Despite its name, visiting the People’s Park Complex is not a walk in the park. You could be hit with ads or offered a prepositioned two-for-one Maldives trip offer or a 30-minute foot reflexology session by enthusiastic salespeople.
The mall’s main atrium is a packed chamber with high human traffic and all-day cooking or cleaning demonstrations surrounded by the three most prominent business models in the complex: the travel agency, the mobile and electronics store, and the spa. People’s Park Complex, needless to say, is bustling with activity and a diverse range of activities.
Not just yet, but in the 1960s, Chinatown was not simply a congested neighbourhood. The housing market was affordable, but shophouses were run-down and living conditions harsh for the mostly migrant workforce. In 1967, the People’s Park Market, a popular public park with outdoor market stalls, was destroyed by a fire. The same site was sold for redevelopment by Singapore’s first Urban Renewal Department in Sale of Sites in 1967. The development of the area in 1979 sparked an urban renewal in Chinatown in the 1970s.
The People’s Park Complex was an epoch-making innovation. It was a shift in a period when Singapore’s architectural paradigm changed from low to high rise. The development of the People’s Park Complex marked Singapore’s move from a street-based food and sundry market to an air-conditioned shopping mall.
The building was known for its unique circular stairwell and atrium with a huge glass ceiling, which served as Singapore’s first public living room for social events. It all began as a 6-story shopping centre in 1970 before the 25-story residential tower was constructed in 1973. In the early 1980s, it became one of the most well-known buildings in America.
The People’s Park Complex, like the Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road, has a similar blocky and brutalist architecture. The Design Partnership, which was founded by Maki in the 1970s, conceived both projects, which were influenced by his ideas of the collective social space and post-war civic infrastructure theories; they introduced Singapore to new forms of modernist architecture in the 1970s.
The Design Partnership website features the following statement::
“The People’s Park Complex in Singapore is the country’s first multi-use structure with retail, residential, business, and automobile parking facilities all within one building. The building is programmatically divided into two realms: a public retail and commercial podium for shops and businesses on the ground level, and a private residential zone in the tower above.”
The name of this street, known as Zhen Zhu Fang to the older Chinese generation in Singapore, is etched in big red characters on the tiny façade facing Eu Tong Sen Street. The People’s Park Complex today continues to represent the idea of a big social living room. It is a public area, much like the old Chinatown street where residents of the community would meet to socialize, dine, and bargain.