Condo Mania: What Has Design Got to Do with It?

reflections

Reflections at Keppel Bay (Photo: Roger Chan)

Condo Mania: What Has Design Got To Do With It?  by Pauline Ang was first published in Singapore Architect, Issue #268, June 2012.

From “condo-like” public housing to luxury condominiums to shoebox apartments, Singaporeans seem to have a love affair with condos and condo lookalikes of all shapes and sizes. Bolstered by a large influx of foreign homebuyers and newly minted Permanent Residents, the height of the property boom saw hundreds flock to show flats and sales galleries during the weekends, hoping to snag a good bargain for themselves, or to make a tidy profit by flipping properties in a buoyant housing market. News of high-profile developments like The Sail@Marina Bay being “snapped up” within weeks, or Housing & Development Board’s (HDB) Pinnacle@Duxton being six times oversubscribed arrived fast and furious, amidst an en bloc frenzy that swept through older condominium estates, tempting long-time residents with the promise of instant windfalls and brand new condos. While local and foreign investors did not hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of maniac buying and selling, many residents were unhappy with the fact that private home prices seemed to be sky-rocketing out of their reach. In response to this, a series of new cooling measures aimed at stabilising the property market and discouraging investment demand was introduced by the government in December 2011. At the same time, the production of affordable public housing units was ramped up significantly in order to meet the increasing demands of a swelling population.

To no one’s surprise, public housing had emerged as one of most hotly debated issues in the May 2011 General Elections. Simply explained, robust economic growth over the past few years had come on the back of a rapid influx of immigrant workers, which had in turn placed heavy demands on public infrastructure and services, leading to a shortage of HDB flats and rising property prices. Adding fuel to the fire were the astronomical price tags of the now famous Centrale 8 DBSS (Design, Build and Sell Scheme) flats in Tampines, which were first launched at an unprecedented high of $880,000, or $750 per square foot for a five-room flat. Although the ensuing public furore eventually forced the developer to lower prices, the fact that Centrale 8 was two times oversubscribed even before the prices were adjusted suggested that there was a sizeable pool of homebuyers who was prepared to pay a substantial premium for condo-like designs and finishes, especially if the flats were located within mature housing estates. Which begs the question: Were people consciously buying into better designed condos—and by extension—a better quality of life? If not, was it largely a pragmatic investment decision? Or a simple desire for all things new and trendy?

Pinnacle@Duxton

While design is increasingly seen as an important factor in guiding public housing initiatives, the basic tenet of public housing has always been affordability. High density, high-rise pilot projects such as the Pinnacle@Duxton and the Dawson Estate housing project, designed by some of the best talent on the local architecture scene, suggest that HDB flat buyers can have their designer cake and eat it too. The seven linked towers of the Pinnacle, for instance, feature an intricate facade system that works at the scale of the individual unit, playing on a variation of facade treatment “sets” that include planter boxes, bays, bay windows, windows, and balconies. Taking advantage of the modular and repetitive nature of the facade elements, prefabricated concrete components were used to facilitate construction and achieve cost-effectiveness. Within each dwelling unit, a variety of bedroom/living room configurations were possible with the use of lightweight concrete partition walls, which could be adapted to the various needs and size of each household.

The Pinnacle’s downtown location, impressive amenities and “condo-like” styling had reportedly caused some private developers to worry about losing potential customers to fancy HDB flats[1], which would obviously be cheaper than condominiums in the same area. A quick online check showed that at least one popular property website was confused about the Pinnacle’s status, describing it as a “condominium (that) is primarily used for HDB Apartment rental and sale.”[2] Needless to say, the Pinnacle was wildly popular with HBD applicants when it was first launched in 2004, especially after the then Minister for National Development Mr. Mah Bow Tan announced that the project was to be a one-off experiment with high-rise, high density living in the Central Business District, and stressed that it would not be replicated in future HDB developments. This prompted a journalist from The New Paper to quip: “In short, if you’re sandwiched between your wallet and yuppie lifestyle aspirations in a downtown pad, this is your only chance.”[3]

A shift in thinking appeared to have taken place since then, with the launch of the Dawson Estate housing project under the “Remaking Our Heartland” initiative launched in 2007. The project, which is still under construction, consists of three site parcels, with three distinct “New Generation Public Housing” projects that were designed by WOHA Architects, SCDA Architects, and Surbana International Consultants respectively. All three sites feature blocks of flats that are remarkably similar to the Pinnacle in terms of height, density, and level of design. As may be expected of all new projects—regardless of typology—in recent years, landscaping plays an integral part in the design of the buildings and their surroundings, and a “Housing in a Park” theme runs through the entire project, offering seamless connectivities to key transportation nodes and landmarks amidst a natural, gardenlike setting.

SkyTerrace@Dawson (Image: SCDA Architects)

At the scale of the dwelling unit, configurable room layouts seem to be the new de facto standard for the new generation of public housing, as seen in the schemes by WOHA (SkyVille@Dawson) and Surbana, while SCDA’s SkyTerrace@Dawson breaks new ground by introducing sophisticated loft living to HBD flats. At the SkyTerrace, a double-height interlocking unit is composed of an L-shaped loft unit and a small, single storey studio apartment, in a simplified version of the Lincoln Modern lofts. Each half of an interlocking unit can be used independently or combined, providing the option of expansion for a home office or a larger family. The logic of the interlocking units is clearly articulated in the massing and facades of the towers, reflecting the inside-out design approach adopted by the architect.

Despite the plethora of new, exciting design features that would be introduced, all schemes at the Dawson Estate were required to work within a strict budget to ensure that prices remain affordable for the masses. While Dawson Estate, like the Pinnacle, shows that it is possible for an extraordinarily high level of design to coexist with relative affordability, it seems destined to be the exception rather than the norm, for one can hardly expect our star architects to abandon their wealthy developer clients in a rush to embrace lower cost, tightly regulated public housing projects, which are constantly subjected to intense public scrutiny and criticism.

The condo market is a different ball game altogether, especially at the upper middle and high end of the market spectrum, where private developers pull out all the stops in an effort to differentiate their projects from others. A sense of luxury and exclusivity is key, along with the usual selling points—prime locations; unobstructed views; proximity to schools and shopping areas; easy access to public transportation; and nowadays, a signature design by a well-known, and preferably world-renowned, architect. Fine finishes, sharp detailing, and expensive fittings, as well as amenities such as swimming pools, sky gardens, and landscaped grounds are to be expected, but are no longer considered unique in luxury condominium developments.

The Interlace by OMA

In terms of design innovation, The Interlace condominiums by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) leads the way with a brave new housing typology that represents a curious blend between the horizontal “groundscraper” and the vertical skyscraper, and between traditional low-rise cluster housing and high-rise housing blocks. The design offers a radical alternative to the conventional point-block condominium typology in Singapore, comprising 31 elongated apartment blocks stacked jenga-like around eight hexagonal courtyards to form a linked megastructure. The development boasts spacious private apartments suspended in mid-air, amidst an abundance of shared outdoor spaces filled with themed gardens and water features. A visit to the sales gallery does not disappoint— architecture aficionados are treated to an array of concept models, analytical diagrams, and a video feature in which architect Ole Scheeren explains how the new, porous megastructure generates more breathing space between blocks and allows views with longer vistas, as compared to a conventional point block development of the same density. Despite the convincing presentation, one recoils slightly at the sight of the scaled model of the entire structure, which shows a massive, sprawling development that appears impenetrable and somewhat claustrophobic. However, given that there is no known precedent for the design, it is difficult to say if the full-sized development will provoke a similar response when it is completed in 2015. Brilliant in concept, The Interlace brings a fresh, new perspective to the existing stock of housing typologies, but as with all bold, experimental concepts, especially one that is being executed at such an ambitious scale, the outcome remains to be seen.

 Reflections at Keppel Bay by Daniel Libeskind

Another notable condominium project that was recently completed is Reflections at Keppel Bay, designed by celebrated architect-theorist Daniel Libeskind. The waterfront development consists of six glass towers rising gracefully from a reflecting pool, and 11 low-rise villa apartment blocks stretched out along the bay. The glass towers recall Libeskind’s winning (but unbuilt) design for the World Trade Centre master plan competition in New York City, and are defined by gently curving forms with chamfered tops, which are occupied by roof gardens enclosed in open cages. Sky bridges provide links between each of the three pairs of towers, serving primarily as viewing platforms for residents.


The Sail (Photo: Roger Chan)

Like the NBBJ-designed The Sail@Marina Bay, Reflections adopted a sculptural approach in shaping the overall form of the towers, in order to create a memorable visual icon on the skyline. This approach is not commonly seen in residential tower design, since the privileging of form over interior function inevitably results in a few awkwardly shaped floor plans, which tend to be amplified in the smaller subdivisions of a residential unit. In addition, the smooth, uninterrupted glass skins of the curved towers at Reflections also mean that huge, round supporting columns feature prominently in many of the units.

While the bold, signature designs of The Interlace and Reflections at Keppel Bay are generally targeted at those with a cultivated taste for high design and deep pockets to match, other condominium developers have discovered that there was a huge, untapped middle-class market for tiny “Mickey Mouse” apartments, mostly in downtown areas.

Concerns about the proliferation of shoebox apartments, as they are known, have been rife through the most part of last year, until signs of an economic slowdown started to appear around November 2011. The smallest apartment currently known in Singapore is a 258-square-foot condominium unit at the Suites@Guillemard, which works out to be about the size of a standard hotel room in Singapore, but in general, any apartment under 500 square feet would qualify as a shoebox unit. Such units typically carry a higher than average per square foot cost, but the overall cost is usually quite affordable because of their small footprints. Critics decry these apartments as “unliveable,” suggesting that the URA should step in to rein in unscrupulous developers who could not care less about upholding spatial standards in their relentless pursuit of ever increasing per square foot profits. Healthy sales figures, on the other hand, show that home buyers think otherwise, and sales demographics indicate that this group consists of single professionals, young couples who spend little time at home, and investors who seek rental returns. For this group, limited space is not a big issue, and the main draw of the shoebox apartments lies in their prime, downtown locations, where a standardsized apartment would typically be priced out of their reach. Indeed, in land-starved Singapore, where the size of the minimum dwelling unit has gradually shrunk over the years as the population increased, and the shoebox apartment appears to be a growing and inevitable phenomenon. Looking at the crowded conditions that plague some of the densest cities in the world, such as Manhattan, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, it is clear that good design will only play a more important role in making such small spaces habitable.

Lack of space is a complaint that is rarely heard with Singapore’s older condominiums, especially those that were built in the 1970s and 80s. Projects such as the Pearl Bank Apartments on Pearl’s Hill, Futura at Leonie Road, Habitat I & II at Ardmore Park, and The Colonnade on Grange Road were trailblazers that put forward new spatial models for high-rise living during the formative years of modern architecture in Singapore. Sadly, many of these housing icons are on the brink of, or have succumbed to the lure of en bloc sales, which have become a popular way for owners in ageing condominiums to make a quick profit during boom times. Among those that have gone under the axe are The Futura, with its futuristic disc-shaped living pods, and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, which consists of stacked precast boxes and terraces in a mini version of the architect’s Habitat 67 at the 1967 Montreal World Fair.

Pearl Bank Apartments by Archurban Architects Planners

As for the 38-storey-high Pearl Bank Apartments, which is known for leading the heroic fight against en bloc sales as much as it is known as a modernist housing icon, its fate remains uncertain, despite the valiant efforts of a small group of devoted residents. Perched high atop Pearl’s Hill in the Outram Park area, the Pearl Bank Apartments was once the tallest residential tower in Singapore, its unusual horseshoe form offering panoramic downtown views.

Spatially, the 272-unit tower was thoughtfully conceived, consisting of three types of split-level apartments as well as penthouse units, which are stacked and interlocked in the manner of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles. Utility rooms and service areas open into the circular courtyard, which faces west, while living areas and bedrooms occupy the outer rim of the tower, in an arrangement that maximises light, air, and views. The split level configuration is expressed on the outer facade as a patchwork matrix of L-shaped, Z-shaped, and strip windows, while the inner facade consists of strip windows, open air corridors, exterior stairs, and lift cores.

The Colonnade by Paul Rudolph

Unlike Paul Rudolph’s Colonnade condominium, which happily retains its status as a luxury condominium to this day, the Pearl Bank Apartments continues to face the threat of eradication, and the tower was put up for sale for the third time early last year.

In the end, what has design got to do with it all? Singaporeans are known to be a pragmatic, materialistic lot, but all else being equal, most home buyers seem eager to embrace new housing prototypes and to experiment with alternative ways of living in a high-rise, high density urban environment. Yet, it is the same eagerness to rush towards a shiny new future without so much as a backward glance that is ultimately so disturbing, suggesting that the crux of the matter lies in the thrill of novelty, rather than a true appreciation for good design.

[1] “HDB’s Pinnacle : A threat to private developers?” The Straits Times, 19 June 2004.
[2] Property Guru website, last accessed 18 March 2012, www.propertyguru.com.sg/project/pinnacle-duxton-20538.
[3] “3,000 apply for 528 units,” The New Paper, 14 June 2004.♦

 

 

 

3 Responses

  1. Kuan Chee Yung says:

    Hi Pauline,

    Thank you for another well thought out piece. My concern is that ‘design’ is a double edged sword that at once promotes materialistic consumption ( innocently named as lifestyle concepts) and well as providing innovative ideas of living given current constraints. We can argue which is more idealistic but the point is that the less discerning public wouldn’t care, unless either slant is blown out of proportion. Playing the devil’s advocate, I take the point of view that Reflections, Interlace, the Sail and even Pinnacle & Dawson did not do public housing any good because all of them did not embrace ideas of living together and in a sustainable manner. They are just grand gestures that at the core of it remain exclusive ‘designer buildings’ few can hope to live in while cookie cutter HDB buildings continue to proliferate and pigeon hole size condos with mechanically ventilated toilets continue to rule the market. We are currently working on some holistic self sustaining vertical township ideas that may propel us to the forefront depending on whether developers bite. I wonder if the famous civil servants are doing the same or are they merely jumping on the thoughtless lifestyle bandwagon.

  2. Anna Kerr says:

    Very interesting reading indeed. Thanks Pauline. Singapore truly is a playground for experimenting with density. A valuable asset to have in a world that is facing over population and a need to accommodate the growing middle class. Modernism already did it in Europe through trial and error and today architects desperately use their design imagination to try to blow life into these mammoths. In Singapore it is easier, just demolish and build another, smaller, shoe box. As architects in the future we will have to focus less on “design” as we know it today, and shift our focus more to the social needs of the future. If we can put social design on our agenda as architects I think that we still have a chance to create comfortable, adaptive spaces that can thrive regardless of the facade treatment./Anna Kerr

Leave a Reply