Singapore, Architecture –
Keeping the Singapore-ness in our architectural design
ONCE YOU GET OVER THE NERVES of looking out a bank of glass walls 80 floors above Singapore’s cityscapes, you can actually begin to enjoy the unfolding vistas of world-class architecture that has shaped our history, culture and aesthetics.
There are the stark and ugly international and modernist buildings that needed to be built rapidly and cheaply to jettison the country from third world to first after the war from the 50s, some peppered with art deco and brutalist elements. Many stick out like sore thumbs – designed by foreign architects with cookie-cutter blueprints that ignored the local context of space.
The neo-classical and gothic domes and colannades of the colonialist buildings still stand grand and commanding; the vernacular facades of shophouses and Straits Chinese homes, many of which are preserved, remind us of our immigrant great-grandparents. A large number of these structures have been resurrected into postmodern neo-tropical abodes and small offices.
Straits Chinese homes in “Chinese Palladian style” built in the 1920s off Joo Chiat Road
HDB (Housing Board) Public Housing flats are always evolving and modernising but maintain the unique characters of their neighbourhoods
The National Gallery and former Supreme Court in Neoclassical style – 1934. Frank D. Ward, chief architect of Public Works Dept during the Straits Settlements (1928-1939), factored in the copper dome to resemble St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
What you won’t see are traditional style ethnic huts in villages or kampungs. You also won’t see the old brick National Library, National Theatre, and the Van Kleef Aquarium – these have been razed to make way for the new in tiny Singapore.
Then there are the thousands of HDB flats which house the majority of the population. While staying true to their basic function of affordable housing, these homogenous blocks are ever transforming with better architectural design, landscaping, and sustainability features.
All these fascinating elements of architecture and culture have contributed to Singapore being a UNESCO Creative City of Design. And each and every aspect tells a Singapore story.
But is there a Singapore-ness to Singapore’s current architectural design? Can the locals understand and own these design aesthetics? Is there too much deconstructive blurring of a Singapore identity?
Some of the pioneering architects of Singapore’s skyline such as Tan Cheng Siong (Pearl Bank Apartments) and Hong Kong-born William SW Lim (Golden Mile Complex) have always spoken passionately about architectural design here needing a symbiotic relationship with the environment, people, and the Singapore lifestyle.
Happily, many architects – young and old, local and foreign; teachers and students – have been listening.
A CHAT WITH ARCHITECTS ABOUT SINGAPORE DESIGN IN ARCHITECTURE
ARCHITECT, URBAN DESIGNER, EDUCATOR, THEORIST, AUTHOR, SAFDIE ARCHITECTS
JEWEL CHANGI AIRPORT
Question: One of your principles in architecture is ‘Responding to the Essence of the Place’. How do you approach this narrative for the Jewel Changi Airport expansion project?
Jewel Changi Airport expresses the essence of Singapore and its tradition as a Garden City. It is one of the world’s great indoor landscapes, with two dramatic features: the Forest Valley, comprising trees, ferns and trails; and the Rain Vortex, a 40m waterfall. In all, Jewel contains about 22,000sqm of open and green space.
CHAIRMAN, DP ARCHITECTS
Question: How do you add a bit of ‘Singapore’ to the architecture you create worldwide – for example The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall?
What we, and most Singaporean firms, bring to their overseas work is not a specific style, but the qualities associated with Singapore – our culture of honour, quality of design and service, appreciation of cultural diversity and efficient delivery. Having said that, a distinct feature of Singapore architecture is its approach to planning. In the short span of 50 years, Singapore has leap-frogged from a city with a drastic shortage of housing and infrastructure to a thriving metropolis and one of the most desirable places to live on the planet. It is impossible to talk about Singaporean architecture without first recognising this. Stringent planning and a problem-and-solution approach determined Singapore architecture in its formative years. Contemporary Singapore architecture is a product of the wholehearted embrace with modernity and urban planning.
PRINCIPAL, ZAHA HADID ARCHITECTS
Reflecting the flora and greenery of the surrounding environment, and nearby Botanic Gardens with D’Leedon.
The towers of D’Leedon are subdivided into ‘petals’ according to the number of residential units per floor enabling a very large diversity of apartments.
The generative floor plan of the petal changes shape along the height of the tower in relation to the different configuration and type of residential units. The changing composition of unit type enables the towers to respond to a series of parameters dictated by site conditions, internal organisation and structural optimisation.
PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT, PARTNER, FORMWERKZ
Question: The shophouse represents unique Singapore architecture. Is there a way of preserving similar Singapore vernacular elements in new modern buildings and architectural design coming up around us?
The shophouse typology has always been a great inspiration for many projects locally, both interior and exterior wise. Its vernacular elements would never ‘go out of fashion’ as they are climatically appropriate and shall remain relevant for a long time to come.
It does not simply represent a physical form to be preserved but the way of life it supports within its original creation is one not to be forgotten. That intimate and communicative spirit within is ever so precious and delightful.
PRINCIPAL, BÜRO OLE SCHEEREN
Engaging and embracing the surrounding space of Bugis and the heritage district of Kampong Glam with DUO by not being isolated and autonomous.
The design of DUO actively engages the space of the surrounding city to form a new civic nucleus in Singapore’s modern metropolis. Singapore consistently ranks as one of Asia’s most livable cities. However, it is increasingly dominated by isolated individual towers that favour exclusion over social connectivity.
Embracing civic spaces in a symbiotic relationship with each other and thereby transforming the surrounding multivalent urban fabric, the two sculpted towers of DUO act as urban space generators. The two towers are not conceived as autonomous objects, but defined by the spaces they create around them.There is a Singapore-ness to DUO in that it is not isolated or autonomous. It manages to get the Bugis district (Kampong Glam, Bugis, Rochor and Ophir), and the heritage area of Kampong Glam, to embrace it both socially and aesthetically, no matter if the design may be controversial to many.
TEO YEE CHIN
MANAGING PARTNER, RED BEAN ARCHITECTS
WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE SINGAPORE BUILDING?
Question: What’s your favourite old building in Singapore? The name of your firm is unique in itself in inspiring Singapore design and Singapore architectural forms; how do we get more local developers and architects to embrace more Singapore elements such as the name of the building project to the historical culture of the surrounding landscape?
My favourite old building in Singapore would be Clifford Pier, now converted into a restaurant. Clifford Pier was actually, like the Tanjong Pagar railway station, a grand hall of transportation.
As for getting more local developers and architects to embrace more Singapore elements such as historical culture into projects, I don’t think they should do it if they don’t feel like it. It needs to be genuine. It needs to start from self-respect. And if the projects and buildings are designed sensitively to people’s fundamental needs, that will be more valuable than a PR campaign with a Singaporean tagline.
Story by Carol Kraal. Photographs copyright and courtesy of: Safdie Architects; DP Architects; Zaha Hadid Architects; Formwerkz; Buro Ole Scheeren; Red Bean Architects