Our Architecture

Like all modern cities, Singapore’s architecture is a mix of cool and crass. Sentosa is an example of something that is turning crass to cool in my book when the casino and its entertainment centres open up.  Whenever foreigners or even locals blurt that Singapore’s buildings and spaces have no character, I am amazed how myopic they are. Slums and ghettos in a city do not necessarily mean character.  An overenthusiastic URA or HDB still contribute to the sense of identity and also culture-character with every glance we make around us everyday.  Without a doubt what entails character in a place is subjective and contested but there is always character. A seeming lack of character by itself is character if one is objective about it.  Anyway read on this enjoyable oped about shifts in Singapore’s use of space and place.

Singapore’s architecture development
Singapore architecture has grown to include buildings that inspire and are responsive to its environment and culture.

by Shang Zong Wei

Singapore’s architecture has grown from being purely pragmatic, industrial blocks, to buildings that inspire and are responsive to its environment and culture.

Historically, Singapore has been well regarded for its strategic geographical location, and a government that is determined against all odds to achieve success. Both aspects have worked in sync in securing a unique place on the world map for the island nation since its independence in 1965 – though not without a stroke of luck. In the traditional Asian manner of saying, the Heaven, Earth and Man aspects are symbiotically in tune. Singapore’s architecture was literally born out of such circumstances, and will continue to evolve through such driving forces.

In Singapore, the pressing concern at all time has been about survival – that of an island without natural resources in an ever competitive world. Hence, private patronage aside, political will is of paramount importance to creating the conditions that have shaped Singapore’s architecture. From the very pragmatic building solutions at the initial stages of nation building to the recent thematic development trends, the central consideration is to make Singapore an attractive place that will ensure the nation’s relevance in current as well as any foreseeable future contexts. Perhaps in layman’s terms, it is about how Singapore can be marketed to global investors, as if it is some sort of a product for sale; while at the same time, how it can still remain a comfortable home and retain local talent.

Because it has to stay relevant, there will be constant needs to reinvent and repackage it to suit. Hence, at some point in time, sensitivities with regards to cultural roots/identities versus modernisation needs/social ills will have to be addressed. And a comprehensive mechanism of public institutions is needed to facilitate the various processes. At broad macro-levels, such are the unique parameters that nurture Singapore’s architecture.

As with all things, the development of Singapore’s architecture is an ongoing process, with many aspects taking place concurrently, intermittently or continually. While the intricacies are best left to academics, for convenience sake, one may choose to view it in the following necdotal/chronological frames:

The pre/post-independence years from the 1960s to the 1970s were the formative periods in nation building, which witnessed the development of new towns, rapid construction of mass housing blocks, utilities improvement/sanitation works, extensive public infrastructure projects and the launch of the ‘Tree Planting’ campaign to create the image of a ‘Garden City’.

Like most parts of the world, Singapore’s architecture was subject to the omnipotent influence of the ‘International Style’, then thought to be a convenient, if not ideal, solution to the urgent building needs of that time. This was evident in many of the buildings completed then,  particularly the slab blocks of HDB fl ats, where functionality prevailed in a bid to eradicate slumps. Some, however, managed to transcend the superfi ciality of stylistic borrowing, and thus remained as inspiring icons to this day (for example, Peoples Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Pearl Bank Apartments).

Despite the economic challenges, the 1980s and the 1990s were an exciting era dominated by the mushrooming of commercial complexes, some taking on the concept of a self-suffi cient city-withina-city providing one-stop experiences. This eventually went beyond its concentration at the Orchard/Marina shopping belt to developments insuburban areas. To enhance connectivity, construction of the Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) system was commenced to complement the consistently improving public transport systems. Changi Airport’s Terminal I and II enhanced the physical interface with the world at large. Effi ciency and productivity were the keywords.

Then, there were concerns about roots/identities and buildings of historical/cultural signifi cance were taken notice of. Guidelines were drafted to ensure conservation of worthy buildings. Rising skyscrapers at the fi nancial district began tracing the Singapore skyline along Marina Bay. To bridge the learning curve, local practices partnered with foreign companies in larger architectural commissions, resulting in what some labelled soul-less architecture that can be transplanted anywhere. Construction opportunities were plenty, as such architectural discourses became active.

At the core of these discourses, identity was a dominant issue. Many argued for a return to vernacular origins in search of a tropical architectural language, culminating in heated public discussions centred around the appropriateness of the winning design for The Esplanade. Voices proposing green architecture surfaced and ideas to craft Singapore into a hub for almost everything were mooted. Some of the signifi cant developments include Marina Square, Suntec City, Millenia Walk, Singapore Post Centre, Singapore Expo and so on. From there, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) 1998 Master Plan came to fruition.

The 2000s present a very different set of conditions for Singapore’s architecture and the world at large, especially since the ominous September 11. For major developments as well as public institutional buildings, anti-terrorism measures become a necessary consideration. On the other hand, issues of global warming have garnered enough momentum to warrant government initiatives in promoting ‘Green Mark’ for buildings. Being environmentally friendly has caught on, aided with new technologies and innovative materials. URA’s introduction of the Parks And Waterbodies Plan, and Identity Plan, is a timely reinforcement of the green movement. Even visitors arriving at the new Changi Airport Terminal III will be welcomed with lush greeneries within the building.

Besides, developments take on unprecedented scales, in terms of programmatic typology, physical size, monetary investment as well as media exposure in an attempt to secure Singapore’s relevance in the globalised context. These include Biopolis, Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World at Sentosa, Singapore Sports Hub and the Formula 1 Night Race. Interestingly, some of these major developments uncover an often oblivious, though nonetheless integral, aspect of Singapore’s architecture – the incorporation of Feng Shui (a traditional Chinese strategy in architectural making, with emphasis on improving well-being rather than aesthetics). More local architectural talents gained international recognition, while they were being readily rewarded at home with larger commissions, thereby further sealing the Singapore brand. URA’s 2008 Master Plan was gazetted to guide Singapore into the future.

If the 1960s and 70s were to be regarded as allowing the skeleton of Singapore’s architecture to form, the 80s and 90s saw its body materialising. Now that Singapore has already taken shape, its course in history on track, building will be geared towards achieving quality rather than quantity. The 2000s and beyond will breathe soul into this being.

Shang Zong Wei runs his own professional practices, Shang Architects and Shang Astrology. He also conducts Feng Shui classes at the Institute Of Feng Shui Ba Zi . For more information, log on to http://www.i-fsbazi.com and http://www.shangarchitects.com or email: zw.shang@gmail.com.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 9 March 2009

  2. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 11

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