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Day 5: Singapore Songlines Book Sleeve Through Singapore Songlines, the infamous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, plunges the reader straight to the core of the extraordinary journey that the ‘first semiotic state’ has taken over the last 30 years. This short book maps the astonishing transformation, from an almost complete state of tabula rasa (where almost all traces of history had been erased) to a state whose rate of yearly development is still unparalleled. Singapore’s state of hypermodernity is contextualized. The sheer magnitude of this story of frantic urban development is translated through the urgency and pace of Koolhaas’s writing. As the most important passage between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean, Singapore has been criticized as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ a country’s who’s state of urban renewal has been compared to warfare; ‘a pertinent can - do world of clearly defined ambitions, long-term strategies, a ruthless determination to avoid the debris and chaos that democracy leaves in its wake elsewhere. ’ And it is these aspects that have been wonderfully juxtaposed by what Koolhaas describes as Singapore’s mythological construction – a small, threatened state, constantly under the crippling pressure of its own land constraints, where the ghosts of all things historical have been annihilated in exchange for the fatal attraction to the new. With its “brand new” traditional streets, Koolhaas comments on Singapore’s seeming ability to produce blandness and sterility out of even the most promising ingredients, it’s moving belts to shift masses of pedestrians, controlled by CCTV cameras glaring down on every restaurant table, entirely depersonalised– these aspects are laid bare and recorded with a sense of honesty - Singapore shows these aspects with pride not shame. Koolhaas, clearly exemplifies the process of what has (and can happen) when all liberties have been suspended for control, and when the plan or urban renewal is intended to be an exercise in which restoration and conservation have no part. In return for the “unlimited” benefits that come with riding the biggest rollercoaster development has ever seen, which, after 30 years is only increasing in momentum: Singapore Songlines is worth the (at times strenuous) ride. -M. Audisio


Caitlin Daly Day 5: Design Politics of a City

What physical form does government take? How does a nation, or city, begin to assert power and control? In the case of Singapore, once the island gained its independence from Britain, these questions encompassed a definitive aspect of the post-colonial challenge. Embracing an idea of conformity, immersed in contradiction the Asian city is a place full of challenges. Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, projects the process of this transformation through the redevelopment (or arguably development) of the city of Singapore in his essay Singapore Songlines. As this essay exemplifies, the city in its physical form is as much a written record of the political, social, and cultural struggles as textual documents, and is subject to incessant interpretation. Through this lens of analysis, our egocentric European worldview that unequivocally insists that we know what a city is, is confronted by a city that considers itself as endlessly malleable. Every society tends towards defining the world in their terms, and endless we are confronted with the obstacle of creating a connection with something that is 'foreign' to us, as with Koolhaas's constant reiteration, near mantra, of this 'Asian' city. Yet, by objectively analysing the built environment and the process of its creation, Koolhaas has formed a connection between two cultures, as tenuous or obstinate though they may be. The pragmatism of an authoritative totalitarian-based government that utilizes a philosophical understanding of culture might be a 'foreign' concept to the modern western educated individual; however, by the assertion of our understanding on this way of constructing a city we begin to indicate the potential interactions between these two cultures. A city, as banal and commonplace as it might seem, is fundament to every society, and to understand, define, and challenge our shortcomings in the expression of a city that is contrary to our own culture will define our abilities to interact on every level.


On Dreaming Tracks “As the notion of the West becomes increasingly enfeebled, “we” will always remain in posession of our ultimate weapon, the power of irony. A disproportionate amount of it is aimed at this territorially mini-Sparta.” Almost all of Singapore is less than half a century old; the examination of the city-state, Singapore Songlines by Rem (Pritzker Prize) Koolhaas, has by now clocked up almost twenty years. It was first published in the influential book, compilation, artwork, status-symbol S,M,L,XL in 1995 – in many ways constituting a more particular and specific counterpart to Rem‘s seminal text The Generic City. As indicated by the title, the Songlines do not attempt to establish a general argument, but rather to discern the traces and implications of the formation of a metropolis in a place where shortly before there was nothing but “shabby military bases, a port, embedded in a huge, overcrowded Chinatown with a neglected hinterland of marsh.” To summarize the overall chronological storyline a couple of chapter titles should suffice: UN Mission, Tabula Rasa, Architectural Context, Singapore Planning and Research Group, Metabolism on Beach Road. Through his elaboration of the city-states‘s architectural formation Rem argues that – despite the short timespan – Singapore does indeed have a history. While conceding that it is “a city without qualities,” built from scratch in a swift and remorseless (radical, drastic, brutal, apocalyptic in his words) operation, he argues that precisely this absence of character actually constitutes an architectural style in itself, that of the non-specific, the generic. Rem asserts that this style is popular amongst both inhabitants and investors and his “portrait of a Potemkin metropolis” does not attempt to socially, artistically or morally evaluate this condition. Rather, what seems to matter to him is that Singapore has established itself as an urban “laboratory,” exporting a new urbanistic and architectural approach to cities around the world – including those of the “enfeebled” West. Almost two decades later it has become obvious that Rem had a point, and it seems that, both in relation to the text and the condition described therein, “our retrospective knowledge of its effects” makes a reading of the text all the more thought-provoking – especially in regard to certain aspects of the author‘s own architectural practice. P.S. In 1994 – Koolhaas must have worked on the essay then – his countryman Johannes van Damme was hanged by the city state because drugs were found in his trunk. So much for irony...

Winston Hampel


Trouble in Semantic Paradise (Singapore Songlines - Rem Koolhaas) Maarten Lambrechts

Koolhaas’s text on the Urban Renewal of Singapore operates in many ways just like the “guiding concept” of the project he is describing. There’s no time for the reader to have a moment of critical thought, as he repeatedly warns us for the disadvantages of slow Western democracy. It should be clear that we are to conform, immediately, to the dynamic context of the postEurocentric metropolis , becoming flexible mega-structures ourselves. The standoff between thinking and doing therefore seems to be fixed; with Koolhaas himself driving the bulldozer the word ‘principle’ is immediately countered by ‘flexibility’ within the same sentence, just as ‘understandable’ is by ‘disappointment’. So, how does one deal then with this catch 22 which he presents to the critical reader? Is there a way out of the logic that there’s no critique because it works, and more importantly, it works because there’s no critique? Once we ignore the author’s advice and do take time to re-read, it becomes apparent that even in an “empire of semantics”, be it Singapore’s New Towns or Koolhaas’s writing, it is impossible to completely dismiss ambiguity. Although it is written in the sidelines that there’s no sympathy for the in-between position, we nevertheless are confronted with this notion when metabolist architecture is introduced to the Urban Renewal project. “Weak coherence” is set up by crucial “links”, presenting the in-between as the essence of this architecture. Koolhaas, carelessly, accepts these ideas, and in doing so, I would argue, reveals while pleading for greater moral flexibility his true nature as a radical of the in-between. With this in mind, one is able to detect a certain ambiguity, maybe even critique, in the way “masterpieces”, “planning”, or “tropical excellence” are all deliberately put between quotation marks. Are these the first postmodern cracks detected in Koolhaas’s uncritical project? Trouble in Semantic Paradise? A place where play becomes “total playground”, where island transforms through marketing into “island-ness”. Where all eyes are on expansion, the external image, the metaphor, where it is “all foreground, no background”. In such a place, Koolhaas sees (but does not really alert us) that there’s a risk of unnoticeable rotting from the inside, behind the screens, in the deep center of the project. It is the overwhelming rot which the eight year old Rem found in the harbor of Singapore at the beginning of the text, and it is the same rot that his older version, immediately after that revelation, declares to have disappeared completely.


Marzia Marzorati 14th February 2014 Design by words - Day 5 MA HCT Laboratory on Writing with Fabrizio Gallanti and Marina Lathouri

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AN IMAGINARY SCREENPLAY

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The better you look, the more you see. Rem Koolhaas surely understands it. After all, before embodying a millionaire, fashionable star architect, he used to be ‘just’ a successful writer with a velleity for screenplays. While his few, ill-fated cinematographic efforts are ordained to remain latent from any available radar vision, his literary style has since been corrupted by an extraordinary mixture between proper journalism and visual arts. This is the precise case of ‘Singapore Songlines’: a contemporary, upsetting fairytale that hunts a tiny, overcrowd Asian isle and its visceral, internal demons. While leafing through the pages, however, Singapore gradually becomes just a framework or, even better, the conceptual film set for a more elaborate and refine play. The final clapperboard should subsequently be perceived as nothing else but an extreme, ghostly reconsideration about the primary role of Western civilization in the conception and objectification of physical unrealities. The structure of the essay itself, as published in 1995 on S,M,L,XL, traces again this persuasive, cinematographic mechanism: you can wether decide to read the images, while just smoothly looking at the texts, or to follow a more conventional fruition of the narrative by considering the role of visual materials as purely complementary. The integrated slogans on the upper, right side on each spread, moreover, besides summarizing the underlying theoretical constructs, constantly foment this tacit, evocative process. The entire text is thus released from the gravity of a general, specialized composition, and can be finally enjoyed by a wider audience. As any respectable fairytale, the conclusion leaves a certain space for a feasible redemption, but the expectation of a tangible happy ending is soon prevented by a nauseating feeling: the sudden awareness that we, the Westerners, are more similar to Singapore than we though, and that we have consequently become the no-dramatic antagonist of this story.


Summary : Singapore Songlines By Yanisa Niennattrakul As a sign from an “empire of semantics”, Rem Koolhaas, uses Singapore, a smallest country in the continent, a guinea pig, a miniature model scale 1:100000?,or as a political point code seems to hint, signal and declare to his forthcoming „Asian‟ architectural war of his “New World” of architectural peripheries. Often claimed, “Third world”, an imperceptible border of judgment in standard, is felt to offer an antidote to the sterility of modernization from Western propagandized values of civilization from what “they” think. The emergence of invading of “unspoiled” lands currently territorialized, ironically, includes the author‟s OMA‟s actions as weapon of invading through new game of world capitalism. Like a mirror reflecting back, as „the ass in the lion‟s skin‟, Singapore suffered from the inception loop of controlled western-colonized era, not another finding its „history‟ mission, but this time, trapping in its own cage of self-created westernized illusion of „civilized‟ images, yet identical but far behind. The renewal through utopian dreamtime of remaking a formless hyper-real façade contained only a surface of “we theorized and you people getting it built…”, results in the bipolar states of ambiguity, both itself and conditions:

Hyper-reality of Disneyland/the Death Penalty, Dictatorship/Democracy, Uncivilized/Civilized, Chinese/English Asian/Western, Tropical/Air-conditioned, Free/Unfree, Foreground/ No Background, Form/ Formless We/They

Through process of purification, Singapore, an organ without body, with the search for elimination of ambiguities through metabolism systems of flattening into “an” identity (at once) generates provocative selling points for survival of the fittest world. This immortally blank canvas, together with, the Chinese “hard-selling” instinct, compiles into a surviving-kit rebranding package suitable for accelerating the wheel of consumption for a worship in “newness”. From a “shopping city” to the fresh approach of “garden city”, depicting a Garden of Eden, paradoxically , full of suffering of flatness with threat in “cloning of Singapores” across the mainland, as a new test ground for capitalism war, yet upgrading image, but at last lost their owns, in fact, into no man‟s land.


Design by Words: Laboratory on Writing with Fabrizio Gallanti and Marina Lathouri María José Orihuela, MA History and Critical Thinking. February 2014

Asian After Party: On ‘Singapore Songlines’ by Rem Koolhaas

From a Western standpoint, Rem Koolhaas seeks the origins and  ideologies beyond the built paradigm of asiatic development; the  town-island of Singapore. He examines how ideas that were  originally theorized in the West or at least in Western schools –such  as the ring-city, the tabula rasa or the metabolist architecture– can  find their most faithful realization when married to the asian  anxiety for rapid modernization. Singapore is here presented as  made possible by the cold pragmatism, the unscrupulous approach  and the voluntary ignorance of genuinely Western frictions –like a  respectful concern for history or for careful research before action,  together with a natural aberration for an excess of  authoritarianism. Managed by a regime that has excluded accident  and randomness, Singapore wants to be a model for the Asian City  of Tomorrow, paradoxically enough, by making use of an old  Confucian agenda. Thus, plans are unveiled too late to allow public  participation, because “the people can be made to follow a path but  not to understand it.” The new urban development is a compilation  of architectural doctrines of the sixties, filled of questionable  masterpieces, obsessed with connections, proclaiming the end of  modernism by the rupture of its white box, opening the way to  megastructures. Overall, ‘Singapore Songlines’ delivers an  interesting account of how a number of paradoxes are not a burden  to the operativity of a masterplan, if and only if enough forces are  involved. If we follow the text, Singapore is a must-know as a  phenomenon and a must-avoid as an example. Being a text by  Koolhaas, it unavoidable to come across some prophetic-apocalyptic  declarations, like the claim that it is the first time in 3000 years that  architecture has a non-white avant-garde, as if the concept could  be extrapolated in such an anachronistic way, or as if it could be  considered as an exclusively architectural incident. Or the assertion  that Singapore is “modernization in its pure form” which is an  extremely difficult one to consider seriously, let alone to prove.


TO WHOM SO EVER IT MAY CONCERN I turned eight in the harbor of Singapore. We did not go ashore, but I remember the smell-sweetness and rot, both overwhelming. Within the first two lines Koolhaas explains the position of the essay, while it is clearly not directed to the “Asian” audience; the article creates an interest in the content presented and the direction of development in this particular post-colonial country. Once you get past Koolhaas’s introductory explanation of the context, you will encounter a massive sea of quotes, quotes by “Asian” architects, this is very I see the value this essay has in Mumbai academia. A) It becomes a bank to gain references and case studies. B) It reveals two parallel understandings of the “ahead”. Specifically the illustration of the conflict between the S.P.U.R. (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group) and H.D.B. (Housing and Development Board), it echoes the current status of development v/s research in the city. While the essay does not claim to be a solution, it introduces two sides to ideas and terms that are an active part of the architectural discourse within the city, for example terms like identity, cultural uprooting, the authentic and recontextualization. This article expresses the idea of working with a ‘clean slate’, a tool adopted in the ‘nation building’ exercise by Singapore and its various criticisms. As writings about urbanism go, this one falls closer within the realm of the ‘home condition’ and helps in establishing various paths of research one could venture into. Within the quotes Koolhaas picks, he reveals his understanding of these terms, while as a reader you can identify the importance of these terms in other Asian countries as well as their global perception. For lack of any other reason, the essay does make you question, why a piece of writing about events that occurred in the 60’s and 80’s written in the 90’s still resonates a significant number of questions, with our city, in this decade. Devanshi Shah


Rem’s Singapore In a cultural climate where architects are idolized, even Brad Pitt wants to be an architect now, Rem Koolhaas is the emperor. The director of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), an icon of contemporary architecture praxis and theory, and the coauthor of the modernist architects Bible, S, M,L, XL; but Rem Koolhass is an urban planner first. In his essay, Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis... or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa, he sets out to prove it. As the oppressively lengthy title suggests, the piece explores the speedy development of the city from various view-points throughout its gestation, birth, and adolescence. Rem Koolhaus maps the conditions of Singapore’s urban renewal from his perspective as a practiced and praised architect. He lays out the landscape as a structure, establishes its social, political, and historical context, and addresses issues of scale, formulaic qualities, and the impact of such fast-paced and unprecedented expansion. Present-day Singapore was built nearly from scratch (tabula rasa) in the last three decades, in what the author describes as a country where Europeans have recently realized they are not in control, and policy-makers have discovered a need, and built a solution. If you want a picture of Singapore but can’t afford to book a flight, this is your opportunity. Rem Coolhaus describes the factors going into and coming out of Singapore’s hasty master plan. Expect to get a hefty dose of OMA ideology infused in the text. It makes sense to learn about city planning from an authority on the subject, but Rem Coalhaus is known for his ego, and this piece is not only a thorough analysis of Singapore, though it is indeed that, it is a snapshot taken, by Rem Coolhoss, through the lens of OMA. Singapore Songlines offers a clear understanding of the urban development of a very young post-colonialist Asian country, when the discussion of gentrification, population growth, and urban revitalization is a crucial area of study; and were getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth. If there is any interest in the development of cities, OMA, Rem Coolhouse’s writing, or Singapore, the excerpt from S, M, L, XL is a solid resource. Nevertheless note the mantra of Singapore Songlines: don’t forget to buy a ticket and experience Singapore yourself.

written by L Stamps


SINGAPORE SONGLINES. Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis...or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa. (1995) ÁLVARO VELASCO

“We”, as Westerners, tend to suspect from social “perfection”. Singapore has become a tropical paradise of artificial sand and reforested tress, embellished with postmodern Chinese ornament and built in brutalist concrete, over the debris of CIAM´s apotheosis schemes. But always an apparent chaos can become cohesive with some little drops of freedom suppression and architectural semantics. Three decades of urban Renewal erasing any sense of identity doze off anyone. However, the problem of Singaporean quietness is not only in its alienating submission but in that what it hides is a sleeping Prometheus. The island is “a city perpetually morphed to the next state”, the mechanism of tabula rasa taken to its extreme in a state of eternal provisionality that promises to maintain the country under a Neo-Confuncian sedation. The history of Singapore is the story of “development” from Chinese shophouse to Singapore´s high-rise containers, the winning of a consolidate world-wide economy, but the lost of a national identity—a postcolonial mechanism? However, in spite of the coast, the country is not isolated, and, by now, its Asian neighbours conserve a large percentage of rural population. What would happen if Singapore shows itself as a test bed of China? What if the sea is not enough for gangrening? The city-state carries the risk of being metastasized along the continent, in a sporadic development of New Towns. The Singaporization of China is at stake. It shows that the Coney Island-Manhattan system not always works for good. (though to be the back cover of the publication of Koolhaas´ essay)


! Cerys Wilson!

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From On High!

It is with no small amount of trepidation that a non-architect first approaches Rem Koolhaas’s supersized tome, circling it once, twice, even a third time before finally charging headfirst into the fray. ! !

Koolhaas himself is, of course, already there, hacking and slicing his way through

the urban jungle, turning back now and again to assess just how far he has travelled. ! !

In Singapore Songlines, he is as acerbic as ever, beginning his attack early - at

the age of eight, to be precise - and at a distance. From a boat moored in Singapore harbour, a small Koolhaas observes the tantalising stench emanating from the island he will later return to and conquer as Rem the Great, Koolhaas the XL. ! !

Singapore Songlines is an attempt to “decipher a reverse alchemy”, a

“genealogy” of this island nation that, somewhere down the road, took a wrong turn. Far from sing his subject into being, however, Koolhaas all but steamrolls it back to a time of architectural innocence.! !

Strategic in his style, militant in his method, the architect fights fire with fire from

his position on high, dropping caustic alliterations on an unsuspecting nation/city below. Luckily, nobody is hurt; Singapore’s streets appear all-but empty, its people fed long ago to the monster that is Urban Renewal. ! !

Thus, with a degree of disappointment, Koolhaas descends to Earth to find a city

that no longer sings in falsetto. Gone too is the rot and sweetness of his youth, replaced with row upon row of cinderblock apartments that blight the landscape. In response, Koolhaas briefly eulogises this land that could have been before delivering a cautionary tale to future planners and generations.!

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Laboratory on Writing Day 5 : MA History and Critical Thinking  

With Fabrizio Gallanti and Marina Lathouri Summary Exercise: Summarise an assigned architectural essay in 300-500 words. Example: Colm Tó...

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