An empty Gillman Barracks on a rainy Tuesday afternoon reminded me of its struggles. Last year, 5 of 13 art galleries left this contemporary arts destination in Singapore, prompting questions about its future.
One answer was in the showcase I had come to review. Dwellings at Gillman: Homes for Artists and Researchers is a month-long display of speculative residences for the enclave – an imaginative alternate vision to its current setup of art galleries and restaurants.
Installed across four locations along the sheltered walkway of Gillman Barracks are 12 site-specific architectural models that came out of a workshop led by Roland Sharpe Flores and Dr Lillian Chee of the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Architecture. Over five months, the duo led second-year undergraduates to seek out the “essence” of this former British army barracks and express it in residences that ultimately seek to “create an inclusive, nurturing ecosystem for the Singapore artistic scene.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Architecture or property are different names for what most of us call a building.
But the emergence of starchitects has blurred the line between the two. Nowadays, there are buildings, and there are buildings designed by famous architects.
The city of Singapore has recently become the home of several condominium towers designed by starchitects such as Rem Koolhaas (The Interlace), Zaha Hadid (D’Leedon) and Jean Nouvel (Le Nouvel Ardmore). Local developers seem to believe that such architects renowned for their avant-garde designs can raise the values of their properties with a touch of designer class.
But what happens when such avant-garde architects meet the property market? Imagine Koolhaas or Hadid selling their architecture to the man on the street. You can’t — that’s the job of real estate agents. And the translation of these architects’ often abstract concepts into market language reveal the gaps between architecture and property.
“Over the last four decades, Safdie Architects has created from the experimental project Habitat ’67 in Montreal a series of projects incorporating fractal-geometry surface patterns, a dramatic stepping of the structure that results in a network of gardens open to the sky, and streets that interconnect and bridge community gardens in the air.”
This is just one of several blurbs including “Garden Living from Above” or “Dive into Our Sky Pool” that markets the “sky life” created by Safdie’s design. Selling such a view seems a strategic move considering the apartments are marketed to middle-class Singaporeans who are clueless about Safdie (“also known as ‘Who?’ to 99% of Singaporeans,” said one commentator). They would be familiar with his Marina Bay Sands design, however, a building which introduced the concept of a pool in the sky in a big way to Singaporeans.
Absent from the “sky life” hype, however, are how Safdie’s design attempts to foster a sense of the public amongst its residents with “generous community gardens and outdoor spaces on the ground”, according to the architect’s website. The developer’s descriptions of the design never expand beyond “you” and “your family”, highlighting how architecture is massaged into private property.
This struggle between architecture and property also surfaced in a recent Icon interview with Safide when he revealed that a woman wrote to him for help in getting a loan to buy a Sky Habitat apartment.
“When you take land and construction prices and the costs developers add on, it’s a struggle between affordability and the ideal. Moreover, the development was so desirable when it was built that it immediately became gentrified,” he said.
———– Written for Elizabeth Spiers and Chappell Elison’s Online Publishing class at D-Crit.