We built a city within a city

16 July 2018

Photo: Timestoodstillsg/Shutterstock.com

Seventeen years in the making, Raffles City was the largest commercial development built in Singapore when it opened in 1986.

The complex’s 73-storey Westin Stamford hotel was then the tallest such structure in the world, and Raffles City Convention Centre was the largest convention centre in Singapore.

Lau Chan Sin, who was a Senior Vice President at DBS then, shared his memories of building “a city within a city” in DBS’ 20th anniversary Banknotes. His story is reproduced here.

On top of the world

I am told that on a clear day, standing on top of the world’s tallest hotel at 226 metres above sea-level, one can see for miles.

But the ground on which one stands at that height should impress upon visitors more than just the panoramic view it offers, for below them spans a beautiful modern “city” within a city, which to me will always evoke vivid pictures of a great challenge.

So great was that challenge that it took its owners 10 years to plan and study the construction of Raffles City, waiting for the correct moment, given prevailing economic conditions in the construction and hotel industries, to go ahead with it.

By that time, the “city” had undergone many changes as to what was to go into it to bring life back to the city, especially after office hours. At one time, there was even a residential component to it.

Eventually we decided on a hotel-shopping-office complex. It was the single largest commercial development ever undertaken in Singapore when we announced the decision to proceed with the plan.

Raffles City is a very unique complex. After more than a year of excavation of 300 cubic metres of soil and boulders, construction finally began in October 1981.

There was no piling work as is normally done for the foundation of tall buildings. Instead, based on recommendations following soil tests, the main structures of Raffles City, i.e. the two hotels and the office tower, sit on large and thick reinforced concrete slabs called mat or raft foundations.

And because the load was different for the hotel, shopping and office portions, the size of the mat was different. Great care had to be taken in our calculations to allow for settlement of the various mats so that the foundation would be even.

That’s to give you an idea of the involved nature of the work that went into the building of the complex.

The pouring of this mat was critical as it had to be done in a continuous pour which, because of the size of the development, required a good number of days. You can imagine the amount of concrete required. We even had to arrange for a batching plant to be set up nearby to ensure a continuous supply.

The other unique element about Raffles City is the aluminium plating. Unlike conventional whitewash or tiles which are cheaper, we chose aluminium because it was comparatively lightweight and therefore would contribute less load on the foundation.

It is also cheaper to maintain and gives the buildings a light feel which was important because of the built-up nature of the complex. Mr I. M. Pei, the architect, had a major influence on the decision.

It took about five years to complete the whole project which had to be done in several phases as it was so massive. So while we were, say, working on the basement, the working drawings for the upper floors were still being developed.

Time was of great importance. A slight delay meant additional costs. Liquidated damages during the peak period could add up to SGD 250,000 a day for the contractor. This had a bearing on us too, for if we held up the construction team, we ourselves would be liable for the penalty. So that was the most difficult task, in seeing that so many people from different cultures and backgrounds came together and worked as a team.

Perhaps a less crucial but no less important task was naming the complex.

Originally, we had thought of “Raffles International Centre”. But one day, as I was talking with Executive Vice President Lim Yong Wah about how big the complex was, almost like a city, the inspiration came.

There it was, exclaimed Yong Wah who aptly christened the place, “Raffles City”.

Raffles Hotel was, and is, just across the street, so we had a little trouble naming the hotels after the complex. In the end, then-President Chua Kim Yeow decided that the hotels could be named after its operator for the goodwill the Westin name commanded.

And so originated the two names, “Westin Plaza”, as the Plaza name is affixed to the more prestigious Westin hotels in the States, and “Westin Stamford” which was along Stamford Road. As for the office tower, we simply chose “Raffles City Tower”.

Yes, it was a very exciting time for us, especially at the end of it when the structures were all up, in their majestic splendour, you could not help but feel you had made a mark in history, or at least Guinness Book history, that standing on the tallest hotel in the world (we have yet to be overtaken) you had good reason to feel on top of the world.

Lau Chan Sin joined DBS in 1969 and retired from the bank in 2000. His last-held position was Senior Managing Director. During his tenure at the bank, he oversaw a wide range of operations. He was also Chairman of DBS Land from 1996 to 2000, during which, he oversaw its growth into a major property player.