From a distance, SingTel's Ayer Rajah Telephone Exchange looks like a rotary phone handset. All photos Dan Koh
A walk around the city today throws up the would-be icons of yesterday.
Raffles City by I.M. Pei, which contained the world’s tallest hotel of 1984. Marina Square, formerly the largest complex of its kind in Southeast Asia, based on John Portman’s American models. Kenzo Tange’s UOB Plaza, once a CBD landmark, now lost in a mess of steel and glass.
As veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon wrote in 1990, “None of the major projects undertaken by foreign architects in Singapore have received any international acclaim”, a claim that perhaps still holds true in the age of The Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands.
Away from where tourists and earnest photographers go, there exists a slightly different land of buildings.
More iconoclastic than iconic, these structures stand apart from the usual. Over time, they have evolved naturally and accidentally acquired a sense of place, markers to the people who live, work, and play in and around them. They are symbols against attempts to split a durian by the sea or to hoist a ship onto slabs. They are unusual because they do not try so hard.
Here are the four:
Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant
Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant greets Sentosa visitors
Taxi driver W.K. Wong has been twice to this Beijing restaurant, which bills itself as “The Only Revolving Restaurant in The World Situated on Top of Wheat Silos”. He first ventured up in the ‘80s and came full circle just two months ago with his family. “The food is not bad,” he says, “but in terms of view, most people now prefer MBS.” Wong suggests Prima Tower be turned into a lounge for drinks.
Opened in 1977 by the Prima Group (of PrimaDeli fame), Prima Tower is in fact one of two revolving restaurants in Singapore. The other is the Mandarin Orchard’s, which has stopped spinning.
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Getting there is slightly surreal. Lodged between St. James Power Station and the Keppel port, its entrance is amidst containers and a factory yard, yet there is a valet service available. From a lobby that smells of feet, two lifts bring you up to the ninth floor, where you take an escalator, then a circular staircase, to get to the top.
Although each revolution takes one hour and 45 minutes, it is still dizzying to be up there at first. But the ride is worth it. There is the view of the industrial lights, their signature, award-winning Peking Duck, and the friendly staff who inform you that it doesn’t matter where you sit because you’ll come around eventually, anyway.
201 Keppel Road, 6272-8822. Open 11am to 2.30pm, 6.30pm to 10.30pm Mon to Sat, 10.30am to 2.30pm, 6.30pm to 10.30pm Sun and Public Holidays, https://www.pfs.com.sg/restaurants/prima_tower/
The iconic Pearl Bank Apartments on Pearl's Hill
Pearl Bank Apartments
One of two Famous Five buildings left, Pearl Bank and its lucky horseshoe structure continues to stand with Golden Mile Complex. In the en-bloc ecstasy of the noughties, the condominiums Beverly Mai, Futura, and The Habitat were all sold and demolished.
Not that Pearl Bank hasn’t lived up to its name: its residents have placed its preciousness up for sale four times, unsuccessfully.
Constructed upon Pearl’s/Mount Stamford Hill in 1976, Pearl Bank then held three records: the tallest residential building with the largest number of apartments and the highest density.
The 38-storey tower is very Singaporean in another way: it was built by the homegrown Archynamics Architects and continued by Archurban, whose principal architect Tan Cheng Siong went on to envision Pandan Valley Condominium.
Joe Chua has lived here for 20 years and prefers to go by a pseudonym as en-bloc talk is sensitive in his family. “When we drove up the hill for the first time, I was in Primary 5 and I remember it being really, really big,” Chua says. “I don’t really know how to describe it, but when I look up now I feel comforted by the walls.” There is “no way” he himself would like to move out, “but I also think Singaporeans believe in money more than sentiment.”
1 Pearl Bank, https://www.pearlbankapartments.com
Ayer Rajah Telephone Exchange
Ayer Rajah Telephone Exchange
This four-armed tower remains a mystery. Having gone to school at Dover Road, we used to wonder what it must be like to pitched high up in this dragon, with no solid ground beneath. And why does it have no windows?
Alas, we missed its April 1979 open house, which commemorated a century of telephone service in Singapore.
That Ayer Rajah is a telephone exchange, connecting the calls of Singtel is about as much as is known of this ‘70s building. Initially constructed to serve Clementi New Town and Ayer Rajah housing estate, it had to install electronic telephone switching equipment around 1985 to host the nation’s big switch from rotary to push-button phones.
One of consultant Yap Kwong Ling’s first jobs was strengthening Ayer Rajah’s neighbouring building, a more regular-shaped two-storey structure. He was working then as a project engineer in Ove Arup and Partners, and notes that its design is distinct from other telephone exchanges in Bedok, Jurong East, and even City South, which is located next to Tanjong Pagar MRT. Yap himself describes Ayer Rajah’s tower as looking like a rotary phone’s handset.
To Wee Meng, however, who has been working there for four years as a field technician, there is nothing unusual about it at all. “It’s just a regular office building,” he says, over the phone.
1000 Dover Road
Ho Kwong Yew’s Shophouse
We've probably staggered past this strange building many drunken nights out at Boat Quay
On the junction of Circular Road and Lorong Telok, there stands a shophouse both razor-sharp and rounded. Its Art Deco and Expressionist elements are best encapsulated by its five-storey tower, which in 1938, when it was completed, probably afforded a view right down to the bay.
The creation of architect Ho Kwong Yew, responsible too for Grange Road’s Chee Guan Chiang House. A former municipal draughtsman, Ho struck out on his own to infuse the Modern Movement with a tropical sensibility. Simultaneously, as the vice-president of the Society of Chinese Artists, he supported the anti-Japanese resistance, which led to his execution in 1942.
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When writer Julian Davison of ‘Singapore Shophouse’ first encountered this building in the ‘90s, it was abandoned along with most of the CBD periphery. Today, it is located amidst wonderful sleaze. Skip the chain bar on its first floor and head straight up to Khazana on the second. In this Bollywood pub, sari-clad ladies dance to the live band on a Michael Jackson-esque disco floor late into the night.
Unusual on the inside and out, Ho Kwong Yew’s shophouse is “Singapore’s first skyscraper” to Davison. “Contemporary corporate blockbusters like the Union Building down on Collyer Quay may have been taller, but stylistically they had one foot in the past — this was the future!”
79 Circular Road, #02-01 and #03-01, Boat Quay Conservation Area, 6327-4156. Open Sun-Thu 8.30pm to 3am, Fri & Sat 8.30pm to 4am, https://khazanasingapore.com/
Dan Koh is the co-author of 'Gila Bola!: Surviving Singapore Soccer', commissioned by the National Library Board's Singapore Memory Project. His short plays have been staged by Checkpoint Theatre, Buds Theatre Company, and NUS Stage. He is currently the editor of POSKOD.SG and has written for ZIGGY, NYLON Singapore, and I-S. Currently, he is a producer of 'The Obs: A Documentation' and a mentor of the Ceriph Mentorship Programme.