People’s Park Complex
by Lee, Michael Hong Hwee
The People’s Park Complex is a high-rise mixed-use building in Chinatown, Singapore. Completed in 1973, it is a landmark project in terms of architectural design and boasts a number of superlatives, including being the largest shopping complex in Singapore and featuring Singapore’s first atrium in a shopping centre.1
People’s Park Complex is sited on what used to be an open public park at the foot of Pearl’s Hill and along Eu Tong Sen Street, in Chinatown, one of the most populous districts in Singapore.2
The park later became People’s Park Market (or Pearl’s Market) with outdoor stalls, but was destroyed by a fire on 24 December 1966. It was announced in 1967 that a new shopping centre is to be constructed to replace the one that’s burnt down.3 The complex was completed in stages: The six-storey podium of shops and offices was completed and opened in October 1970 and the 25-storey residential block in June 1973. There were problems that beset the building: for example, in 1971, a power failure caused by an explosion was temporarily resolved with mobile generators;4 and complaints of floor vibration caused by the construction were raised and discussed in a parliamentary sitting on 24 May 1978.5
At 102.7-m tall and occupying one hectare (site area: 10,358.7 sqm),6 the development was the largest shopping complex in Singapore; being situated in the shopping-cum-commercial belt along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road in Chinatown. The 31-storey7 building was the first shopping complex in Singapore with an atrium, inspiring subsequent retail developments in Singapore and the region.8
People’s Park Complex was built by Low Keng Huat Construction at S$12 m. The structural engineer was Dr Y S Lau. The mechanical and electrical engineering works were undertaken by CMP Consulting Engineers. The quantity surveyor was Contract Services Group. The developer and owner was People’s Park Development Pte Ltd.9
The development’s name and strategic location in Singapore’s central business district reflect its developers’ aim for it to be a people’s shopping centre. It appears to be the more successful development compared to the developer’s other shopping complex with a similar name and aim: the Katong People’s Complex. Completed in 1984, it was upgraded and renamed Katong Mall in 1995, and eventually sold en-bloc in 2009 due to poor business.
The development’s principal architect Design Partnership (now DP Architects Pte Ltd) was led by William Lim, together with Koh Seow Chuan and Tay Kheng Soon. In its first year of existence in 1967, the firm successfully won a bid to design and build People’s Park Complex in response to an early Government Land Sales programme.
People’s Park Complex had been hailed as a masterpiece of 1970s experimental architecture. The larger of the two atria, or, as the architects refer to it, the “city room”, of the shopping centre was Singapore’s first and a concept first pioneered by the Metabollist Movement of Japan in the 1960s. When the founding member of the movement, Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, visited the site during construction, he remarked: “But we theorised and you people are getting it built!”.10
On the whole, the development's pure geometric lines, seen in its rectilinear forms and curves, visible through the circular potholes at the vertically extended roof, along with its overriding concept of high-rise living dubbed streets in the air, was as much influenced by Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s idea of high-rise living and by the Housing Development Board’s desire to revitalise the Chinese enclave of Chinatown in post-Independent Singapore.11 The original exterior was initially finished in exposed raw concrete, hewing to the principles of Brutalism. Since then, it has received several facelifts, including in 1989, 1998 (orange-and-green colour scheme) and 2009 (yellow-and-green colour scheme).12
As the first mixed-use building of its kind in Southeast Asia, People’s Park Complex challenged the idea of single-use zoning and comprises offices and residences above a podium of shopping spaces.
The shopping space is known for its diverse retail tenants, especially jewellery, electronic goods, travel, money-changing services, and knick-knacks for Chinese New Year celebrations. During the Lunar New Year festive period, the complex will be lit up along with the rest of Chinatown area.13
The central city room inside the shopping space consists of two multi-storey interlocking atriums, of which the ground-level has many turn-over shops and kiosks. This, in part, recalls the busy activities of the street hawkers in the Chinatown of yesteryears.14 A garden bridge, completed in the early 1990s, now connects the complex to the older parts of Chinatown where rows of pre-war shop houses still stand.15
The 25-storey residential block comprises apartments of various sizes and spots for social interaction. Its rooftop common area contains shared amenities like a day-care centre and open-air play space for communal use.
Over the years, the living conditions in the complex have deteriorated. In November 2006, calls for upgrading to the escalator system were reported in the media.16 In May 2009, the Urban Redevelopment Authority began investigations on overcrowded dormitories in the complex’s apartments after media reports of complaints by residents.17
Besides shopping, working and living, the complex also hosted numerous notable social and cultural activities. In 1972, a month-long campaign was held to publicise metrication in Singapore by encouraging people to buy textiles in metres.18
The Singapore House of Wax, a wax museum believed to be the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, opened in 1974 at the complex.19 On 15 January 2005, Singapore’s longest (30-metre) firecrackers were set off by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations, on the sixth floor of the complex. Other popular events held here include exhibitions, fun-raising gigs and trade fairs.20
Michael Lee Hong Hwee
1. DP Architects. (2016). People’s Park Complex. Retrieved May 22, 2016, from DP Architects website: http://www.dpa.com.sg/projects/peoples-park-complex
2. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1983). A pictorial chronology of the sale of sites programme for private development. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 333.77095957 PIC); Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 185. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
3. New shop centre to replace Peoples Park. (1967, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
4. People’s Park complex back in business. (1971, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
5. Parliament of Singapore. (1979, March 15). Peoples Park complex (Complaint of floor vibration). Retrieved on 2016, July 28 from Parliament of Singapore website: https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00057348-ZZ¤tPubID=00069379-ZZ&topicKey=00069379-ZZ.00057348-ZZ_1%2Bid004_19790315_S0004_T00091-oral-answer%2B
6. Wong, Y. C., et. al. (2005). Singapore 1:1 city: A gallery of architecture & urban design. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, p. 158. (Call no.: RSING 720.95957 WON)
7. Wong, Y. C., et. al. (2005). Singapore 1:1 city: A gallery of architecture & urban design. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, p. 158. (Call no.: RSING 720.95957 WON)
8. Majestic landmark in Chinatown. (1972, February 7). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
9. Wong, Y. C., et. al. (2005). Singapore 1:1 city: A gallery of architecture & urban design. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, pp. 158–161. (Call no.: RSING 720.95957 WON)
10. Model of a modern marketplace. (2006, November 4). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Beamish, J. (1985). A history of Singapore architecture: The making of a city. Singapore: G. Brash, p. 160. (Call no.: RSING 722.4095957 BEA); Wong, Y. C., et. al. (2005). Singapore 1:1 city: A gallery of architecture & urban design. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, p. 160. (Call no.: RSING 720.95957 WON)
12. People’s Park – icon or eyesore? (2008, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 209. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. For Singaporeans, shops have never been just places to go to buy things. (1979, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. DP Architects. (2016). Projects/Peoples’ Park Complex. Retrieved from DP Architects website: http://www.dpa.com.sg/projects/peoples-park-complex/
15. $6m hanging garden in the heart of Chinatown. (1996, July 28). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Kwok, N. K. D., & Wong, H. H. (2006, November 16). Escalator upgrade a must. Today, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Packed dorms: Owners rapped. (2009, May 30). The Straits Times, p. 41. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. ‘Go metric’ display a big draw. (1972, August 2). New Nation, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. MEET THE FAMOUS AT THE WAX HOUSE. (1974, June 13). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Azhar Ghani. (2005, January 16). Let’s hope Rooster year is better: PM Lee. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewpaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.