People of the Arts | The architectural photographer discusses Singapore’s rapid urban development, the need for conservation and his exhibition in Berlin.

Out with the old; in with the new? Not according to Darren Soh. The Singaporean – renowned for his stunning and unique style of architectural photography – has dedicated his craft towards documenting buildings before they’re up for demolition.

Here, he shares his thoughts on Singapore’s ever-changing urban landscape, the importance of conservation, his photo book that celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Housing Development Board (HDB) and his exhibition in Berlin. 

How did you get started in photography?

Some of the first serious photographs I have ever made was on Singapore’s 25th birthday in 1990. I was only 14 then and had a classmate who was quite well-to-do. His father got a room at the then-Westin Stamford to watch the National Day Parade at the Padang.

I took very terrible fireworks pictures that day, but I also managed to capture the Singapore skyline. 31 years later, those terrible pictures I took are suddenly worth something because they’re historical; they documented a significant milestone in our country.

Those pictures captured a moment that’s past, and I guess it made me realise how important photography is – not just for me – but also for anyone who’s done it for any amount of time.

You can photograph anything in the world. Why buildings?

It’s true. You can photograph anything – your friends; your food; your family; the buildings around you. But everything that you photograph – if you sit on it long enough – becomes important because it documents a time or place that we no longer have.

The photography that I do largely documents buildings that don’t have a chance of being conserved, like Pearl Bank Apartments and countless other condominiums from the 70s and 80s. They don’t make buildings like them these days.

It would make no financial sense whatsoever to recreate them in contemporary times. And that is why I think architectural photography is so important, especially in Singapore. Because we are a country that changes very rapidly. 

Do your personal beliefs in the importance of conservation clash with the commercial work that you do?

As a full-time photographer, I take pictures of new buildings for clients like architects and developers. The documentation work of older buildings that I do, however, is not paid. It’s something that I’m passionate about and do for myself.

I have been told that my day job as an architectural photographer is at odds with my activism to save older buildings. For the sceptics, I have this to say – new buildings will one day become old buildings, and nowhere else does this change happen faster than in Singapore.

And this is what I find most fascinating. Buildings take a lot of resources to build, and resources are finite. No matter how green we say we want to be, all the concrete, steel and glass that you put into building a new building come at an environmental cost. 

And then we have all these older buildings that have already been built. If their original use is no longer relevant in this day and age, what we need then is just someone who’s a bit more imaginative to change the use of these buildings.

What have you learnt about Singapore after taking pictures of its urban landscape all these years?

We build things quickly, pull down things quickly and redevelop just as quickly. It’s not going to stop as it’s one way of driving the economy. If you want to talk about monetary costs, as long as all involved parties do their math properly, they can justify this rapid development. 

To a certain extent, COVID-19 has arrested that pace, but it has only made it slower, not stopped it. Worryingly, the construction of HDB blocks is also delayed. And with incidents like contractors going out of business, there will be further delays.

But these things are just symptomatic of larger issues. With everything going on, you can’t help but wonder, was there really a need for Singapore to be growing at that kind of pace to begin with?

You have a background in sociology. How has that added meaning to the work that you do as a photographer?

My opinions on certain things like conservation or rapid development are framed from a sociological perspective. While they’re not photography-related, I think sociology helps me make sense of the world and informs the photography work that I do.

For many people in Singapore, work is just work; it’s just a means to an end. While I’m in no position to say they are right or wrong, I can’t operate that way. Sociology is like a life skill because it is always there in the background whenever I make decisions about work or take a stand about a public issue.

It’s impossible for me to divorce the world that we live in from the world that I want to work in and derive meaning from. I need to be able to understand, enjoy and feel for what I do, and that is one of the reasons why I ended up photographing buildings, both old and new.

What are some of your favourite buildings to photograph in Singapore? What makes them unique?

Because of the way they’re built, buildings like Pearl Bank Apartments and Golden Mile Complex are some of my favourites. The formality of their architecture lends itself to being photographed.

When I wanted to photograph Golden Mile Complex, I went to the opposite HDB block on Beach Road and got this nice, symmetrical view of it. It has a ninth floor open area which is off-limits to the public, unfortunately.

Pearl Bank, on the other hand, was a bit tricky because it was a private development. But thankfully, I knew people who lived there, so they gave me access to the building in its last days before its closure and demolition.

If you don’t photograph Pearl Bank Apartments from the inside, you can’t really appreciate how amazing the building is. It has a horse-shoe shape, so at one end of the curve, you can see the other end across from you. Nobody makes buildings like that in Singapore anymore.

We heard that you are in the midst of putting together a photography book. Can you tell us more about it?

It’s a book of photographs that I made in conjunction with HDB’s 60th anniversary, although it is an independent effort without HDB’s input. It showcases a thorough, chronological collection of HDB blocks built from 1960 to 2020. There are about 200 buildings that I plan to feature. 

What challenges did you face in putting this photography book together?

I divided the book into three parts: buildings built by HDB between 1960 and 1980; 1980 and 2000; and 2000 and 2020. It was very easy to pinpoint the significant ones built between the 60s and 80s because there aren’t that many.

But after the 80s, the volume of buildings being built suddenly amplified. And not everything was documented in the newspapers or HDB annual reports, so there was very little info on certain buildings.

I had to research and track down these buildings to determine if they were important or interesting enough to be in the book. I’ve already photographed most – if not all – of the 200 buildings. Some of the images from the book actually went to a show in Berlin. 

What was your exhibition in Berlin about?

The exhibition was called “Housing Modernities”, and part of it showcased our local housing work. In 1960, Singapore was plagued by a severe shortage of proper housing for its people, and the HDB was set up to deal with this, a mission which they have succeeded with flying colours.

The other part of the exhibition showcased modernist buildings. Modernist buildings built in the early independent years of Singapore had their form largely driven by function. It’s interesting how in the 60s and 70s, Singapore made these no-nonsense buildings that had minimal to zero embellishments.

The curators in Germany wanted pictures of iconic modernist buildings from Singapore, so I shared pictures of Pearl Bank Apartments and Golden Mile Complex that I’ve kept in my archives.

What do you hope audiences in Germany understand about Singapore through your photos?

I wanted to show that there are parallels between Singapore and Berlin. Public housing is very important in Berlin too, and I think the Germans are very interested in our housing programme because the HDB has done such a good job.

It’s not perfect. There are still issues of rising costs. And in comparison to Germany, rental is still considered taboo in a country that prioritises home ownership and sees renting as a temporary measure towards buying a property.

In fact, in many countries, public housing programmes are shams, failures and ghettos. HDB has – by and large – done a great job in housing Singaporeans these past 61 years. And now, more people outside of Singapore can see that through my photographs.

Interview by: Arman Shah