Landmarks of the Singapore dream

A new book for the Singapore Memory Project captures well the views of pioneering architects and their work for a global city over 50 years


By Virginia Who and Bell Tan with photographs by Beton Brut and six contributing photographers

Do Not Design/Paperback/256 pages/$53.50 with GST from Basheer Graphic Books at 04-19 Bras Basah Complex or Gallery & Co at National Gallery Singapore; $50 from art gallery Deck at 120A Prinsep Street or art centre Objectifs at 155 Middle Road; or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 720.95957 WHO

Those who still lament the loss of buildings such as the National Library in Stamford Road know keenly what it is like to live with only the memory of places that shaped one's sensibilities.

You might think, then, that such nostalgia is really a thing of the past for Generation Z.

A new book suggests that, in Singapore architecture at least, this is not necessarily the case.

Pearl Bank apartments in Outram Road. - PHOTO: ST FILE

In fact, it is heartening to note that Architecture And The Architect: Image-making In Singapore is an attempt by wet- eared Singaporeans to provoke discussions about the place of Singaporean architects in their own country, through quite telling interviews with the pioneers among them, including Tan Cheng Siong, Tay Kheng Soon, Joseph Cheang and Chua Ka Seng, as well as their younger ilk Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell.

The veterans' reflections, in particular, lend welcome heft to what is largely an album brimming with fresh snaps of old places, including Woodlands Town Centre, the black-and-white flats of Monk's Hill and the cutting-edge Gateway office tower.

It would be remiss, however, not to red-flag the fact that each of these interviews represents only one side of the story.

The book would have fostered deeper discussions if its creators had presented at least two different perspectives from those involved in each of the book's 40 featured buildings.


Virginia Who, the book's editor and lead writer, is the pseudonym of National University of Singapore architecture graduate Dawn Lim. She interviewed the architects for the book, while her fellow freelance writer Bell Tan had to resort to gambits such as playing mahjong with MacPherson estate residents to get them to share their views on living there.

  • Just a minute

    The good

    1. The relatively inexperienced freelance writers Dawn Lim - writing under her pen name Virginia Who - and Bell Tan, and full-time photographer Khoo Guo Jie have put together a book that is winning in its earnestness. It helps, of course, that they were guided along by the experienced graphic designer Yanda Tan.

    Khoo's fresh take on old Singapore buildings and Tan's neat and understated matte treatment of these will likely transport anyone who knew these buildings in their heyday back to the past.

    2. Lim, the book's editor and lead writer, is a trained architect, but does not use the jargon of her profession. Being at once clear, succinct and deep is an art and Lim is on her way to achieving that.

    3. The writers have thought to reproduce two seminal essays on the developmentof architecture in Singapore. The first is by pioneering architect William Lim and the second is from his peer Alfred Wong. Both give essential context as to how the 40 buildings featured in the book came about and also ask hard questions about the direction Singapore might want to take in the future.

    The bad

    1. This book is part of the Singapore Memory Projectto capture the essence of what has made Singapore Singapore in the past half century. With this nostalgic brief in mind, the reader will be stumped to see that not one photograph in the book has people in it. Lead photographer Khoo, who snapped about 60 per cent of the shots for the book, had submitted a good number of photographs with people milling about the featured buildings.

    2. There is no excuse for sloppy proofreading and poor grammar, especially in a book with a national remit.

    The iffy

    1. Lim and Tan sought to interview people whose lives revolve around the featured buildings. Alas, they were not able to draw out their interviewees enough to yield insights, or even a single quotable quote.

    The reader is left with the most pedestrian responses, most of which are attributed to "Anonymous". Do something well, or not at all.


    1. How is Singapore more fortunate than other global cities with its skyline today?

    2. Why do architects working in Singapore have a heavier burden than those designing in larger countries?

    3. Why have Singaporeans with deep pockets long preferred foreign architects to home-grown ones?

    4. What happens when you prefer style over substance?

    5. When is nostalgia unhelpful?

  • Join the conversation on Wednesday

    Regulars of The Big Read Meet enjoy the lively, enlightening discussions that are its hallmark.

    But why take our word for it?

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai on Wednesday at 6.30pm to discuss American sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle's new book, Reclaiming Conversation. It will be held at the Central Public Library, B1, National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to, look for The Big Read Meet and follow the steps there.

    Meanwhile, Sunday Times readers have written in with their thoughts on Turkle's book:

    Singaporean Lee Teck Chuan, 50, a lecturer in finance, says: "We delude ourselves into multitasking but, at the same time, preach mindfulness. We forget to live and lose touch with those familiar to us, unless they get in touch with us through our digital gadgets.

    "These gadgets supposedly liberate us from old ways of doing tiresome chores. But have we found what we want to do with the resulting extra time? Perhaps not. We think little of being here and worry constantly about being elsewhere."

    Belgian economist Bart Remes, 50, a Singapore permanent resident of 15 years, says: "Technology has improved our standard of living. It has also changed how we communicate and - this is often overlooked - what we communicate. For example, when Stamford Raffles sent his daughter Ella Sophia back to England from Singapore, the voyage was not without its dangers and took approximately three months. News of her return would take another three months or so to reach him and was likely longer than today's usual SMS of "Okay".

    The easier and faster we communicate, the less importance we attach to content. The speed of our reply becomes more important than the actual content.

    "And this is sad because the good things in life cannot be hurried, but one tends to put pressure on others by hurrying them when they need not be hurried."

The book's strongest suit is its sensuous, smartly angled images, which soak up most of its pages, and for good reason. That is thanks largely to the talent of full-time photographer Khoo Guo Jie, or Beton Brut, who captured early buildings such as People's Park Complex in Chinatown, Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road and Village Hotel (formerly Paramount Hotel) in Katong.

About 40 per cent of the book's understated, atmospheric pictures are by six contributing photographers, including Darren Soh, Patrick Bingham-Hall and Tim Griffith.

The core team for the project was assembled by self-taught graphic designer and publisher Yanda Tan, who runs his own firm, Do Not Design.

For me, the simple test of how faithful a book like this is to the past is whether it makes me say: "I was there."

I remember Singapore in the late 1970s to late 1980s vividly and, yes, this book takes me back swimmingly.

Architect Tan, whose works here include the scroll-like apartment tower Pearl Bank in Outram Road and the condominium cluster known as Pandan Valley near Clementi, said as much in an e-mail to me last week: "When they first approached me about writing more about Pearl Bank and Pandan Valley for the layman, I said, 'Good.'

"They themselves are laymen and see architecture from a visual and emotive standpoint.

"What they have done is very down to earth. I like it."

More significantly, the writers', heartfelt and polished contribution to the narrative of architectural development here is a rare record of the crisis of confidence Singaporean architects have faced for at least 35 years, chiefly because their compatriots have long preferred to entrust all its big-bucks developments to renowned foreign architects such as I.M. Pei, John Portman and Geoff Malone.

The book is not without flaws. Most of these come from inexperience and, occasionally, naivete.

For example, they declare in the book's preface that they were driven by the thought that "it would be wonderful to feature buildings that make people sit up and say, hey, I've never known such a building exists in Singapore".

Unless they are referring to unadventurous visitors here, the fact that one can cross mainland Singapore from east to west in about 40 minutes by car makes such a statement ludicrous.

Equally head-scratching is the team's decision to feature photographs of buildings without a single human being milling about the structures. What is a place without people? Forgettable, for one thing.

Nevertheless, the team should be lauded for their yen to rekindle a love of landmarks shaped by Singaporeans.

Fact file

Documenting Singapore buildings

Full-time photographer Khoo Guo Jie knows a thing or two about occupational hazards.

Singapore-based Khoo, who works under the moniker Beton Brut, was recently in Zhengzhou, China, for an assignment - on the rooftop of a four-storey building.

"They had to put me in a metal cage suspended from a crane to hoist me onto a roof 12m off the ground," recalls the 30-year-old, who began his career photographing food, after he was encouraged to pursue photography by his successful showing at the National Arts Council's yearly Noise Singapore Festival.

When his friend's husband got him to shoot a showroom in Bukit Timah Road for toilet accessories maker Toto, he soon found himself enamoured of buildings and their interiors, a personal favourite being People's Park Complex.

His chief collaborator for the book is architect Dawn Lim, 29, who is a part-time researcher and freelance writer and goes by the pen name Virginia Who.

The National University of Singapore alumna is fascinated by the politics of domestic space, which is about why, for example, the kitchen has morphed from a place where families gather to one "for displaying a certain lifestyle".

Lim, the only child of an engineer and a housewife, shares Khoo's love of interiors.

She recalls sleeping with her parents until the age of seven, when she got "the freedom" of her own room and started redecorating it.

She and Khoo were brought together for the project by Yanda Tan, founder and creative director of local design firm Do Not Design, who designed the book's overall look.

Lim says: "Many people who have given us feedback have referred to the book as an 'effort' rather than a book. I guess that tells us something."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Landmarks of the Singapore dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe