The Opening of People’s Park Complex

The Opening of people's park complex

The design concept behind People’s Park Complex had one simple humanistic idea – that there needs to be room in the city for people. People’s Park Complex served to support our vision to help create a new nation through planning and architecture that accelerates the process of social bonding.
The year was 1967; two years after Singapore became an independent Republic. On 1 May 1967, Design Partnership was formed following the dissolution of Malayan Architects Co-Partnership where William Lim Siew Wai was a partner, I was an associate architect, and Tay Kheng Soon was an architect. Lim, Tay and I came together to form Design Partnership.
In 1967, Singapore was dealing with an Indonesian confrontation, and the young Republic was facing an economic recession. Singapore’s Ministry of National Development (MND), through the Urban Renewal Department (URD) – a unit within the Housing Development Board – decided on a sale of government land to stimulate the economy.
The URD announced the Sale of Sites through a public tender to invite Singapore’s private sector in a public-private sector partnership in the development of state land to invigorate economic development, and one of the sale sites gazetted for development – which was first a park, then a market vacant for many years because of fire which erased all the market stalls at the site – became People’s Park Complex.

The Concept of People’s Park Complex
Lim, Tay and I brought our passion to the task. It was a project and a land tender we could not afford to lose. Winning the tender was an opportunity to anchor the newly established Design Partnership as an important, wholly Singaporean architecture firm; to establish our pet ideas and beliefs and to create a Singapore architectural identity through its planning and architecture.
Lim, Tay and I had different strengths as well as weaknesses. Like an early marriage, weaknesses and differences were buried and all three of us devoted our time in developing ideas for the firm and the People’s Park project in particular.
All three of us worked and dreamt what we would like to see in the final project. We worked as a team. The team had to strategise to get (and which we eventually got) the URD to agree on selling off-plan. At the time, this system of instalment payments[1] was already in place for residential apartments, so we suggested doing the same for commercial developments.
Nobody, I think, saw the potential of People’s Park, except for Ho Kok Cheong, a glass merchant and our glass supplier living in Chinatown. Ho rounded up a few friends from Malaysia and with limited capital, tendered and won. He knew that a lot of the shop owners had a lot of cash and he needed cash flow in order to complete the project. People’s Park Complex was thus made up of small shops being sold for between $400 and $800 a square foot.
Design Partnership had to work with a tight budget. For the external cladding, for example, we worked with the structural engineer Dr YS Lau, whom we knew in Kuala Lumpur. Ho Kok Cheong wanted economies of scale and we thought hard about the best wall that was cheap, easy to build and problem-free. The best solution was a concrete block so that the external wall goes up 29 stories and the two narrow ends could be built from the inside. We then wouldn’t need scaffolding to go up 30 stories. It came up very fast, and was built from the inside.
At the time we also believed in simplicity and purity of form as well as building material – less is more. We in fact did not want to paint the building, until there was a government request for it in the late 80s.

[1] Off-plans refer to projects that are yet to be built but which already have their plans worked out and approved. Payments are done in instalments upon stages of completion in the project.

People's Park Complex Section

People's Park Complex Interior

People's Park Complex Exterior

The opening
As the first major project for Design Partnership, there was naturally great excitement in the office when it opened. At the time of its opening in 1971, the firm was only about 30 people strong, and the opening of People’s Park Complex was a major milestone.
We had actually created a big chandelier in plastic for the atrium. It’s an abstract chandelier which was there in the big atrium till the late 1980s, before it was removed. Outside, facing the theatre where the pedestrian crossing is, we had four chandeliers as well. At the opening, the whole atrium was filled with people, and there was this chandelier light, which created a bit of a drama. Everyone in Chinatown was looking forward to the opening of People’s Park Complex so there was tremendous reception and positive write-ups in the newspapers.
People’s Park became a great success. There was a lot of media coverage on People’s Park by The Straits Times and Singapore Herald between 1968 and 1971. After it was completed, its atrium became a civic space. Across the road, some of the people in shophouses didn’t have modern sanitation. So they went to the toilets in People’s Park to bathe. I think the key thing is that we created a people’s space, an urban space where people feel comfortable and provided spaces for community bonding. The shops and F&B outlets were very well received by Singaporeans – and they came from all places, from all over Singapore. It was this project that gave Design Partnership its reputation, and following this project we worked on Golden Mile Complex which had a similar concept.
People’s Park Complex was the best project Design Partnership had ever done. When we did that project, we considered the people, we considered the residents of Chinatown and Ho Kok Cheong – who knew the site very well.
We had passion. We were very passionate Singaporeans who felt that in the aftermath of colonialism, we should develop our own personality and identity and what Singapore should stand for as an island city-state with a diverse population. People’s Park Complex served to support our vision as a firm connected to social issues, a firm interested in helping to create a new nation through planning and architecture that accelerates the process of social bonding. Social cohesion was a key element driving the architecture behind People’s Park Complex.
The design concept behind People’s Park Complex had one simple humanistic idea – that there needs to be room in the city for people. That’s why DP created that and future projects such as Bugis Junction and Far East Square also continued to stay close to this concept.

Koh Seow Chuan
Mr Koh Seow Chuan is a founder of DP Architects. He is responsible for many of the firm’s notable projects including People’s Park Complex and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay. He retired in 2004 but continues to serve as the firm’s senior consultant.