March 3, 2007

That Batman building

The Art Deco-style Parkview Square looks like the Caped Crusader's lair. But it really was the brainchild of the late Taiwanese tycoon C.S. Hwang

By Calvin Low, urbanscrawl

WINGED GLORY: A golden crane in the building's forecourt faces north, a sign of Mr Hwang's dedication to his Chinese homeland. -- CHYAU FWU GROUP

SWANSONG: The majestic Parkview Square was Mr Hwang's last major project here.

HEIGHT OF FANTASY: Wine bottles at the lobby bar are stacked all the way to the 15m-high ceiling. To retrieve them, staff have to be lifted by a mechanical rope.

BIG ON FINERY: The Art Deco spirit of intricate detailing and gorgeous finishing is very much present in Parkview Square's public areas.

EVERY now and then in the history of cities, an individual has a building constructed to stamp his mark on the metropolis - and the public takes notice. Parkview Square is one such example in Singapore.

To the chagrin of architectural purists, this imposing structure, completed in 2002, has captured the imagination of Singaporeans and visitors with its uncompromising Art Deco style.

The building is the brainchild not of the architect but the owner, the late Mr C. S. Hwang, chairman of the Chyau Fwu Group.

How did the Taiwanese tycoon, working with American designer James Adams, come up with a building whose closest cousins are the great 1920s Art Deco skyscrapers in New York - the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center?

Art Deco features sweeping, stylised lines, immaculate detailing and fine craftsmanship, and an affinity for sculptural ornamentation.

'We did not start off having Art Deco in mind,' said Adams on a recent visit here, noting that he had presented 16 different architectural schemes to Hwang.

Calling Parkview Square the tycoon's 'iconic build', he said: 'The eventual decision to go Art Deco came about as the design evolved and he found it best expressed his vision for this building - imposing and monumental, yet stylish and elegant - not unlike the Art Deco buildings he had also observed in Shanghai.

Eddie Chow, a senior executive at Chyau Fwu, said: 'Mr Hwang knew that this was going to be his last major project. So he wanted it to be iconic, something to leave to future generations.'

And so contemporary architectural convention was challenged in the way the $88- million office tower took shape - from the intricate handcrafted details of the 15m-high ceiling in the lobby to the eight gigantic fibreglass 'powermen' crowning the building, reminiscent of those guarding the entrance to the 1919 Helsinki Central railway station.

Despite its period garb, the building's intelligent office floor offers a large column-free floor plate of 1,500 sq m. And, though a 24-storey building, it stands 144m tall, maxing out on the permissible height. This meant greater floor-to-floor heights of 4.75m, and higher construction and running costs.

Though the take-up rate was slow initially, Parkview Square is today fully occupied.

As an urban entity, its elevated walled forecourt offers an oasis of calm just a few steps above the busy sidewalk of North Bridge Road. Occupying the centre of this elevated plaza is a stylised statue of a golden crane.

The Chinese characters of this symbol of longevity spell the chairman's name. The crane faces north, signifying his abiding feelings for his Chinese homeland.

Surrounding this central figure are statues of great historical figures including Sun Yat Sen, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Chopin and Isaac Newton, nestled amid landscaped greenery.

If the name of Parkview Square's designer doesn't quite roll off the tongue, this is perhaps intentional. For Adams is in the business of 'ego architecture' - the critical difference being that the ego in question is not his, but the owner's.

Thus, Adams is the opposite of the 'starchitect' whose calling card is his forceful personal style or sensibility. Indeed, in addition to Adams, Hwang had approached one such 'starchitect', Norman Foster, for Parkview Square.

But given his penchant for personal participation, Hwang's choice was clear.

Adam's oeuvre - including casinos, resorts and private homes - reflects his 'egolessness'.

Still, this attitude doesn't mean the designs are weak. Parkview Square is no dumb steel and glass box. Its design provokes reaction, good or bad. The building has carved for itself a niche in Singapore's urban consciousness, as verified by the affectionate moniker it has earned since its opening: the 'Batman Building' or 'Gotham City'.

And, in case you've been wondering, Adams is no fan of the Dynamic Duo.

Calvin Low is trained both in architecture and journalism. He expresses his own views in this column.

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