Building Castles on the Ground

Posted by on Sep 30, 2018 in Campaigns | No Comments

Capsuled twenty-five storeys up in an office straight out of The Jetsons with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and minimalist interior, Linda Pang, 48, greeted us with unassuming warmth, her small stature and deferential demeanour belying an astute capability that has been pivotal in transforming spaces into visionary habitats. The architecture stalwart sat down to talk to us about conserving architectural heritage, her key projects, and the architectural landscape in Singapore.

Presently vice-president of CPG Consultants Pte Ltd., Linda has been an architect since graduating back in 1995. However, the seeds of aesthetic appreciation and art were sown from the very beginning.

When she was young, her mother would take her to the National Museum, where she would be exposed to paintings, sculptural exhibits and the artwork that graced its hallways. Her father was a structural engineer and she would go to his office and see all his drawings littered on the drafting table. However, it was her uncle, an architect with the former Public Works Department (PWD), in whose footsteps she set out to walk.

“He was the one, that I think, I aspired to [be],” she said.

Linda Pang, vice-president of CPG Consultants. Photo courtesy of CPG consultants

 

Buildings of the 1960s & 1970s

Inspired by beautiful spaces and buildings, Linda’s appreciation of architecture goes beyond mere aesthetics. She contemplated the allure of her favourite local architecture with studied nuance, ascribing to the buildings a sanctity that revealed her perceptive understanding of their deeper significance. One of her favourite buildings is the Singapore Conference Hall designed by Lim Chong Keat built in 1965.

“I felt it [Singapore Conference Hall] embodied the spirit and aspirations of our people back then – built in the 1960s in a modern avant garde style, “she explained. “And I thought it was very beautiful. I mean it’s really a form-follows-function expression, and it’s very well put together and articulated. It looks monumental but it’s welcoming at the same time.”

Another building for which she feels a special affinity is the Pearl Bank Apartments. Built in 1976 by local architect Tan Cheng Siong, the iconic horse-shoe shaped structure holds personal sentimental value for her as it was her home for three years when she was nine years old. The tower, built in the brutalist style, housed individual apartments with split levels, and young Linda would have a lot of fun jumping from one level to another.

“From the dining room I would jump on the sofa; from the living room, then I would jump further… And you had a good panoramic view of the city, so the apartment [is] really amazing,” she reminisced.

Reflective of the wider phenomenon of the demolishment of older landmark buildings from the Brutalist era of the 1960s and ‘70s, the ensuing enbloc of the Pearl Bank Apartments and its possible demolishment saddens her. For Linda, buildings encapsulate Singapore’s history.

“Because if you see Singapore, like our cityscape as a tapestry of sorts, you know, it’s like a weave, and it tells a story of how we’ve evolved and grown as a nation. So if we start removing threads, I think we are missing some of the important parts of our story and our collective memory,” she explained.

The Pearl Bank Apartments with its iconic keyhole-lock architecture. Photo from the Akitek Tenggara Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Her desire to conserve modernist buildings such as People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Tower, stems not only from their historical significance, but as Linda puts it, “[T]hese buildings were actually designed by local architects, you know, they’re masterpieces done by our own local architects for our own local people, so it’s really a legacy left behind by our pioneer generation as well.”

 

Tuas Checkpoint

For Linda, buildings have the power to take people down memory lanes. She feels strongly for the conservation of historical local architecture, and this reverence for historical and national heritage shines through her architectural assignments.

Tasked with developing Tuas Checkpoint at the beginning of her journey as a young architect with PWD, Linda was given twenty-four months to finish the monumental project. The checkpoint was to be jointly opened by then prime minister Goh Chok Tong, and Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir.

Tuas Checkpoint, a $485 million project which opened in 1998. Photo Courtesy of CPG Consultants

“So I actually worked on the project with a sense of national pride and duty,” she said.

Back then Tuas was, according to Linda, very ulu (remote), and there was no Tuas Link MRT station at that time – the last MRT stop was Boon Lay. A van would pick the team up from Boon Lay station and bring them to the site.

A typical working day involved ensuring that the contractor’s shop drawings were aligned with the firm’s design intent and specifications, checking on-site progress and so on, all to ensure that what was being built was in accordance with approved drawings. This was on top of evaluating claims and liaising with clients, fellow consultants and contractors.

As architecture projects typically take a few years to complete, the biggest challenge was adapting to the changes along the way, for instance, staff turnover from either the firm or among the various contract consultants and clients.

“I think that documentation of what has been confirmed, decisions made and the changes, and the process…[it] actually forms a very important part of the architect’s work,” she explained. “So, surprisingly, you realise that eh, actually quite a bit of our time is [spent] minutes-taking, you know, documentation.”

 

Central Fire Station

The attention to detail and the emphasis on historical accuracy scaffolds not just the logistical aspect of the work, but also the underlying philosophy of restoration. Known as the 3Rs, shorthand for maximum Retention, sensitive Restoration, and careful Repair, the principles that govern architectural restoration were employed in the restoration of the Central Fire Station, a project she was working on simultaneously with the Tuas Checkpoint project.

Linda retrieved a copy of the original architectural drawings and acquired as much historical data as she could on the building from the National Archives of Singapore, along with generous input from the client, SCDF.

“The purpose of it is actually to ascertain what is original, what is not, and what is of historical or architectural value that is worth conserving,” she explained.

In the process, they discovered that there had been additional alterations to the building. To stay true to the authenticity of the original architecture, they stripped the fire station of the parts that had no historical and architectural value, and restored the monument to its original glory.

When the team first took over the restoration, the fire station’s distinctive original red bricks had been painted over in pink as a quick-fix solution to mask the deterioration. Working with materials restoration specialist, Garth Sheldon, they used the simple method of scrubbing the layers of paint, dirt and grime, with just a brush and water. Bricks that had deteriorated beyond repair were removed and new brick tiles were inserted back into the façade with a bonding agent – much like patchwork.

Attention to detail and accuracy meant that skilled craftsmen were needed for highly specific details, like in the restoration of intricate plaster mouldings and a porcelain balustrade with bottle-shaped balusters.

“There were a couple of missing ones from the balustrade, and the contractor had some difficulty sourcing [them], and in the end, they found [the balusters] in Malaysia,” she said.

The Central Fire Station today, with its distinctive red bricks. Photo courtesy of CPG Consultants

Juggling a double bill meant having to work overtime at a punishing pace. The restoration of the fire station was something she had requested to do. It proved immensely rewarding and remains her favourite project to date.

“Because it was the very first project that I actually saw [through] from [beginning] to end, so I really felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment,” she glowed.

Linda’s favourite part of a project is its completion; she loves being able to behold the fruits of her labour and witness the delighted faces of users and clients. The rewards of the built environment lie not just in its static form, but also in its influence on the way people congregate and their state of mind when they enter the space.

When Linda set out to do design, she wanted to create spaces for family bonding and to foster the kampung spirit in the community. Seeing that vision materialise has been edifying; an affirmation of her ability to make a difference to the lives of people, enhancing their quality of life.

Inspired by pioneer modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and his philosophy that less is more, Linda is drawn to enduring simplicity.

“I like simplicity, and a simple but a timeless quality to the architecture,” she said.

 

Local Architecture Today

Over the years, local architecture has evolved to embrace sustainability as a key principle in design, with more trending designs incorporating green spaces both indoors and outdoors. Linda reckoned that today’s new graduates seem to have more passion for design and green issues.

“Now that you have to design buildings that are more inclusive, more friendly, for different user groups, and [you] also have to consider the green mark, the sustainability and the maintainability aspects of the building, [architecture] has become more challenging, but I think overall it’s for the good,” she reasoned.

For Linda, she is excited at the prospect of learning something new or meeting people from all walks of life every day. With her desire to create well-designed and sustainable buildings that benefit inhabitants and transform public spaces, she emphasises the need for endurance and dedication to see a project through from start to finish.

“Unfortunately [for] good architecture, there’s no shortcut. You really need to spend the time to look into issues, design, consider all the requirements, clients’ brief, authority requirements and the integration of various disciplines,” she said. “And I think a useful trait to have is really the ability to think out of the box, to innovate.”

That meticulousness, the brick by brick assiduity, is the key behind Linda’s remarkable architectural feats – deceptive in their simplicity and enduring in their sophistication. As we thanked her for sharing her story, it was clear that Linda herself, her petite frame immaculately fitted with a simple black blazer, embodied the spirit of her architectural conceptions with her razor-sharp eye for the intricacies of form and function, and the gritty thoroughness with which she steers her projects. As Mies Van der Rohe put it, “God is in the details.”

 

Written by: LY Kang

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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