Tag: Milton Tan

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.

SG Design: Consumption or Culture Cultivation?

When I first began writing about design, an editor of an Asian design magazine categorised my essays as only interesting to designers. Instead, I needed to re-tune my writing for “design consumers” if I was to write for their magazine.

The remark gave me much clarity in what I sought to write about. I’ve never wanted to sell or promote the coolest or latest designs , but I’ve always seen design as a part of our everyday life, as well as a product of our culture and times . But such a view is rare amongst how many in Singapore view design. One of the most telling indicators for me is how design is often represented in the local mainstream media. When design gets coverage in newspapers like The Straits Times and Business Times, design is usually portrayed as a consumer product: designer furniture, stylish interiors, and dream homes. The same goes for many magazines about design that I find in Singapore.

Such a dominant view of design’s role in society probably explains why there was hardly a reaction from designers and architects over the fact that Singapore sat out of the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. As compared to local artists currently going brouhaha over the government’s decision to pull out of the contemporary art version of the Venice Biennale next year, the response has been rather muted except for some comments elicited for an article on The Straits Times over the weekend (Singapore skips architecture biennale. 1 September, 2012). After participating in every edition since 2004, building national pavilions around themes such as Second Nature (2004), Singapore Built and Unbuilt (2006), Singapore Supergarden (2008), and 1000 Singapores (2010), Singapore designers and architects will not be able to showcase their ideas, culture and work on an international platform this year.

While DesignSingapore Council has chosen to remain “tight-lipped about this year’s non-participation”, its executive director Jeffery Ho told the newspaper that the council was focusing on other events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. As Colin Seah from Ministry of Design pointed out in the report, this indicates the council’s direction to concentrate on “more commercial and trade events” — which supports my view that the council has become more interested simply promoting design for economic consumption. From what I understand, the Venice Architecture Biennale has always been an exhibition about ideas in design and its role in arts and culture as opposed to the business of selling design.

This latest pullout follows in the wake of the postponement of what was supposed to be the fourth Singapore Design Festival last year. There is still no news if the council will hold the festival this year, traditionally happening between October and November. What we can say for sure is that policymakers are reviewing their strategy of promoting and supporting design, perhaps aptly so since next year will be a decade since the council was set up.

A cue for the future of how the Singapore government will support and promote design can be found in the council’s plans for the upcoming National Design Centre due in 2013. It seems that government policies are shifting back to the view that design is for commerce and trade alone. This marks a shift in the original agenda set by the council’s late founding director, Dr. Milton Tan.

As one of his staff recalled in a eulogy for him that was published in The Design Society Journal No. 02, “Milton’s eventual vision for Singapore design was formed with the Ministry’s support… His research in design creativity also informed him that a healthy design strategy had to be integrated with culture, craft, and inspiration. This is why Dsg is in the ministry leading the creative industries, and not trade and industry. Though frequently challenged by MICA to deliver the economic numbers when formulating the design strategy for the next five years, Milton continued to push the cultural agenda.”

Could the time be up for the council and it finally needs to justify continued support for design with indicators of how it has benefitted Singapore economically? How will national design policies that ignore culture and affect the industry and community in Singapore?

This is a similar concern raised almost 15 years ago in a 1998 news report in the Business Times reviewing what was then the decade-old International Design Forum held in Singapore, another government initiative for design. The question was asked if the now defunct forum had become “too commercially oriented at the expense of highlighting design in its pure form”.

An optimistic view would be to say the council has laid a foundation and the growing community of designers and architects can continue cultivating the seeds of cultural evolution. But has the scene arrived at this point? It’ll be sad to see the council’s decade-long work of pushing design beyond the realm of business go to waste, but what is even more painful is to realise this is something that has happened before. And likely to happen all over again.

A late tribute to Dr Milton Tan

miltontan

 

On 8 November 2010, one of Singapore’s design pioneers, Dr Milton Tan, passed away. While working on a project recently, I got to learn more about the man, his efforts in promoting design through the government’s DesignSingapore Council (Dsg), and most of all, his ideas about design and creativity. This is my humble efforts to share his legacy with more people out there.

I never realised I had actually spoken to Dr Milton Tan until I decided to write this tribute to him last night. I was searching for some e-mail conversations I had with a friend about him when I found an e-mail that Dr Tan wrote to me six years ago. I was then an undergraduate working on a school project evaluating the Renaissance City proposal where for some reason I wrote straight to him — the Executive Director of Dsg — to ask for facts and figures about our arts and the economy. He did reply, and referred me to the right person to write to.

The only problem: it was nine months after I had sent the e-mail.

By then I had already turned to other sources for information, and in a fit of frustration at bureaucracy, I fired back an e-mail pointing out how ridiculous it was that I had to wait so long for a reply. To my surprise, he wrote back and agreed that it was unacceptable for me to receive a reply so late.

On hindsight, I think it’s actually amazing that Dr Tan even bothered to write back after nine months. To do so after so long suggests he genuinely wanted to help in some way. He could have just ignored my e-mail, and quite safely assumed that it had all been forgotten. But he didn’t.

Six years on, our paths crossed again. This time, I read about him in an upcoming article written by his former colleague and friend for The Design Society Journal. It’s a moving tribute about a man who helped lay the foundation for the government’s strategy for design promotion in Singapore in the new millennium. Dr Tan also kept a blog of his thoughts about design and creativity, and even talked about publishing a book. I’m not sure if the book will become a reality now that he has passed.

Here is a selection of some of his writings from his blog that really piqued my mind:

Hopefully, one day, these and more of his writings can be put together in a book to be shared with more. The last thing I have to say is to Dr Tan:

I’m sorry that this tribute came so late, “I agree that it is not acceptable for you to wait.”