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Chung Khiaw Bank

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

In 1968, I.M. Pei was asked to design a new headquarters for Chung Khiaw Bank. It was the first of many nation-building projects that he would undertake for Singapore in the years following its independence from Malaysia. The architect was not well known at the time, but his father had a strong reputation in the banking world and the Pei name, unusual even in China, was recognized and warmly received. The client, Lee Chee San, was heir to the Tiger Balm ointment fortune and “president for life” of the family-held bank.

The site was ideally located in the Golden Shoe center of commerce on an irregularly shaped parcel overlooking the Singapore River; the government envisioned development as a riverfront park. Reminiscent of a lighthouse at the tip of the Singapore River Basin, the 32-story tower was a rare modern landmark in this part of the world, seeding the future skyline but respectful of the small-scale tile-roofed shophouses on the ground. Pei argued against their tabula rasa demolition as the vernacular buildings were Singapore’s only native architectural expression.

Formally, the tower grew out of Pei’s unexecuted scheme for Pan-Pacific Center but shaped here as a pentagon to better fit the site’s contours. The board-formed architectural concrete structure rests on five diamond-shaped piers, measuring 5 feet on each side. The ground floor is occupied by a 26-foot-high banking hall enclosed by huge clear glass window walls (65′ x 26′) without vertical frames, offering unobstructed views in all directions. Above, prestressed concrete spandrel girders stretch 65 feet from corner to corner to create column-free, maximally flexible interior spaces. The structural system had the considerable benefit of reducing construction time by nearly one-third; Pei was concerned to facilitate the process to the greatest degree possible as there was no local experience in building high-rises.


Site plan; OCBC at left / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

In November 1971, with a complete set of working drawings in hand, the project was put on hold as Chung Khiaw was involved in a hostile takeover and became a subsidiary of United Overseas Bank. Lee Chee San no longer had any need for a new headquarters. Pei shifted his focus to the design of OCBC, a larger banking competitor which, improbably, had also commissioned Pei to design its new headquarters right across the street in the preceding year. Separately, the pentagonal tower saw new life in the Baltimore World Trade Center, which was retooled by Pei’s partner, Henry Cobb, in association with Pershing Wong who had played a leading role in Chung Khiaw’s design.

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Pershing Wong, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners