Darren SOH

A sociologist by training, Darren SOH originally intended to become an academic, but after he began working as a photographer in 2001, he started using photography as a way to understand the world.

Darren’s personal works are an extension of his curiosity about how we live and the spaces we create as well as leave behind. His works are collected by public institutions such as the National Museum of Singapore, as well as numerous private collectors. He is also one of the cofounders of PLATFORM, which originated and drove the TwentyFifteen.sg initiative, and a founding member of the National Youth Achievement Award Young Photographers Network (NYAA YPN).

For work, Darren mostly photographs new pieces of architecture, but he leads a double life documenting places and spaces that are in danger of disappearing. He has a particular obsession with modernist and vernacular architecture that are deemed too banal or insignificant to be noticed.

Darren counts himself lucky that his very first home is still standing and not (yet) demolished.

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Before It All Goes

2008 (ongoing)

“There are over 7,000 conserved buildings in Singapore, the majority of which are shophouses and colonial buildings. Of all these conserved buildings, fewer than 15 were built after Singapore gained independence in 1965. None of the 15 are privately-held commercial or residential buildings. Hardly a day goes by when we do not read of a condominium or mixed-use complex being put up for collective sale. This recent ‘en bloc fever’, heated up to levels not seen since 2008, puts many modernist buildings at risk, since demolition and redevelopment is usually the norm for properties sold this way. Because none of the commercial or residential buildings built after 1965 are conserved, the developers who purchase them in a collective sale have no obligation to rehabilitate or refurbish the buildings. In fact, it would make little economic sense for them to do so since many of these structures, now 30 to 50 years old, are not maximising the current plots on which they sit and may need extensive work to bring them up to today’s building standards—work which would likely cost more than tearing them down and rebuilding from scratch. As a result, Singapore has already lost many buildings that define the architecture and building styles of a time past. The younger generation is unlikely to be familiar with names like Ardmore Habitat, Beverly Mai, Futura Apartments and Hilltops, but these were all architecturally important private residential condominiums that were collectively sold through an en bloc exercise, demolished and then redeveloped. All we have left of these buildings are memories and photographs. This year alone (and it is only July), Pearl Bank Apartments (built 1976) has been collectively sold after three previous unsuccessful attempts, while Golden Mile Tower, Golden Mile Complex (both built in 1974) and People’s Park Complex (built 1970) have all had en bloc committees formed by their owners to start the process for a potential collective sale. We cannot conserve all buildings, of course, but the fact that we are systematically dismantling buildings from Singapore’s early years of independence, from the 1960s to the 1970s, is cause for concern. These buildings may not stand out today or mean very much to the general public, but they were all built when Singapore was finding its footing in the international arena as a new nation and embarked on a massive building spree in its bid to become a First World global city. These modernist mega-structures pushed the boundaries of what could be built back then and were really one-of-a-kind for that era. Some of them, like People’s Park Complex, embodied the Metabolist movement of encapsulating an entire city in one mega-structure, which was all the rage in post-war Japan. Fumihiko Maki, one of Japan’s most respected and successful architects, famously said while visiting the Complex’s construction, “But we theorised and you people are getting it built!” Other buildings, like Pearl Bank Apartments, have such a unique interlocking system of split-level units that nobody else has been able to replicate it since. Mostly designed by Singaporean architects like Tay Kheng Soon and Tan Cheng Siong, who were among the first group of locally-trained architects, these buildings represented the hopes and dreams of the newly minted Singapore. To tear them down now would be tantamount to ripping these dreams and aspirations apart. Before it all goes, perhaps we should reconsider their place in today’s urban landscape and not wait until it is too late.”

Darren Soh
July 2018