archive

The original groovy Pearlbank Show flat

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01 | Contact

Do you have archive materials regarding Pearlbank, general enquires, or to post a listing -  Contact us

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Text Li Shi Qiao

Photo © 2001

Singapore Architect - the magazine of the SIA

Once in a while, one’s perception of all things is profoundly shaken by the experience of an architectural work from the past, such as the Berber villages in south Morocco and S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Francesco Borromini; Pearlbank Apartments, designed by Tan Cheng Siong of Archurban Architects & Planners, is one such work. Located on a hillside next to Chinatown, Pearlbank Apartments stands admirably different from the traditions of shop houses, the mute practicality of HDB blocks, and the indifferent sleekness of curtain walls that surround the site. This splendid isolation is both physical and intellectual. When it was completed in 1976, Pearlbank attained to some form of distinction by having the highest density for a private development, and being the tallest residential block in Singapore with the largest number of units contained in a single block.

The main residential block consists of a roughly three-quarter circular slab with small slits in between. The block offers three types of units, two-bedroom (130 sqm), three-bedroom (176.5 sqm), and four-bedroom (213.7 sqm); there are 16 units to each floor. At the top of the block are 8 penthouse units (372 sqm) with 5 split levels, roof terraces, and breath-taking views, making the total number of units 288. 

Slotted into the sloping site at the podium level is a multi-storey ramped car park. The community space for the residents begins at the podium roof level, where the lift lobbies to the units and some convenience shops are located. Structurally, the tower block is held together by a series of in-situ concrete sheer walls which also function as party walls; these walls are transferred through huge beams at the bottom of the block to allow more openness at the lobby level.

But Pearlbank transcends this physical description. The design of the building exerts energy of a strong “willed” action – will to form, if you like. Not, I hasten to add, the will to whimsicality of formalistic fashions of the seventies such as mushroom-shaped balconies and truncated pyramidal protrusions, but the will springing from internalized comprehension of high-density urban habitation. Such will is embodied in the clarity of planning, the intrigue of domestic spaces through level changes and the deliberate avoidance of any references to traditional forms of dwelling.

The circular shape of the main residential block, despite the resulting difficulties of construction at the time, makes plenty of sense in maximizing the sublime views of the city center and creating a sense of intimacy with communal circulation corridors facing the internal courtyard. The orientation of the circular slab is such that it avoids afternoon sun for all the units, and the slits in the circular slab allow effective ventilation into the internal courtyard. In one stroke, the connection with the city and domesticity is wonderfully demarcated, although more could be done for the internal courtyard space to highlight its communal nature.

The “pie-shaped” units are “inter-locked” in sections; this painstaking gesture gave the architect plenty of opportunities to create changes in levels, such as those in entrance hall with kitchen and dining, living room with master bedroom, and utility spaces connected to the main circulation corridor through a dedicated external stair. Few would deny that level changes in domestic spaces are enormously enriching devices in design; these had been employed with worthwhile results.

Unlike many of today’s condominiums, Pearlbank Apartments made no reference to forms and colors of traditional dwelling. It asserts its own characterization of contemporary living in high density despite the popular doubts about safety of high-rise dwelling at the time more so than any other apartment blocks. It borrows no semantic meanings, makes no use of superfluous decorations; it is its own iconic signifier.

Pearlbank clearly forms part of the modernist discourse in architecture of the twentieth century, with luminaries such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn pioneering radical forms of urban dwelling long before Pearlbank. Le Corbusier’s remarkable rethinking of low-cost urban habitation, which began with “Ville Contemporaine” in 1922, generated radically different ideas of urban forms; the technological advancement in construction in later years brought versions of this vision to reality throughout the world. The inter-locking apartment units at Pearlbank recall Le Corbusier’s duplex “cross-over” section of “Unité d’Habitation” in 1952 (although with corridor at every two floors instead of every three floors), and the communal space originally planned at level 28 was intended to provide additional facilities for the residence, much in the same spirit in which Le Corbusier provided his roof communal space at “Unité d’Habitation.” Furthermore, the circular residential slab with a car park podium resembles Kahn’s memorable sketch of a “dock” complex for Philadelphia in 1956.

If Pearlbank lacks the heroic aura of a pioneering work, it perhaps makes up with its emphatic insertion into a particular site with unique climatic conditions. Among many buildings in Singapore in the seventies affecting the “international style”, Pearlbank is remarkably restrained in its insistence on the purity and consistency of concept. It is precisely in this insistent adherence to an architectural form deriving from logical and clear planning that we find a rare criticality and vision in Pearlbank. Formalism never played any part here, yet there is a strong formal character and almost never a dull moment; this alone should make Pearlbank a modern classic, head and shoulders above many other fashionable and gimmicky contrivances from the same era.

Today, as we surrender some of our rights to think about habitation independently to developers whose design strategies derive from “market research” for the lowest common denominators, we will do ourselves a great service to take another look at Pearlbank, with all its unresolved corners, peeling paint, leaking plumbing systems, and various forms of mutilations perpetrated by the inhabitants. 

[ Update > there is no longer peeling paint after a $320,000 repair to the facade in early 2003, and external plumbing systems were fully repaired at a cost of $550,000 in late 2001 ]

[ Update > March 2003 : a new roofing membrane is installed to reduce water ponding and minor leakage to Penthouse Units ]

Architecture must sustain its criticality and vision if any kind of “paradigm shift”, to borrow a term contemporaneous to Pearlbank, is to take place among the “normative architecture” of property development. Let us look forward to maintaining Pearlbank as a “critics’ choice” in the world of “people’s choices”; this has nothing to do with elitism and everything to do with sustaining criticality and innovation which lie at the heart of architecture.

Li Shiqiao graduated from the Department of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing in 1984. He subsequently obtained his Graduate Diploma from the AA School of Architecture, London in 1986 and them his PhD from AA School of Architecture and Birkbeck College, University of London in 1994. Li worked as a Senior Architectural Designer, Wong & Ouyang Architects and Engineers, Hong Kong between 1994 and 2000. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, NUS.

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