People’s Park Complex
Despite its name suggesting that it is a park for the people, exploring People’s Park Complex is by no means a walk in the park. It is a matter of seconds before you are confronted with flyers or prepositioned by enthusiastic sales personnel with a 2-for-1 Maldives tour package or a promotion for a 30-minute foot reflexology session.
The central atrium in the mall is a crowded room with high human traffic and all-day cooking or cleaning demonstrations surrounded by the three most visible business models in the complex: the travel agency, the mobile and electronics shop, and the massage shop. Needless to say, People’s Park Complex is brimming with life and a curious mix of activity.
If you roll back the years to the 1960s, Chinatown was not just an overcrowded enclave. Housing was affordable but shophouses were run-down and living conditions poor for the mostly migrant worker population. After a 1966 fire destroyed the People’s Park Market, which was a popular public park with outdoor stalls, the same site was sold for redevelopment by Singapore’s first Urban Renewal Department Sale of Sites in 1967. The move fuelled urban regeneration in Chinatown in the 1970s.
People’s Park Complex was a game-changer. It was a pivot in a time when Singapore’s architectural model turned from low-rise to high-rise. It marked Singapore’s transition from street-based food and sundry vendors to an air-conditioned shopping mall.
The complex contained Singapore’s first central atrium that was designed as a public living room for social activities. It began as a 6-storey shopping mall in 1970 before the 25-storey residential tower was added in 1973. It achieved instant acclaim as the tallest residential space in the country in that time.
People’s Park Complex displays the same block-ish and brutalist elements as the Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road. Both projects were conceptualised by the Design Partnership and inspired by Fumihiko Maki’s concepts of the collective social space and post-war ideologies for civic infrastructures; they introduced Singapore to new modes of modernist architecture in the 1970s.
In a statement from Design Partnership’s website:
“People’s Park Complex became Singapore’s first multi-use building with shopping, residential, offices and car parking facilities within a single structure. It is programmatically divided into two realms: a public retail and commercial podium for shops and businesses at ground level, and a private residential zone in the tower above.”
Better known as Zhen Zhu Fang to the older Chinese generation in Singapore, the Chinese characters, 珍珠坊, are clearly imprinted on the narrow façade facing Eu Tong Sen Street. People’s Park Complex today continues to reflect the vision of a large social living room. It is a public domain just like the old street in Chinatown, where residents of the neighbourhood would gather to socialise, eat, and shop.