Category: Cities

Constructing Singapore for the Venice Architecture Biennale

From its first foray into the Venice Architecture Biennale over a decade ago, Singapore has sought to project an image of a city-state defined by progressive architecture and urban planning. As part of efforts to develop itself into a creative city since the millennium, the city-state began participating in both the the art and architecture editions of the Venice Biennale, a world’s fair for the avant-garde.

But while Singapore’s participation in the art biennales have largely been driven the interest of individual artists (and handled by the National Arts Council), the architecture pavilions commissioned by the DesignSingapore Council, the national design agency, are closely tied with how the state sees the city. From the claim that the world’s population can be housed in a thousand Singapores to the latest presentation on how the state is co-creating a city with its citizens, here is a lookback at Singapore’s 5 architecture pavilions. (This piece was inspired by The Substation’s on-going competition to dream up alternative visions for Singapore’s participation in 2018.)

 

Catalogue cover for the “Singapore: Second Nature” exhibition.

2004—Singapore: Second Nature
Commissioner: Dr. Milton Tan, DesignSingapore Council
Curator: Dr. Wong Yunn Chii, National University of Singapore

In an effort to promote local designers overseas, the then newly set-up national design agency, DesignSingapore Council, debuted at the 9th biennale with Singapore’s first national pavilion. In response to the theme of “Metamorph”,  “Second Nature” (originally titled Tropical Genteelity) explored the relationship between architecture and nature, and how it affects Singaporeans’ lifestyles. Inside a mosaic room was images of the city’s skyline, buildings and places of significance, as well as four timeline panels that archived Singapore’s history and cultural statistics. In all, some 15 works by 13 local architectural firms and the National Parks Board were featured. Lead curator Dr. Wong explained, “Second Nature highlights the city-state’s creative ways of responding to and transforming Nature in its urban landscape. The selection illustrates the emergent conditions and the response of Singapore’s architects that is unique and exciting. It is a phenomenon that extends to a wider discourse of design.”

 

2006—Singapore Built & Unbuilt
Commissioner: Dr. Milton Tan, DesignSingapore Council
Advisor: Toyo Ito (Toyo Ito & Associates)

Design: ECO.ID (Space Consultant) / H55 (Graphic) / Dear Design Studio (Installation Artist) / Designation (Space Designer)

Controversy overshadowed Singapore’s second showing at Venice. Just two months before the pavilion was unveiled, the original curators—Dr. Erwin Viray, Randy Chan (DesignAct), Christopher Lee (Asylum), Tay I-Lin and Budi Wijaya (PlasticSoldierFactory)—quit after a last-minute rejection of their proposal, Singapore Shopping. According to a press release, their pavilion was a “flagship store” and “metaphor” that celebrated shopping and how it transformed the city and its people. It was the winning entry selected from 18 proposals.

Dr. Viray told The Straits Times that their entry was approved as Singapore’s response to the theme of “Cities, people, society and architecture” until they presented it to Dr. Tan Chin Nam, then permanent secretary of the former Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, which oversaw the national design agency. The bureaucrat felt the idea of shopping misrepresented Singapore and the team was asked to come up with alternatives—instead, they resigned.

DesignSingapore director, Dr. Milton Tan, called the pullout surprising and disappointing. Eventually, Ito, who was also an international advisor to DesignSingapore, worked with a new team to put together a showcase of  built and unbuilt proposals of architecture in Singapore. These included the winning proposal for Marina Bay Sands, as well as the finalists for several design competitions, including the School of the Arts and the what is today Pinnacle@Duxton.

 

2008—Singapore Supergarden
Commissioner: Dr. Milton Tan, DesignSingapore Council
Co-commissioner: Richard Hassell, Founding director, WOHA

Curator: FARMWORK, DesignAct, and ReallyArchitecture [re:act]
Design: FARMWORK (Pavilion) / MAKE (Graphic) / Eeshaun (Illustration)

More images on FARM’s website.

In response to the biennale theme of “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building,” this edition presented Singapore’s emerging design culture instead of previous building-centric pavilions. The works of 22 of the country’s new generation of creatives—including Ministry of Design, Donna Ong, Outofstock, Lekker Design, &Larry, amongst others—were exhibited on a lawn to show the creative network that made up a Singapore Supergarden. The pavilion was developed by three young architectural groups that were selected following an open call for nominations. Co-chairman of the commissioning panel, Richard Hassell, characterised this next generation of Singapore creatives as fluid in identity, highly networked, global in outlook, and the first to exist in a design eco-system supported by the state.

 

2010—1000 Singapores: A Model of the Compact City
Commissioner: Jeffrey Ho, DesignSingapore Council
Co-commissioner: Ashvinkumar, President of the Singapore Institute of Architects
Curators: Khoo Peng Beng (ARC Studio), Belinda Huang (ARC Studio), Assistant Professor Erik G. L’Heureux and Assistant Prof Florian Schaetz

Designers: ARC Studio, Assistant Professor Erik G. L’Heureux and Assistant Prof Florian Schaetz (Pavilion) | H55 (Graphic) | Plate Interactive (Website)

Arguably Singapore’s most provocative pavilion to date, this national pavilion put forth the idea that 1000 Singapores could house the entire world population—a density which only took up 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s land area. Using a 35-metres tube as a scale model to represent a slice of Singapore, the pavilion highlighted the city’s compact nature in response to the biennale’s theme of “People meet in Architecture.” The pavilion won a Design of the Year at the 2011 President’s Design Award and was re-staged in Paris and then Singapore as 1000 Singapores: Eight Points of the Compact City.

 

2012 and 2014—No national pavilions
Singapore sat out the 2012 edition to shift its focus to more trade-focused and product centric events such as the Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. There was notably no public outcry from local architects, unlike the Singapore arts community who publicly petitioned against the government’s decision to pull out of the Venice Art Biennale in 2013. The petition saw the country return to the art biennale in the next edition.

Architect Edmund Ng of Suying Metropolitan Studio | GETTY IMAGES

While Singapore continued to sit out the architecture biennale in 2014, two Singaporeans stepped up to fly the national flag. Local architect Edmund Ng (Suying Metropolitan Studio) and interior designer Peter Tay both showed works at the Time Space Existence exhibition organised by Dutch non-profit group Global Art Affairs Foundation.

 

2016—Space to Imagine, Room for Everyone
Commissioner: Jeffrey Ho, DesignSingapore Council
Co-commissioner: Tai Lee Siang
Curator: Dr. Wong Yunn Chii, National University of Singapore
Co-curators: Tomohisa Miyauchi (National University of Singapore), Teo Yee Chin (Red Bean Architects)

Design: Teo Yee Chin (Exhibition) | Do Not Design (Branding)

Singapore returned to the biennale with a feel good exhibition that showcased the state’s public housing programme and community-building efforts in response to the theme, “Reporting From the Front”. The highlight was a installation of 81 glass lanterns that each contained images showcasing the interiors of public housing. This was accompanied by case studies of non-governmental organisations working with the state to design the city—all examples of “participatory design, which is softening Singapore’s hardened edges,” explained curator Dr. Wong. After the show ended in November, it was showcased the following year in Singapore’s National Design Centre.

William S.W. Lim: A Poet of Cities

“The Future of Asian Cities”

An essay commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Singapore for the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s “IDEAS FEST 2016/17: CITIES FOR PEOPLE”.

Even before “creative”, “walkable”, “high-density”, and “liveable” became recent buzzwords for Singapore’s future as a city, architect William Lim Siew Wai had advocated for such a vision almost five decades ago.

As part of the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), a non-governmental think-tank a young Lim co-founded with other architects in the 1960s, they laid out “The Future of Asian Cities”—a visionary 1966 essay which reads like how Singapore now envisions to become.

“Imagine a city where…” work, play and living is mixed and concentrated, everything is connected by an efficient rapid transport system, and clean parks as well as open spaces are abound. Concerned about Asia and Singapore’s then rapidly growing population and massive industrialisation in the 1960s, SPUR dreamt up such “radical transformations” to modernise the region, but in a manner sensitive to the local way of life.

This was not the development path the Singapore government eventually chose, however, a divergence we can see in the city today. With the help of the United National Development Programme, the resulting Concept Plan 1971 resettled the population across neatly divided areas of singular function, all served by an island wide system of expressways—a Western model that has since proven inadequate for the Singapore of tomorrow.

Despite the city’s rejection of his ideas (SPUR was dissolved in 1975 partly due to opposition from the government), Lim never stopped dreaming of a utopia of Cities for People, also the title of his 1990 book. As an architect, he helped design People’s Park Complex (1972) and Golden Mile Complex (known as Woh Hub Complex when it opened in 1974), two pioneering mixed-use developments where bustling street life defined its interiors. As an urban activist, Lim made a stand on the value of built heritage amidst a city then fervently razing everything old for the new. In 1982, he worked with poet and entrepreneur Goh Poh Seng to conceptualise Bu Ye Tian, a proposal for the conservation and adaptive reuse of Boat Quay. Two years later, he helped produce Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage, a book that sparked the city’s conservation movement.

Underpinning Lim’s architecture and advocacy are the many books he has authored and edited, an endeavour he is dedicated full-time to since retiring from practice in 2002. While his writings can be frustratingly broad, Lim has clearly and consistently built the modern Asian city with his words. Against the rise of starchitects and globalised architecture, he has preached for ethical urbanism and the contemporary vernacular. And while governments increasingly turn to corporations and consultants offering cookie-cutter urban solutions to build their cities, a then 70-year-old Lim started the Asian Urban Lab in 2003, which brings together artists and intellectuals to critically and creatively consider urban life in all its complexities.

Far from being prophetic, Lim has simply been poetic—like his generation of intellectuals in Singapore—in envisioning what their city can and should be. In 1968, Singapore’s then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, declared in a address to university students that, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”[1]. Only a year earlier, Lim had pleaded otherwise when outlining the future of tomorrow’s cities: “We must plan for people and not population, to create places with spatial relationships, not voids between buildings and achieve quality and sophistication, not just pure function,” he said.

“We need poets and visionaries. Poetic reality is all embracing. It takes into account the total personality of every individual.”[2]

 

An Unequal Equation

An essay commissioned for the “Equivalence – Cans” exhibition held at Objectifs from 26 April to 14 May 2017

Just as the equal symbol is signified by two parallel lines, Equivalence presents two different things that are expressed to be the same. This is the equation—in the form of 1,001 photographs—that confronts visitors to the chapel turned gallery of Objectifs. Amongst a sea of a thousand pictures each depicting a crushed aluminium can recovered from the trash in Singapore sits a single image of a consumer good purchased from a shop. The former was discarded and deemed worthless by consumers. The latter was acquired in exchange for something of value. Yet, an equivalence connects the two.

Their common economic value of 15 Singapore dollars is what balances this seemingly unequal equation. That the scrap metal industry can turn a used aluminium can into a commodity is a testament of the free market economy’s ability to convert garbage into gold. But by equating the value of what some in Singapore need for survival to the cost of a thing that others covet for pleasure, Equivalence also sums up the inequality such an economy brings about.

This is a pressing issue for developed economies around the world today. Popularly expressed as the 99% versus the 1%, this income and wealth gap is the inevitable result of outsourcing the allocation of scarce global resources to the free market’s “invisible hand”. All things being equal, inequality is the answer. Besides polarising societies, such an economy blinds consumers to its mechanics too. From how industrial-scale production drives wages to unsustainable lows to mass consumption’s insatiable appetite for resources and the resulting huge amounts of waste, these products of the free market economy are often far away from snazzy shopping centres and liveable cities. Out of sight and out of mind, what consumers are left with is an abstract worldview: everything simply comes with a price tag, minus the hard to quantify costs. We value the things around us by flattening everything into a price. We quantify our lives as if we were nothing more than engines of value. We speak of our homes as income-generating properties, and even measure the worth of our cities based on their economies. We’ve developed a world that makes most sense (and cents) for those who can afford to live in such a free market.

For the many who struggle to fit into this equation, they have to turn to alternative means such as salvaging aluminium cans and other remains of the consumption cycle, often from the public streets. Even such avenues are increasingly being priced out by the widening reach of the economy. A recent drop in scrap metal prices has made collecting aluminium cans unprofitable. Public spaces in cities are increasingly being privatised, squeezing out those who cannot afford to rent. In a world that is becoming so rationally divided by the common denominator of the free market, what happens to those who equate to be the remainder? This is what Equivalence asks through its photographic juxtaposition of our wants and needs in contemporary urban living. This inquiry by the Beijing-based Chow and Lin—made up of photographer Stefen Chow and economist Lin Hui Yi—emerges out of the rapid urbanisation of Asia, a phenomenon that has prompted a next generation to question the region’s historic adoption of Western developmental models. Just as how the late German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher visualised the architecture of industrialisation in the 20th century—capturing water towers, coal bunkers, factory facades, amongst others—Chow and Lin bring to life globalisation in the 21st century by methodically documenting the products of our global economy. Equivalence mirrors the spectacular readymade installations of leading conceptual artists in Asia, such as the Beijing-based Song Dong and the New Delhi-based Subodh Gupta, by assembling a near life-size infographic of everyday goods from Asia to visualise the architecture of living in this region today.

Faced with an equation that adds up to be correct, but not right, Equivalence offers us an answer that only prompts more questions: Why makes things equivalent? How can the world be equal? That any equation is balanced only reflects a state of affairs in equilibrium—not necessarily one that is equitable. If this is the cost of a stability today, dare we formulate another way to value our world tomorrow?

➜ Find out more about the Equivalence project here