Tag: Golden Mile

S.P.U.R: The Future Was Already Here

Integrated developments that combine retail, residential and transport such as the recently opened Bedok Mall and the upcoming Northpoint City in Yishun may now be presented as a solution for a denser Singapore, but it is an idea that is almost five decades old.

Back when the newly independent Singapore was drawing out plans for its future city, a group of architects and planners—William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon, Koh Seow Chuan, Chew Weng Kong, Chan Sau Yan, amongst others—formed the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (S.P.U.R) in 1965 to study and develop proposals for the nation’s city development. Anticipating a future where the world would only become more densely populated, the group imagined a “true city” to be a “congested city”, one where people would live in higher concentration and on land that was intensively used for multiple functions.

A photo posted by Justin Zhuang (@justinzhuang) on

This was a vision S.P.U.R sketched out (above) for Asia Magazine in May 1966—and some of its members eventually built it out in the forms of Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex. Completed in the 1970s, these buildings that combined offices, residences and shops stood apart for decades in a city that became carved out for single land uses, or what the group warned in their article as “out-dated planning principles that seeks to segregate man’s activities into arbitrary zones, no matter how attractive it may look in ordered squares on a land use map.” But as Singapore’s population has almost tripled from 1.9 million in 1966 to 5.5 million today, the state has shifted its urban planning approach, which echoes S.P.U.R’s proposals for the future Asian city. The Golden Mile and People’s Park complexes are no longer eccentric anomalies of the city but architecture templates for Singapore’s future.

(Clockwise, left to right) Golden Mile Complex (1973), rendering of Bedok Mall (completed 2013), People's Park Complex (1973), and rendering of Northpoint City (expected 2018). | WIKIMEDIA/SENGKANG
(Clockwise, left to right) Golden Mile Complex (1973), rendering of Bedok Mall (completed 2013), People’s Park Complex (1973), and rendering of Northpoint City (expected 2018). | WIKIMEDIA/SENGKANG

Not all ideas by this non-governmental organization were rejected by the state at first. During the 1970s debate over expanding Paya Lebar airport or moving it to Changi, S.P.U.R made a public case for the latter—and they were vindicated. With the on-going expansion to build a fourth airport terminal, Singapore must be glad to have made the move. This was also to be one of the group’s last contributions to the nation’s urban planning discourse as it de-registered in 1975. Its members, however, carried on their activism in different forms, continuing to publish books and proposals about the city’s future.

Front and back cover of the inaugural SPUR publication.
Front and back cover of the inaugural SPUR publication.

Many of S.P.U.R’s proposals and activities were documented and published in two journals the group released. The pages may be in black and white, but they vividly show how Singapore became, or is only now becoming. Alas, their contribution has received much spotlight until now. NUS Museum is hosting a 50th anniversary reunion for the group next week, and it will be a fantastic opportunity to revisit a declaration they made in their inaugural publication: “We are at a cross-road between the old and the new Singapore and the planning and environmental decisions which we make today must be with vision and foresight, as future generation will judge as we judge our predecessors.”

How People and Time Can Save Bad Design


Try calling the old National Library a “monstrous monument” and “a picture of total failure” today, and one can only imagine the uproar it will cause amongst nostalgic Singaporeans. But that’s exactly what architect William Lim and others of his generation had to say about this now extinct building after it was unveiled in 1960.

“A visit to the inside confirms without any doubt the complete and absolute failure of the architect to create the necessary atmosphere and delight for both the readers and the library staff.” — William Lim (1960)

“Aesthetically, the design and exterior materials used, which are in juxtaposition to the soothing, pleasing National Museum, constitute what might be harshly termed a major architectural abortion.” — Cecil K Byrd (1971)

Similar sentiments were shared when the government announced in 1999 that the library would be demolished  to make way for the development of the Fort Canning Tunnel. The Urban Redevelopment Authority felt the library did not deserved to be conserved because “it was not of great architectural merit”.

But the outpouring against the library’s demolishment and declarations that it was a national icon shows how insignificant design is when compared against how it was used by people and remembered over time. While the criticisms of its architecture are fair and justified, but in this instance, those who supported the library’s conservation  saw its value beyond architecture.


This also explains the struggle with buildings like Golden Mile Complex → ,in which sentiments are reversed —  the architecture community thinks it is a gem, but the public find it an eyesore because it is seen as a home for a foreign community.

Granted that the quarrel is not about the criteria to assess design, but rather what is the value of a building. However, should our critiques of design be purely based on its design? Or should it be broadened to include non-design factors, in this case its value as a piece of Singapore’s social memory? Even so, there is also the question if such feedback be meaningfully incorporated into a design process or practice.

One recent project that addresses some of these issues is FARM’s effort to remember the National Stadium through “bench“. Designers were given old planks of the stadium seats to “recapture and rethink this piece of memory” of the stadium. The result are 30 benches inspired by the stadium’s architecture, its role as a sports centre, and also a community space. Most of the pieces are visual translations of these messages, and often at the expense of the seating experience. The designs also turned out looking rather similar, which could either hint at how narrow the brief was or how unifying the National Stadium was as a memory.

A side project of bench, WOOD, was much more interesting. Hans Tan led a design studio where 18 students from the Division of Industrial Design explored the materiality of the planks and essence of the stadium to greater detail. Freed from the need to create piece of furniture, the students pushed the experience of memory beyond visual objects and instead engage other senses such as smell and interaction. Do check out the exhibition of their works  in The URA Centre till 31 May 2013.