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Icons of S'pore real estate

Distinctive architecture will proliferate in the future as newer designs emerge and foreign starchitects leave their mark here.

The previous incarnation of Cathay (above) - perched midway on Mount Sophia and at the strategic end of Orchard Road, was deemed to be quite iconic.
Pearl Bank Apartments with its distinctive cylindrical horseshoe design.
The Colonnade in Grange Road.
Parkroyal on Pickering.

AS part of the SG50 jubilee celebrations, members of the public were invited to nominate icons - things, words, cultural practices, events, etc - that define Singapore and Singaporeans. The list that emerged was intriguing - durians, chilli crab, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), parking coupons, memorable Singlish words like "chope" and "lah", "uncles" and "aunties", "mama shop". Real estate too has its icons. In being "iconic", a project has to be visually arresting, attention-grabbing and high-profile. It could be iconic because of the architecture, the location, usage or a combination of these three factors. But, the chief - although not the sole - association is with external form.


Real estate icons in our present understanding of the word probably did not exist in the early days of Singapore. During the post-war era in the 1950s, the top priority of the Singapore government was to address the immediate housing shortage and basic needs of its growing population for schools, clinics and hospitals. At the early stage of nation-building, functionality and construction efficiency trumped aesthetics and external form. As a result, most of the public buildings during the early years were homogeneous and dour-looking across the city-state by today's yardstick. Some of the skyscrapers built at that time - the 14-storey Bank of China building, the 20-storey Asia Insurance Building - were relatively simple and unadorned, although another building - the previous incarnation of Cathay - perched midway on Mount Sophia and at the strategic end of Orchard Road, was deemed to be quite iconic.

In 1966, the enactment of the draconian Land Acquisition Act enabled comprehensive urban renewal to take place, primarily in the city centre. Unsightly slums and unhygienic squatters were claimed by the state to make way for new developments. This was accomplished brilliantly through the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) Sale of Sites Programme. This provided opportunities for the private sector to be involved in the building and construction sector on a massive scale. It also injected a higher degree of creativity and variety into the local real estate market, providing the seedbed that spawned some early icons of Singapore property.

Golden Mile Complex (formerly Woh Hup Complex), from the very first URA's sale of sites, was a distinctive project during the 1960s and 1970s. Designed by Design Partnership (today's DP Architects), the development blended high-density construction with use diversity. Its current "little Thailand" image masks the avant-garde ideas behind the design at the time of its construction, such as the stepped terraces of the residential apartments, the linear podium, and the stepped atria that allowed natural ventilation.

Pearl Bank Apartments, with its distinctive cylindrical horseshoe design and inter-locking split-level living areas, was the tallest and densest residential building in Singapore upon its completion in 1976. Although overshadowed by modern buildings today, the project, designed by Tan Cheng Siong of local firm Archurban Architects Planners was a breakthrough at that time with its almost "sculptural" quality.


From the 1980s, skyscrapers designed by famous architects - or "starchitects" - from around the world began to dot the city centre. OCBC Centre, with its strong monolithic design that quite correctly embodied the "solid as a rock" image of the bank, and Raffles City, a mixed-use project in the form of a simple geometric building with aluminium finishing, were both designed by I.M. Pei. He also designed another skyscraper - the 37-storey twin trapezoidal Gateway - along Beach Road. Commonly known as the "two towering cardboard boxes", it appears two-dimensional when viewed from certain angles.

Other famous designers included Kenzo Tange, John Portman and Paul Rudolph, who conceptualised several landmarks - such as the original OUB Centre (today's One Raffles Place) and UOB Towers 1 & 2 (all three by Kenzo Tange); Marina Square (John Portman); and The Colonnade in Grange Road and The Concourse along Beach Road (both by Paul Rudolph).

From the 1990s, with the basic housing needs of the population being met, the focus shifted to establishing Singapore's national identity through eye-catching projects. One prime example is The Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. The Esplanade is a world-class performing arts centre designed through a collaborative partnership between DP Architects and the London-based Michael Wilford & Partners. With its dome-shaped and "spikey" external facade, the project earned the nickname "the durian", after the tropical fruit of that name, loved and hated in equal measure.

Projects designed by starchitects continued to proliferate into the 2000s. The iconic three-tower integrated resort Marina Bay Sands, with the "ship" atop the roof, was designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, whose imprint in Singapore has extended to the soaring Sky Habitat, and the Jewel at Changi Airport.

Moshe Safdie is best known for his project Habitat 67, in Montreal, Canada. He had also previously collaborated with a local architect designing Habitat I and II at Ardmore Park; both were subsequently demolished following an en bloc sale.

Many other famous foreign architects like Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, Ole Scheeren, Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito now visit Singapore regularly on various local projects.

In an interview conducted by Knight Frank for its 75th anniversary book this year, Philip Ng, the CEO of Far East Organization, enthused about the high incidence of works by world-class architects in Singapore. He noted: "In our small area in the CBD, we have seen some of the most well-known architects in the world having done works here. From Kenzo Tange to I.M. Pei to Philip Johnson to Paul Rudolph to Norman Foster - all the titans of architecture - I don't think any other city has got that."

Of course, iconic projects are not the sole purview of well-known foreign designers. A growing number of local architects have added their mark on the real estate landscape. Think of recent projects such as the stunning Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA, the superbly elegant Marq on Paterson Hill by SCDA Architects and numerous individual landed houses across the island. Several high-profile public housing projects also feature local architecture firms, such as The Pinnacle@Duxton (Arc Studio) and SkyTerrace @ Dawson (SCDA).


Distinctive real estate icons have also emerged from a growing emphasis on sustainability, most notably in the public sector, and increasingly on the larger scale of townships. Punggol 21 Plus was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the National Day Rally in 2007 to reinvigorate Punggol into "A Waterfront Town of the 21st Century".

When fully completed, the town will have resort-style housing, a commercial and civic town centre and recreational amenities such as parks and alfresco eateries surrounding the 4.2-km waterway estate that connects both the Serangoon and Punggol rivers. HDB also launched the Treelodge@Punggol, an "eco-precinct" that integrates solar panels, centralised recycle refuse chutes and rainwater harvesting system for effective energy, water and waste management.

Green features such as the vertical greenery and green roofs were similarly incorporated to reduce ambient temperature. It serves as a test bed for green ideas that may be applied to future public housing developments.


One question begs to be asked: Does it matter economically if a property is iconic? This is not a trivial question as 'starchitects' tend to charge premium fees for the brand value of their services. Research undertaken by students at the Department of Real Estate in National University of Singapore suggests that the answer is: "yes". Empirical evidence in 2013 indicated that, on a price per square feet basis, using a starchitect brings a 3 per cent price premium to a project, which arguably, more than justifies this approach.

Considering that iconic designs may not always translate into efficient layouts, this premium can be construed as even more remarkable.

Distinctive architecture will proliferate in the future as newer designs emerge and foreign starchitects leave their mark here. That could raise the bar for what could be deemed as icons, but overall, it will further enrich Singapore's already vibrant real estate landscape.

  • The writer is executive director and head of residential services, Knight Frank Singapore