The Built, the Dollar, the Power and the People text by shirley surya images courtesy of urban redevelopment authority, marina bay sands pte ltd, city developments limited, bfc development, keppel corporation limited and wikimedia commons Duxton Plain Housing Development (2009) ARC Studio Architecture + Urbanism
The Endless Race
Iconic and Economics
With international headlines about cities like Dubai and Shanghai rivalling each other with the latest iconic architectural behemoths, the built environment is increasingly capturing the public’s imagination. By becoming the branding medium for institutions, cities and nations, architecture has gone beyond space-shaping to image-making, and the economic revitalisation of cities. Books such as The Endless City by the Urban Age Project – findings on patterns of urban transformation in six major cities – show the kind of phenomenal changes and challenges cities face from rapid urbanisation and the global race.
The race between Manhattan’s starchitect-condos has led some to lament that architecture is being reduced to arresting images and a cultural veneer in the developer’s marketing strategy. Others question the use of starchitecture as tourist attractions to resuscitate cities – as epitomised by the Bilbao Effect. In an article Bilbao, 10 Years Later, Gehry’s Guggeheim is reported to have transformed the gritty port city into a tourist magnet, yet Bilbao still remains “very much a one-attraction town” – attracting starchitects to build around the city, but with few locals having visited the museum. Such “disconnect between Bilbao the brand and Bilbao the city” implies the risk of engendering architectural cacophony by investing in a The use of starchitecture for economic ends and slew of iconic buildings when the city has its risks on the quality of the public realm and little else to offer visually and culturally. design’s role to improve lives.
Though not of similar scale, Singapore is definitely going through such transformation, especially in recent years. Since the Esplanade opened in 2005, the design of our built environment has become the focus of the mainstream media. Though architecture has always been an integral part of Singapore’s development, PM Lee Hsien Long’s reference to the built environment as part of the equation to create the “X-factor” for a “vibrant, global city” in his 2004 National Day Rally speech, raises the value of architectural and urban design excellence to Singapore’s status as a centre of commerce and culture, more than ever. While celebratory rhetoric and optimism mark the nation’s attitude toward its future iconic developments, architects and the public are skeptical toward such developments in the West. This is especially so in regard to the use of starchitecture for economic ends, its risks on the quality of the public realm and design’s role to improve lives. iSh explores where Singapore stands in regard to these concerns in the spirit of the questions posed in The Endless City – what kind of lives are we creating? Is the future city a “a vision of hell or a force for civilised living” amid these transformations?
Though these concerns may not directly apply to Singapore, it is still worth asking the extent to which she has banked on the image-factor of architecture. If starchitecture has been used to serve an economic end, how much of it is about money than function? If Singapore is indeed using the “build-itand-they-will-come” strategy, can we live up to the brand we are promoting ourselves to be? There is no question about Singapore jumping on the bandwagon of iconic developments as an economic necessity. It is afterall a force of globalisation a city cannot afford to not compete in. While Moshe Safdie’s design of the Marina Bay Integrated Resort (MBIR) is described as “a memorable image” that adds a new dimension to the city skyline, the double helix-structure bridge by Philip Cox is a “masterpiece to put the wow right in Singapore’s city centre”. The iconic criteria gives the muchneeded “X-factor” to achieve the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) goal of making Singapore into a “City With Identity”. But unlike its past architectural icons like I.M. Pei’s OCBC Centre and the works of other Pritzker-winning architects built between the late ’70s to ’90s, recent iconic developments are not just symbols of Singapore’s
The Sail @ Marina Bay (2009) NBBJ | Kiat Inc
Marina Bay Sands (2009) Moshe Safdie & Associates | Aedas | Peter Walker & Associates
Gardens at Marina South (2010) Grant Associates
economic prowess praised for their design innovation, but explicitly presented in the media as differentiators to our skyline and a brand-name cachet for the property and tourist market.
As much as the iconic factor of developments like the MBIR, Financial Centre, and luxury apartments like The Sail and Reflections have been utilised to attract foreign investments, their success comes hand in hand with the city’s overall efforts such The iconic factor sells – in reputation and in dollar as allowing easy immigration and staging of interterms. When Monocle ranked Singapore as No. 17 national events. Business Times has also attributed amongst the world’s Top 20 Most Liveable Cities for Singapore’s lead in property investment transacfactors that included its “blossoming urban and cul- tions in Asia-Pacific in 2007 to its attractive living tural landscape” featuring “international stars like environment, the two IRs and hosting of the F1 Moshe Safdie and Toyo Ito”, the Bilbao Effect seems race. “Though these projects are still in progress, to play out. Just as the starchitect’s brand-name the positive impact is already felt with increasing justifies a higher price point for luxury apartments visitor arrivals and foreign investin Manhattan, “space users with more discerning ment, leading to greater demand Recent iconic developments are not just symbols taste are willing to pay a premium for quality world- for offices, residences and hotels,” of Singapore’s economic prowess, but explicitly class design and architecture here,” according to comments Kwee as she reveals presented in the media as differentiators to Kwee Yilin, Vice President of Project Development Pontiac Land’s plan for “an ultra- our skyline and a brand-name cachet for the at Pontiac Land – the developer behind high-pro- luxury hotel in Sentosa and two property and tourist market. f ile buildings like the upcoming Capella Hotels prestigious residential projects in and Resort by Foster + Partners. This has caused District 10.” developers, especially those in the luxury market, to engage starchitects to meet such shift in custom- By investing in the built, not in expense of the public ers’ expectation and demand. realm and the buzz, Singapore seems to not be fully prone to the “build-it-they-will-come” syndrome But with the inevitable use of the iconic for eco- and has prevented any disconnection between its nomic ends, it seems to be held in tension with people, the city, and its aspired status of a vibrant other factors. Under Singapore’s planning policy global metropolis. that takes into account all stakeholders, the iconic is not necessarily built at the expense of function, Is Large-Scale Upscale or Social especially in its relation to the quality of the public Innovation for All? realm. While addressing real estate developers at a Cityscape conference, CEO of URA Cheong-Chua With the much-desired public recognition of the Koon Hean expressed that in assessing develop- design profession, few would question celebrated ments for approval, URA looks not only at the architects designing the city’s most luxe aparticonic feature but also how the overall design fits ments or a mega masterplanning projects. But for the context in terms of its contribution to impor- some, the rise of starchitect-condos is not a sign tant criteria such as the creation of public spaces, of architecture going mainstream but celebrated efficiency for transportation and pedestrian com- architecture becoming lifestyle signifiers of the fort. The substantial amount of prime land reserved rich and famous. Others wonder if starchitects’ for open space and public use at the Marina Bay turn to planning large-scale developments that Development, and the public promenades and are increasingly bound up with that of the upscale pedestrian connectivity in landmark developments is a sign of gentrification becoming the preferred like the MBIR, are examples of URA’s commitment urban renewal strategy. Some even questioned if to these criteria, as stewards of the public realm. all these are in any way compatible with Modern 111
Punggol Point Walk (2010) Look Architects
Scotts Tower OMA
architecture’s essentially utopian foundations – a notion most likely absent to designers here where Modernism is often reduced to a stylistic whim of chic minimalism, far from the Modernists’ aspiration at the turn of the 20th century – that design and art could, and should, transform society and create a better world for all. More importantly, some have challenged how much of these innovations have gone beyond the tectonic and architectural to that of the social. The reality of the global capitalist economy easily renders design’s social goals futile. But whether good design is only accessible to the upper echelons, manifested in gentrification and not wielded to improve everyday living for all, remain significant issues. With headline-making projects in Marina Bay – its Financial Centre, The Sail and Collyer Quay revamp – housing premium office spaces, high-rise apartments, hip retail stores and dining areas, and radical projects like the Scotts Tower and residential complex by Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) as high-end dwellings, gentrification seems widespread in Singapore. But there’s no need for a blame game. Market forces and the continued influx of well-heeled foreign expats have led to inevitable demand of such high-end developments that bring in much-needed capital – revived physical spaces lead to increased investment, property market values, and government revenue – to keep this city at a competitive edge. Yet, there remains quite a fair distribution of land resources between commercial and public interests that seems to reflect the government’s commitment to “achieving a sustainable balance between economic growth and the quality of the living environment” – as expressed by Mah Bow Tan, Minister of National Development at the 2008 URA Corporate Seminar. Unlike countries in the region, where public facilities are often relegated to a state of dilapidation and good design is utilised by private funds for commercial spaces, Singapore is marked with many existing and upcoming well-designed facilities in parks, transportation hubs, public housing and civic plazas. 112
CapitaLand Residential Complex OMA
Woodlands Waterfront Project (2010) Urban Redevelopment Authority
Competitions have sought innovative designs for public projects like the Circle Line MRT stations, Duxton Plain Public Housing, and Gardens by the Bay. The winning design for future Bras Basah MRT station by WOHA Architects, features a reflection pool that is both a skylight and cooling agent to reduce artificial lighting and air conditioning; the future design of Duxton Plain housing by another local architecture firm ARC Studio is a series of highdensity blocks linked with sky parks to maximise views and recreational space to fully utilise the benefits of high-rise living; while the gardens at Marina Bay by UK-based Grant Associates and Gustafson Porter will feature Cool Conservatories, terraced water gardens and the latest sustainable and water technologies that capitalise on Singapore’s tropical climate and nearness to the water. Other existing facilities that demonstrate the public sector’s role as patrons of good design The reality of a global capitalist economy are the bio-climac tic design of the easily renders design’s social goals futile. But National Library Board building by T.R. whether good design is only accessible to the Hamzah & Yeang and the characteristic upper echelons, manifested in gentrification design of Bishan Community Library by and not wielded to improve everyday living for Look Architects – all of which are highly- all, remain significant issues. accessible and thriving public spaces. Not only does the affordability of public housing offset the negative effects of gentrification, plans for “heartland rejuvenation” in the form of new spaces built for greater community participation and ownership to encourage social integration like the upcoming Punggol Point and Woodlands Waterfront are also in the works. These will be new coastal promenades built to offer great views and recreational spaces, with award-winning firm Look Architects commissioned to design the waterfront promenade that opens to the Punggol Coast. With these initiatives, governmental efforts, however imperfectly, have certainly kept the social goal of design in mind by wielding innovative design to create a whole new way of living for a community in the tropics.
Marina Bay Financial Centre & Residences (2010-2012) Kohn Pederson Fox | DCA Architects | Architects 61
South Beach Development (2012) Foster + Partners
Reflections at Keppel Bay (2013) Studio Daniel Libeskind
Are We There Yet? By integrating people and money, and offsetting the costs of urban gentrification, Singapore seems well on the path of achieving a culturally specific model that’s both economically and socially viable. But just as its leaders are not resting on its laurels amid the heated race of being a global city, more can be done to face unforeseen challenges of future urbanisation. With redesigns for a new shopping and waterfront experience portrayed in f ireworks and glitz, and dwellings marketed for its “ultra-chic balcony” and “dramatic architectural structures”, there is a need to go beyond the rhetoric of sustainability and design toward breakthroughs in environmental impact and social innovation. According to architect Tan Su Ling, who once worked in the design and planning department of HDB and URA, even when “sustainability” and “eco-precincts” have become the buzz word she is not sure if architects and urban designers have understood this enough to impact the way they think and design buildings and the city. Though projects like Treetops@Punggol and the upcoming South Beach Development by Foster + Partners are touted as examples of Singapore going green with their energy conservation technologies, Tan believes more research and resources should be placed in this area so that sustainability is not reduced to planter boxes, solar panels or green lungs, but truly environmentally-friendly buildings and a city that respond to the tropical climate. To Tan, this is what she considers to be “a genuine way to define and approach ‘design excellence’.” So are architects in Singapore saying “We’ll do an environmentally-responsible building if you want one” or “I won’t do a building unless it’s green”? There needs to be a real passion and wisdom that goes beyond the sustainable rhetoric.
We can ride on this to raise the right kind of awareness to help the public define what architectural and urban design “excellence” means to people in Singapore.
Changes must also affect the city at the level of urban systems rather than superficial piecemeal interventions to address deeper issues to do with the interrelated and systemic problems of urbani-
sation. Can design achieve more than the status of an iconic tourist destination or part of a marketing equation for luxury dwellings? If the Chinese government can encourage private developers to build quality housing for the aging population, if firms like Related can be recognised as America’s private developer of transformative mixed-used projects and affordable housing while working with architects like Meier and Gehry, can developers here be encouraged to diversify their portfolio for a socially innovative cause? But cities are complex. In an article about The Endless City by the book’s co-editor Deyan Sudjic, he noted that The Urban Age Project is “not only for those who spend their time thinking about cities, but also those who have to tried to do something about them.” It is not enough to offer a range of solutions solely through the eye of a critic. But despite the complexities, Sudjic seems confident of one observation: “cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change, while a city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping malls, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city that works.” There may not be a set of solutions for Singapore, but it is well-advised to avoid a monolithic view of what a city ought to be or the icons it should emulate amid the race. With the risks that the iconic and economics may bring – gentrification, reducing architecture to image and money more than a function for social innovation, it has nevertheless brought about, more than ever, greater public consciousness of the built environment. We can ride on this to raise the right kind of awareness to help the public define what architectural and urban design “excellence” means to people in Singapore. Perhaps only when the public plays a more active role in the shaping of their environments, would there be new confidence engendered to create not just an attractive city for its iconic developments, but the heart of the people that characterise them. 113