Examining a Contemporary Cityscape Through a Kinder Lens
Posted on August 31, 2013
In Singapore, city planning is conducted in an ivory tower governed by the authorities. One could fully leave the incessant process of tearing down and building for bigger and better horizons to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) or private property developers such as Far East Organisation and CapitaLand, to name a few. In fact, entering the building of the URA is like visiting the museum of Singapore’s entire city planning history and, in fact, you can gather a repository of historical material from its in-house library. But concept plans and ivory towers hardly capture the spirit of a city, and one should dig deeper into the motivations and influences in a city’s design in order to unravel the nooks and crannies of city planning.
Taking Singapore as a case study, I hope to draw attention to the intricacies of our contemporary cityscape and what these reveal about our culture, in an attempt to view my hometown through a kinder lens and in light of its 48th birthday.
From conducting an informal research into the design of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s casino complex comprising of a luxury mall (with an indoor Vienna-style stream) that directly links to an equally ambitious ArtScience Museum, the wisdom behind the architecture is informed by conventional Fengshui wisdom. Without going into specifics in the confines of this article, one can pursue more information from websites detailing hypotheses in architectural geomancy here and here. It is hard not to imagine some tiger-fisted blueprint being helmed by the likes of Cambridge-educated Harry Lee, who could still heed to the conventional superstitions of the old-school fengshui masters. In any case, ever since returning to Singapore in July 2012, the view of Marina Bay Sands from the Benjamin Sheares Bridge has never been more beautiful.
Cultural Theme Park
I am a huge fan of Gardens by the Bay. Having spoken to members of older generations, I noticed that this might not be a widely held view. After all, there seems to be a real gulf in our understanding of what a massive garden should be like, akin to the soft and natural contours of our Botanic Gardens, as opposed to a highly thematised and foreign-designed enterprise with a tendency to confuse floral and Avatar-inspired in certain parts. With a cloud-dome that preserves an eternal spring state, one cannot help but associate with Cherian George’s analogy of our “air-conditioned nation” — a coinage that embodies our political and cultural imaginings created within the most ideal incubatory of conditions but confined to perfect fermentation.
What I adore about Gardens by the Bay is how it serves as a fantastic microcosmic depiction of Singapore in my description to foreign friends. It is carefully constructed in a cultural concept map designed according to themes. Since we are a multi-racial nation, there are designated zones of a Malay garden, a Chinese garden, and a Colonial garden, ensuring our historical accuracies are kept intact. The racial gardens are highly ethnicised, for it has been a while since bonsai trees (found in the Chinese garden) were in fashion, dating back to the days of Haw Par Villa and Tang Dynasty perhaps. Nonetheless, Gardens by the Bay is still highly characteristically Singaporeanised in many aspects.
It is a one-stop palette of cross-cultural meanderings, and the sheer effort and budget that went into the planning and construction of this place is a mirror to the country’s overarching need to impress in terms of flashiness and scale, most often reserved for the foreign gaze.
Needless to mention, the Gardens is a hit for drawing the tourist dollar. Thankfully, to roam most parts is free, so it is still popular amongst the local joggers and for a family trip downtown weekend.
Extraversion of Soft Culture
The final point I would like to illuminate is the Infinity Pool right at the top of Marina Bay Sands. It feels surreal that this pool should serve as one of the choice locations for American hip-hop artist B.O.B’s music video. If I were to continue reading further into the signifiers of our local architecture, both its land and water features, I would go so far as to assert the slow but sure extraversion of Singapore’s soft culture into the radars of international audiences. Soft culture is one of the most effective methods in raising a country’s profile. If this trend continues to prevail and we continue to bait global consumers to keep lusting for our city (thanks to grand gimmicks like the annual Formula One race), there is no doubt Singapore will succeed in its quest to elevate its profile in the global arena.∗