The bigger picture

Sharon Tan explains how her studies in urban planning led her to open an arthouse cinema in a Brutalist tower block in Singapore

Sharon Tan UCL Alumni, sits on a row of chairs at her arthouse cinema in a Brutalist tower block in Singapore

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

I left home in Singapore for the Bartlett because I figured that if you’re going to study urban planning, you should do it in a big city. And I really wanted to be in London. Gentrification was the catchword back then and walking around the city, I found that people had so much to say about where they lived.

I also spent a lot of time at the cinema, especially the Renoir in the basement of the then-soon-to-be-regenerated Brunswick Centre. I loved its Brutalist architecture and the tickets were cheap, too. In class, my lecturer, Mark Tewdwr-Jones, was further feeding my appetite for films. As well as being a great storyteller who could bring the most boring topics to life, Mark would organise screenings for UCL’s Urban Laboratory. Whether showing Fritz Lang’s M or a John Betjeman documentary, there would always be a speech and Q&A afterwards.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

I left home in Singapore for the Bartlett because I figured that if you’re going to study urban planning, you should do it in a big city. And I really wanted to be in London. Gentrification was the catchword back then and walking around the city, I found that people had so much to say about where they lived.

I also spent a lot of time at the cinema, especially the Renoir in the basement of the then-soon-to-be-regenerated Brunswick Centre. I loved its Brutalist architecture and the tickets were cheap, too. In class, my lecturer, Mark Tewdwr-Jones, was further feeding my appetite for films. As well as being a great storyteller who could bring the most boring topics to life, Mark would organise screenings for UCL’s Urban Laboratory. Whether showing Fritz Lang’s M or a John Betjeman documentary, there would always be a speech and Q&A afterwards.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

I left home in Singapore for the Bartlett because I figured that if you’re going to study urban planning, you should do it in a big city. And I really wanted to be in London. Gentrification was the catchword back then and walking around the city, I found that people had so much to say about where they lived.

I also spent a lot of time at the cinema, especially the Renoir in the basement of the then-soon-to-be-regenerated Brunswick Centre. I loved its Brutalist architecture and the tickets were cheap, too. In class, my lecturer, Mark Tewdwr-Jones, was further feeding my appetite for films. As well as being a great storyteller who could bring the most boring topics to life, Mark would organise screenings for UCL’s Urban Laboratory. Whether showing Fritz Lang’s M or a John Betjeman documentary, there would always be a speech and Q&A afterwards.

Sharon New

After graduating, I returned to Singapore to work for the government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It was a soul-crushing experience – far too regulatory for a young, idealistic planner. So I quit and returned to the Bartlett to do my Master’s, and this time, I volunteered with the community charity Groundwork. Working on estate projects in east London, I gained a much deeper insight into how people felt about their surroundings and were affected by them.

After graduating, I returned to Singapore to work for the government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It was a soul-crushing experience – far too regulatory for a young, idealistic planner. So I quit and returned to the Bartlett to do my Master’s, and this time, I volunteered with the community charity Groundwork. Working on estate projects in east London, I gained a much deeper insight into how people felt about their surroundings and were affected by them.

After graduating, I returned to Singapore to work for the government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It was a soul-crushing experience – far too regulatory for a young, idealistic planner. So I quit and returned to the Bartlett to do my Master’s, and this time, I volunteered with the community charity Groundwork. Working on estate projects in east London, I gained a much deeper insight into how people felt about their surroundings and were affected by them.

Back in Singapore with these experiences still fresh in my mind, I returned to the URA and joined a team that worked to raise public awareness and appreciation of architecture and urban design. After four years, I joined my big sister Karen and her business partner Blaise Trigg-Smith in their niche development company, Pocket Projects.

Building projects in Singapore are challenging.

Land prices are high and landowners are risk-averse. When they buy a piece of land, they don’t care so much about the existing architecture, just the value of the plot and how much they can build on it. So we were amazed when our pitch to lease and revitalise a forgotten cinema in a 1970s tower block was accepted by the owner.

We called it The Projector and it became a place for me to test out all the hunches I’d developed about places, buildings and people, and how storytelling could tie them all together.

Back in Singapore with these experiences still fresh in my mind, I returned to the URA and joined a team that worked to raise public awareness and appreciation of architecture and urban design. After four years, I joined my big sister Karen and her business partner Blaise Trigg-Smith in their niche development company, Pocket Projects.

Building projects in Singapore are challenging.

Land prices are high and landowners are risk-averse. When they buy a piece of land, they don’t care so much about the existing architecture, just the value of the plot and how much they can build on it. So we were amazed when our pitch to lease and revitalise a forgotten cinema in a 1970s tower block was accepted by the owner.

We called it The Projector and it became a place for me to test out all the hunches I’d developed about places, buildings and people, and how storytelling could tie them all together.

Back in Singapore with these experiences still fresh in my mind, I returned to the URA and joined a team that worked to raise public awareness and appreciation of architecture and urban design. After four years, I joined my big sister Karen and her business partner Blaise Trigg-Smith in their niche development company, Pocket Projects.

Building projects in Singapore are challenging.

Land prices are high and landowners are risk-averse. When they buy a piece of land, they don’t care so much about the existing architecture, just the value of the plot and how much they can build on it. So we were amazed when our pitch to lease and revitalise a forgotten cinema in a 1970s tower block was accepted by the owner.

We called it The Projector and it became a place for me to test out all the hunches I’d developed about places, buildings and people, and how storytelling could tie them all together.

Collage showing the interior of the arthouse cinema in a Brutalist tower block in Singapore

The rough and the smooth: The Projector’s interiors embrace the Brutalist architecture of its home in the iconic yellow-painted Golden Mile Tower on Singapore’s Beach Road

The rough and the smooth: The Projector’s interiors embrace the Brutalist architecture of its home in the iconic yellow-painted Golden Mile Tower on Singapore’s Beach Road

The rough and the smooth: The Projector’s interiors embrace the Brutalist architecture of its home in the iconic yellow-painted Golden Mile Tower on Singapore’s Beach Road

By 2012, the last few arthouse screens in Singapore had closed. We suspected that there was still a demand, so we decided to have a go at crowdfunding for The Projector. The public’s response propelled us forward because they really wanted to be a part of it. People didn’t just pledge money; they pitched in with whatever help and skills they could offer. It became a fantastic community-participation project that practically buzzed with energy.

Naysayers said we’d fail because the area was sleazy and rundown (which it still is), but that only added to the cinema’s alternative vibe. In fact, its location was an added opportunity to help people to appreciate the country’s more recent past.

While Singaporeans value the architectural heritage of traditional shop-houses built in colonial days, they tend to be ambivalent about the country’s modernist period. With The Projector, audiences get to experience Brutalism from the inside. Stepping into its vast concrete spaces, they feel a wow factor that no modern multiplex could match.

By 2012, the last few arthouse screens in Singapore had closed. We suspected that there was still a demand, so we decided to have a go at crowdfunding for The Projector. The public’s response propelled us forward because they really wanted to be a part of it. People didn’t just pledge money; they pitched in with whatever help and skills they could offer. It became a fantastic community-participation project that practically buzzed with energy.

Naysayers said we’d fail because the area was sleazy and rundown (which it still is), but that only added to the cinema’s alternative vibe. In fact, its location was an added opportunity to help people to appreciate the country’s more recent past.

While Singaporeans value the architectural heritage of traditional shop-houses built in colonial days, they tend to be ambivalent about the country’s modernist period. With The Projector, audiences get to experience Brutalism from the inside. Stepping into its vast concrete spaces, they feel a wow factor that no modern multiplex could match.

By 2012, the last few arthouse screens in Singapore had closed. We suspected that there was still a demand, so we decided to have a go at crowdfunding for The Projector. The public’s response propelled us forward because they really wanted to be a part of it. People didn’t just pledge money; they pitched in with whatever help and skills they could offer. It became a fantastic community-participation project that practically buzzed with energy.

Naysayers said we’d fail because the area was sleazy and rundown (which it still is), but that only added to the cinema’s alternative vibe. In fact, its location was an added opportunity to help people to appreciate the country’s more recent past.

While Singaporeans value the architectural heritage of traditional shop-houses built in colonial days, they tend to be ambivalent about the country’s modernist period. With The Projector, audiences get to experience Brutalism from the inside. Stepping into its vast concrete spaces, they feel a wow factor that no modern multiplex could match.

CENSORSHIP

R21-rated films (for audiences over 21) can only be shown in theatres in Singapore’s city centre, and that means paying city rents, with tickets priced accordingly. Everything we screen must also be cleared with the censorship board. By fostering a good relationship with them, The Projector has been at the forefront of pushing the government’s censorship policies little by little.

CENSORSHIP

R21-rated films (for audiences over 21) can only be shown in theatres in Singapore’s city centre, and that means paying city rents, with tickets priced accordingly. Everything we screen must also be cleared with the censorship board. By fostering a good relationship with them, The Projector has been at the forefront of pushing the government’s censorship policies little by little.

CENSORSHIP

R21-rated films (for audiences over 21) can only be shown in theatres in Singapore’s city centre, and that means paying city rents, with tickets priced accordingly. Everything we screen must also be cleared with the censorship board. By fostering a good relationship with them, The Projector has been at the forefront of pushing the government’s censorship policies little by little.

Ever since we opened The Projector in 2014, we knew that it was at risk of en bloc sale (where an entire property development, including the land, is sold to a single buyer who typically demolishes and rebuilds). We gave the project about five years, and that sale is still on the cards. As Singaporeans, we are pragmatic that everything is transient and the building will inevitably be replaced with yet another shiny glass block.

In the meantime, The Projector’s success has been to show people that you can come to love an old building that you didn’t really care about. And our screenings are not just full of young professionals and hipsters, but students, pensioners and expats, too. It’s that diversity and inclusiveness, bringing everyone together, that’s made it such a special place.

Learn more about The Projector

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Ever since we opened The Projector in 2014, we knew that it was at risk of en bloc sale (where an entire property development, including the land, is sold to a single buyer who typically demolishes and rebuilds). We gave the project about five years, and that sale is still on the cards. As Singaporeans, we are pragmatic that everything is transient and the building will inevitably be replaced with yet another shiny glass block.

In the meantime, The Projector’s success has been to show people that you can come to love an old building that you didn’t really care about. And our screenings are not just full of young professionals and hipsters, but students, pensioners and expats, too. It’s that diversity and inclusiveness, bringing everyone together, that’s made it such a special place.

Learn more about The Projector

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Ever since we opened The Projector in 2014, we knew that it was at risk of en bloc sale (where an entire property development, including the land, is sold to a single buyer who typically demolishes and rebuilds). We gave the project about five years, and that sale is still on the cards. As Singaporeans, we are pragmatic that everything is transient and the building will inevitably be replaced with yet another shiny glass block.

In the meantime, The Projector’s success has been to show people that you can come to love an old building that you didn’t really care about. And our screenings are not just full of young professionals and hipsters, but students, pensioners and expats, too. It’s that diversity and inclusiveness, bringing everyone together, that’s made it such a special place.

Learn more about The Projector

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.