From Pearl Bank Apartments, to Tiong Bahru With Love
An American Architect’s love story with Singaporean Architecture, and his quest to preserve iconic pieces of history.
CULTURE | BY JONATHAN LEONG | 5TH JULY 2019
Q. You are originally from Chicago, when did you first visit Singapore and what were your first impressions and memories from that era?
Ed: I was traveling overland from Australia, with my eventual destination Hong Kong. While on Mount Brono in Java, my eardrums broke on the way down due to an infection. I went deaf for 6 weeks. Once I was able to fly, the doctors told me to go to SGH for further treatment. I looked at renting a place in Pearlbank, as it was nearby.
Q. In 1991 you started your own practice Poole Associates, what made you decide to base your practice in Singapore?
Ed: When I was doing treatments for my ears, I sent out 12 resumes, and received 12 job offers. I thought maybe with the uncertainty of HK, I should stay here. I took a job at Space Partnership. Eight months later I started my own firm.
Q. You’ve lived and worked out of your penthouse at Pearl Bank Apartments for many years, how did you end up choosing a unit there?
Ed: I rented a bedroom in Penthouse 6. Over time I eventually took over the lease. My office started in the top bedroom. We were evicted after 3.5 years as the unit was sold. I moved around the Chinatown area for 10 years, when I decided to convert the office to CAD, I had to find a permanent place. Relocating 8 computers would become too expensive.
I was at DBS bank to take 2 units on level 12 of Pearlbank, one for my home, and one for the office. They told me to wait a few hours. Later my agent informed me that Penthouse One was available if I wanted it, as the owner was having trouble paying the mortgage. Of course I said yes! So I bought the unit sight unseen, but I knew it was a mirror layout of Penthouse 6, and it had the extra kitchen door.
Perfect for the office. So I registered as a home office, we gutted the unit, which had been destroyed by the previous owner. 40 students were living there and the space was cut into 3 separate flats. I felt so lucky to acquire this Penthouse that never reached the open market for sale.
Q. Pearl Bank Apartments has gained somewhat of a cult following, with regards to its futuristic design which has stood the test of time…what do you think is the secret behind its enduring appeal to both the old and young?
Ed: Once you’ve seen the spaces, its very inspiring. Every room has a different shape, scale and volume. No cookie cutter aspect. There were no corridors in my 4,000 sq ft. No wasted space.
Q. You were one of the champions behind the push to redevelop and conserve Pearl Bank Apartments, what did you learn from that experience and how have your views evolved over time?
Ed: That the enbloc process is very unfair. 80% required to destroy a building and objectors’ homes. But 100% required to save a building. Makes absolutely no sense. I still feel Enbloc is based on communist ideals.
Q. Why do you think so many of Singapore’s iconic buildings such as Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park employed the Brutalist Architectural style?
Ed: It was the avant-guard expression during that time, moving away from Colonialism.
Q. You’ve recently relocated to a new space at Tiong Poh Road, what were some of the factors that led to choosing this particular unit?
Ed: I looked at more than a dozen flats. There were three main factors: the ceilings had to be at least 2.850mm in order to fit my twelve antique shophouse doors, and the kitchen had to be large enough to comfortably place my Boffi K2 island unit. I also wanted some outdoor space, even if a small balcony. Most were rejected if the criteria was not met.
Q. I noticed this unit does not have a lift, does that worry you?
Ed: There are no lifts in Tiong Bahru conservation units. I was looking forward to not wasting so much time in lifts. It’s one aspect of Pearlbank I will not regret leaving behind.
Q. The renovation work needed was pretty extensive due to the building’s age, were there any particular challenges in the revamping process?
Ed: The renovations had nothing to do with age. I wanted to restore the unit back to URA guidelines. The previous owners had removed many historical aspects of the flat, and enclosed the balcony with ugly aluminium windows. I wanted the Balcony opened up, the façade restored and all the windows replaced [using sound proof glass]
Q. With all the recent worry about the ‘declining value of older housing units in Singapore’, did the age of the building deter you at any point prior to purchasing it?
Ed: Not at all. The area has 47 years left on the lease. I doubt I will live to 106.
Q. Did you have any particular design strategy or approach for this project?
Ed. Yes, relocation of as much as possible from the penthouse. Floorboards, lighting, etc. The only new major elements were the limestone floors, glass mosaic tiles and the windows + doors. Most of my furniture is art-deco or mid-century classics. It’s basically a mini version of the penthouse, with some items edited out due to space constraints.