Courtesy Aaron Betsky

One of the more interesting master planning projects of any Asian city is One North, Singapore's 500-acre technology quarter, which was laid out by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2001 and is now well into its 20-year development cycle. It is interesting for three reasons: its form, which you would expect from Hadid; the incorporation of existing elements and areas; and the slowness with which Singapore has let One North develop. Is it enough to make it more of a real place than the other insta-cities across Asia? From a recent walk around there, I would say yes—but that does not mean it is yet a real and vibrant neighborhood.

First, there are those forms. Hadid laid the district out with undulating lines that accentuate the natural flow of Singapore’s tropical hills. A park runs through the middle, meandering its way past the clusters of R&D centers, office buildings, and apartments that the government hopes will make this area into a place that will attract the world’s best and brightest to live and work here. Hadid laid One North out not just in plan, but in three dimensions, mandating an ebb and flow in heights that does not run with, but offers a counterpoint to the natural landscape.

Sandcrawler, Skywalker Studios
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Sandcrawler, Skywalker Studios

What is a shame is that there are almost no distinguished buildings that have translated these abstractions into form. The closest might be the Sandcrawler by Andrew Bromberg of Aedas. Home to Skywalker Studio’s Asian division, Sandcrawler has the curving forms and integration with the landscape that you would expect the master plan to promote. Most of the blocks are just that, with a few curved corners and bullnoses nodding to the plan’s intentions. What is worse, some government buildings have broken the restrictions—I guess because nobody told them they could not—so that the only place you can find the spirit of the plan is in the park, which lets you meander all the way through One North without bothering too much about the buildings.

Skywalker Studios' Sandcrawler building in Singapore
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Skywalker Studios' Sandcrawler building in Singapore

What really makes the plan beautiful is exactly what was already there—namely, that landscape, which the park concentrates and shapes to bring out its lush nature, and the remains of British army barracks and other colonial structures, widely spaced in open fields or hidden behind clumps of trees. These are now private homes, clubs and restaurants, and some incubator lofts, and they give One North a sense of history and place few other plans this size can achieve. What is ironic is that the architecture of these older buildings has little direct relation to the landscape. It is their (lack of) density, their worn quality, and the echoes of a more genteel world reserved for the few that gives them their charm.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

Finally, One North is still not done. Eventually, it is mean to encompass almost 50 million square feet of office and university space and be home to well over 100,000 people. When I visited for the first time a decade ago as a member of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Peer Advisory Panel, when there were only a few structures standing. Unlike most such developments, One North did not feel like a fallow field with forlorn pioneers standing in empty fields. Because the landscape is so lush and full, and because the plan works with those contours, the buildings seemed more rooted than most. They are also clumped into different “polis” areas (Biopolis, Fusionopolis, Mediapolis) that are meant to attract like-minded companies and give One North some sense of neighborhoods, even if everything looks more or less the same. Now the plan is about two-thirds of the way built out, and it feels in parts as if it is flowing into the surrounding neighborhoods and estates, even when the hard border of a highway and transit lines make actually walking between different areas less than pleasant.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

For all that, the contrast to Singapore’s flagship development, the immense Marina Bay area, is striking. Sited right next to the Central Business District on land reclaimed and laid out in the dumbest grid you can imagine by Cooper Eckstut Associates in the late 1990s, that immense plan is still largely a wasteland with clumps of towers, which turn their air conditioned skins away from each other and the neighborhood. The base of Moshe Safdie, FAIA’s Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel, whose “surfboard” roof has become the island’s icon, is a giant shopping mall fronting on a new bay. Here, you could be anywhere in Asia.

Part of Singapore’s success comes from plans laid out first by the British and then with the help of Dutch planners in the 1960s that foresaw a more measured and organic form of development. This was true all the way from the overall plans, which safeguarded large tracts of land as park and connected nodes with elaborations of the existing landscape, rather than a grid, to the base of buildings, and which were often open to that soft geology, biotope, and climate. One North is the best translation of those intentions, and a model not just for Asian cities, but for any attempt to build communities in a deliberate manner with, rather than on, the land.