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Check out Singapore's modernist architecture at this exhibition

"Form follows function" and "less is more" are some tenets of modern architecture, a style that is ubiquitous in Singapore's housing block-dominated cityscape.

The island's modern buildings - constructed between the 1920s and early 1980s - have an aesthetic value that can be easy to overlook.

"Modern architecture is a bit harder for the layman to appreciate because it is so common. It is easier to like an ornate colonial-era building with flowery capitals and beautiful stonework," says Mr Ho Weng Hin, a founding partner of the architectural conservation specialist consultancy Studio Lapis.

But there is a poetry to its pragmatism, which he hopes more people will appreciate.

He has curated an exhibition of images of modern buildings by the late photographer Jeremy San.

One of the 14 prints on display at Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Film features the former Royal Malayan Navy flats in Woodlands, with a 12-storey-tall wall decked with square mosaics in a modern interpretation of ethnic weaving patterns.

Another is of the Singapore General Hospital Vicker's Block and Sisters' Walkway, which were constructed by the Public Works Department between 1951 and 1960 and demolished in 2016. The walkway, made of porous walls of fair-faced brick, shielded the nurses, many of whom were nuns, from view as they walked in and out of the hospital.
 
San, an interior designer by training, died from an illness in 2013 at the age of 36. He was a perfectionist who would often return to the same building at different times of the day to capture it in a different light.

Even though most of his images have no people in them, the human presence is palpable. And they often give viewers the impression they are standing there themselves.

Mr Ho recalls: "He wanted to use his photos to capture the present, and what (the building) meant - what it symbolised - when it was first completed," adds the adjunct senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore's architecture department, who feels more attention should be paid to the mixed-use commercial buildings borne from the can-do spirit of nation building from 1965 to 1975.

The buildings in the exhibition were completed from the 1930s to early 1980s, and photographed by San between 2003 and 2013 for the publication, Our Modern Past: A Visual Survey Of Singapore Architecture (2015), which Mr Ho co-authored.

Nearly a third of the buildings in the show have been demolished. They include the Pearl Bank Apartments in Outram, which is now being torn down. It used to provide homes for the middle class when it was completed in 1976 and was known for its unique C shape and interlocking split-level spaces.

Others, such as the pre-war Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru and the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Queenstown - completed by Iversen van Sitteren & Partners in 1965 with a tent-shaped slate roof - have conservation status.

Objectifs' manager Chelsea Chua, who curated the show with Mr Ho, adds: "There's this incredible romanticism to Jeremy's work. When I look at these photos, the form is very austere, but the way he's captured the light and composed the photo exudes a warmth and human presence that is very beautiful."

The photos are displayed as part of bauhaus imaginista x singapore, an exhibition initiated by the Goethe-Institut Singapore to mark the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus.

It also features a travelling exhibition shedding light on the international legacy of Bauhaus - the influential German school of art, design and architecture that emerged between the two World Wars.

The buildings in San's photos were not designed by architects trained in the Bauhaus school. However, their "honest functional expression, minimal ornamentation and experimental use of materials" are qualities that are also associated with Bauhaus, one of the major proponents of modernist architecture, says Mr Ho.

Another goal of Bauhaus was to make excellent design accessible to everyone - a philosophy that chimes with the modern idea of social and mass housing. Mr Ho says: "Singapore has an ambitious and successful mass housing programme. We can relate that kind of ambition with the social idealism of the movement."

WHERE: Chapel Gallery, Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Film, 155 Middle Road

WHEN: Till Dec 21; noon to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays, closes at 4pm on Sundays); closed on Mondays and public holidays

ADMISSION: Free

For more information, please visit here.

Originally written by Toh Wen Li for The Straits Times.

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