Singapore's URA: Too Much Planning?
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.
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.