Beyond Buildings


Singapore's URA: Too Much Planning?

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Sands Casino Singapore

Until five years ago, when I was kicked off, whether for being too critical or not being important enough anymore (I had resigned as the Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute), I was a member of the International Peer Review Committee of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Agency. Twice, they flew me in as part of a distinguished group (Fumihiko Maki, Oscar Busquets, Moshen Mostafavi, among others) to review their plans. This last week, courtesy of Holcim Concrete’s Sustainable Architecture Award program, I was back in the island-state for the first time in four years to see how one of the most obsessively and thoughtfully controlled urban environments is progressing. I would say the results are mixed.

I do not know another organization in the world like the URA. They don’t just promote redevelopment. Together with various other ministries and agencies, they plan the future spatial distribution, use, and extension of every aspect of Singapore. At their downtown location, a model of the whole island, continually updated, shows all the plans together. The URA picks some of the brightest students from local schools, and gives them a scholarship to top schools around the world, on the condition that they come back to work there for a number of years. It is a thoughtful organization with huge ambitions. Eventually, the island will grow to have a CBD four times as large as the current one on landfill that will reach out all the way to the Continental Shelf, where the sea drops down to the Marina Trench, the deepest in the world.

Marina Bay Singapore

This obsessive planning is also the URA’s and Singapore’s undoing. Their greatest achievement so far is Marina Bay: a landfill that will one day sprout millions of square feet of office and residential towers around a base of culture, public gardens and esplanades, and especially retail. I got to see the first fruits of that investment: the Sands Hotel, Casino, Convention Center, and shopping mall, designed by Moshe Safdie, a cluster of non-descript office towers and hotels, and the beginnings of the Gardens of Marina Bay, a conservatory and park still under construction (I will zero in on that in my next blog).

The buildings are not as bad as I thought they would be, especially the neo-Portman swerves of the three Sands slabs, leaning into each other to support a level of pools and hotels sailing out towards the ocean fifty floors above the ground. The absurdly over-structured pedestrian bridge that connects them to the older bit of landfill, Suntec City, has a certain amount of zany fun to it. The buildings in general lack the banality of most American corporate ventures.

What is missing is a mess. It was my big and obviously ineffective argument when I was on the URA panel: everything was being planned with such efficiency and with such an eye to latest theories of what makes good urban environment that there was no opportunity for chance, ad hoc activities, or the joy of contrasts. An anonymous commenter (why are critics always so afraid to use their names?), pointed out that in my blog last week on London I concentrated only on the playpens of the rich, and that is true. It is also what Singapore wants to become.

Marina Bay is turning into a parade of air conditioned shopping malls and attractions sheltering under a grid of equally isolated objects. What has made Singapore an amazing place, beyond its blissfully soft climate, the mixture of so many cultures in an environment in which the government, for better or worse has controlled the collage to perfection, is turning into a generic real estate development.

Don’t get me wrong: it works. Moreover, the notion that it all depends on anti-chewing gum police is absurd. The order is more planned than imposed. Singapore is a lively place. It is becoming –again partially by design, because the planners all read Richard Florida—a creative and gay Mecca. But, if it all turns into Marina Bay, it might as well be Dubai, Las Vegas, or any other planned urban attractor. They just happen to have better chili crabs in Singapore.


Comments (10 Total)

  • Posted by: Ronaldlct | Time: 9:00 AM Friday, December 16, 2011

    As a Singaporean architect (who trained in the States), I think you hit the point spot on. The fact is, Singapore's natural ground up urban fabric (the kind that supports Jane Jacobs' notion of neighbourhoods with diversity of uses and "eyes on the street") has been systematically removed and not replaced. In its place (and for the sake of strategic national development) is a land-reserve system that stores land that is auctioned for the kind of mega mixed-used development that Koolhaas wrote about in his S,M,L,XL essay "The Singapore Songlines". Even restoration of old structures are presented in a form of a commercial retail proposition that only a large-scale commercial developer can take on. For the moment, there lacks a system/mechanism for a kind of bottom-up urban grain to differentiate and manifest itself. Another challenge is that the city planning paradigm of Singapore remains ideologically in the same vein of the 1960s, where the ideal city is planned and generous roads and absence of traffic jams, etc make the city frictionless. Most new lots in Singapore have mandatory provisions for future road expansion, thereby making city-enhancing elements like an urban street wall close to impossible. I believe that the extent to which mega-scale architecture can impress is limited - and Marina Bay Sands is proof of that. (the most talented architect will find his hands full with a project brief for a mega building that ironically makes it difficult for him to design meaningfully)Yet the developmental tendency of Singapore's urban planning paradigm is for larger and larger mega mixed-use development.

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  • Posted by: Jun | Time: 7:12 AM Thursday, December 08, 2011


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  • Posted by: Wei | Time: 2:55 AM Tuesday, December 06, 2011

    While I do agree on some points with Mr Betsky's article, there are some things that should be pointed out. Firstly, Singapore is not the only place where such large-scale planning has taken place before, nor will it be the only place in future. Urban history is replete with many examples of this. Look at Europe during the Renaissance, Baroque and later the Modernist periods: Paris was never in the way we see it today until Haussmann decided to design in the boulevards,removing those parts of the old urban fabric of medieval Paris; the same can be said for Rome and other European cities. This period was characterised by immense attention to detail, perfection and symmetry resulting in the mass fabrication of places. But, given time, these places have evolved and we have now come to appreciate them for what they are. Secondly, the idea of messiness, as Mr Betsky has mentioned, is one that is evolved over time. Give Marina Bay some time to take on its identity. I doubt that anyone really fancies the idea of "planned messiness"; the idea in and of itself seems rather philosophically problematic. And lastly, I do wonder if there is a certain notion of "Asian messiness" as the "other"; as the "ideal" which cities should "target" for (as though it could be manufactured). It does reek partly of Orientalism to me.

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  • Posted by: gloomincarnate | Time: 1:54 AM Tuesday, December 06, 2011

    The Marina Bay Sands development shows signs of URAnic megalomania - it totally overpowers the old city (as does that appalling new cluster of apartments at the junction of Cantonment Road and Neill Road). Looming like a sinister presence, absurd in scale, it cuts the city off completely from the sea, and hence from its history. Singapore's history is based on the sea. Collyer Quay was once a vibrant waterfront. Now the former waterfront is a traffic-dominated hell, no more than one element in a circulation system (a principle that the Formula One track simply takes to extremes ... ) As to those who point to remaining areas of 'mess' in Singapore - these pockets are fast declining, continuously eroded as the wreckers make their relentless way across block after block of low-rise townscape, destroying layer after layer of identity. Just consider the price that's been paid for MRT construction, superb though the system is ... But let us console ourselves: no doubt we can look forward to a "Geylang Heritage Center" (sic), celebrating the "vibrancy" of local tradition with all the authenticity of Temple Street. God help us ...

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:49 AM Tuesday, December 06, 2011

    I hope he was being facetious. But to make sweeping statements on the island/city/country based on one tiny example of Marina Bay sounds quite facetious too. Actually I do agree that Singapore lacks messiness. It's just that the writing is filled with loopholes.

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  • Posted by: Lijing | Time: 12:44 AM Tuesday, December 06, 2011

    Mr Betsky might have been facetious when he talked about the "marina trench". Clearly, he was not expecting to contend with the literal-minded. As to his point on messiness, I don't see how that that possibly be wrong. Yes, Geylang and Little India are still "messy" but so was Sentosa and look what happened to that. Chinatown and Kampong Glam were also once "messy"; they're now gentrified. So, lots to think about!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:52 PM Monday, December 05, 2011

    Wow, so many errors in one blog post. - There's no continental shelf at Singapore's doorstop. - There's no geogrpahical feature called Marina Trench. - Mariana Trench (if that's what the author is referring to) is in the Pacific Ocean, beyond the Philipines. - The URA is the Urban Redevelopment Authority, not Agency. - Singapore is not Marina Bay. Marina Bay is not Singapore. Dear Mr Betsky, Messiness can be found in Singapore if you dare to venture outside the city, and discover beyond URA's rhetoric, ironically. Heard of Geylang? Little India? Pulau Ubin?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:38 PM Monday, December 05, 2011

    I don't think any author who mixes up the location of the Mariana Trench is at all credible - Singaporean

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:15 PM Sunday, December 04, 2011

    Just noticed I popped up as "Anonymous". That's because the comment form doesn't have a field to type in a name and it didn't occur to me to type my name into the comment box. - Murli

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:13 PM Sunday, December 04, 2011

    Love this! Think you're bang-on with your comments, but it's not just urban planning. It's everything in Singapore. Pointed to your blog on mine:

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.