Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Singapore Visit, August 2009

."The world could learn a lot from Singapore. In a quiet, unpretentious way it has for the past several decades been implementing social-urban policies – and getting results – that many cities now keenly aspire too. In doing this it has created perhaps the closest reality to an urban utopia that we have anywhere in the world today."

By Antony Wood, CTBUH Executive Director
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Figure 1. View of Singapore Central Business District from top of 226m (741ft) meter high Swissotel Tower

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Click here to see photos of the Singapore Visit.                                   Click here to view this article as a PDF.


That is not to say that it doesn’t have its issues to contend with. After all, as some point out, humanity with its own multiple foibles is not particularly well positioned to inhabit utopia, and ‘too much of a good thing’ can lead to complacency and stagnation. Certainly Singapore (see Figure 1) has attracted more than its fair share of critics over the years for what is perceived externally as an over-control of its policies (the aberrant evils of chewing gum resulting in the banning of the substance perhaps being the most publicized example). However, putting aside the possibility that many may view Singapore as the ultimate "nanny-state", much of the urban planning, social policies and built architecture in this small island nation is quite simply staggering in both vision and delivery. Perhaps Singapore’s greatest failing is that it hasn’t done a particularly good job of telling the rest of the world about it...

I came to Singapore several times in the early 1990’s, whilst working in architectural practice in the - then to me - far more exciting cities of Hong Kong, Bangkok and Jakarta. As a relatively young and footloose architect then, swiftly falling in love with Asia and impatient to see how the rest of the world compared, Singapore seemed a bit too clean and organized for my liking. ‘Antiseptic’ was the word the critics liked to use – socially-engineered and urbanistically-over-organized, with the population functioning beneath a kind of benign dictatorship that always knew what was best for them.

The usual urban comparison was made with Hong Kong, a couple of thousand miles north across the South China Sea, with its similar British-colonial and Chinese background and geographical-island make-up. Whereas Hong Kong had allowed the life, dirt and historical grain of the city at the ground plane to remain as it took up its quest to reach architecturally skywards (hence the back-street markets and the skyscrapers perched precariously over Chinese temples), Singapore was criticised for sweeping much of that history away in its enthusiastic quest to become a modern city. It was this perhaps more than anything that gave Singapore a somewhat sanitized feel – an appearance of being a little too-good-to-be-true – and it was this that turned me personally back to the preferred, slightly more dangerous but ‘real’ cities of Bangkok and Hong Kong.
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Singapore Marina Bays

Figure 2. View from top of 226m (741ft) meter high Swissotel Tower. Showing extension of Central Business District on reclaimed land out into the sea.

  

Figure 3. Moshie Safdie's Marina Bay Sands under construction


I have to say that close to 20 years since then has made one hell of a difference. Perhaps that’s the time (and then some) needed for social-urban policy implementation to really settle in and be judged, or perhaps the changes have been more about me personally in the intervening years (becoming a parent tends to do that). Whatever the reason, during my August visit to the city I really did find a very different – new and exciting – Singapore (see Figure 2).

I was there this time at the invite of the Singapore Government Exhibition and Conventions Bureau (as well as at the urging of CTBUH Trustee and NBBJ Principal Tim Johnson who had recently finished The Sail at Marina Bay project there, in the process becoming a clear Singapore-ophile). The invite had come in the hope of us holding one of our future CTBUH Conferences (or possibly a Congress) there and I spent five days in the city, meeting high-level people from the local building industry, viewing facilities and touring some excellent buildings built and under construction. I have to say that, at the end of it all, if there was now one city I think I would feel very comfortable living in in South-east Asia, Singapore would be that place.

The scale of the vision that has guided Singapore over the past half-century is simply staggering, and I’m not sure that it has been matched in urban planning terms anywhere else. When I was last there Fullerton Road and the mouth of the Singapore River marked more or less the edge of the central business district, beyond which lay the Singapore straits and Indonesia. Now where there was once only sea is a vast new extension to the central business district, with the flagship triple-tower-and-linked-rooftop-skypark Marina Bay Sands project (see Figure 3) anchoring a vast new area of skyscrapers, convention facilities and recreational parks.
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The fact that this major extension of the central business district is founded on reclaimed land on a massive scale is only part of the story, after all Hong Kong knows virtually all there is to know about continually extending shoreline into the sea. But this land in Singapore was actually reclaimed as part of the long-term strategy for Singapore’s growth about 30 years ago, with a view to the downtown core eventually out-growing itself (which is now has done). And the reclamation is about more than just increasing land area.    Singapore Flyer
    Figure 4. Singapore Flyer + land reclamation. Beyond is the new mouth of the
sea - now closed to create a fresh water reservoir

The large area of sea which has been embraced by the reclamation has now been isolated from the larger ocean by the building of a dam across the narrow inlet so that, gradually as the Singapore river discharges its fresh water load into this area over the next decade or so, it will dilute the sea-water and eventually create a fresh-water reservoir, making Singapore politically less dependant on Malaysia for its fresh water needs, and creating a great recreational resource in the heart of the city to boot (see Figure 4). In a world where fresh water is becoming an increasing concern, and where many cities in the Middle East for example expend huge amounts of energy on desalinating sea water, this is quite an interesting, and radical, strategy.

That same long term vision of letting a city become itself is also evident all over the urban fabric. Now admittedly one of the greatest things Singapore has going for it is its constant hot, humid, tropical climate (so much so that you feel that if you stand still for long enough you will start to cultivate luxuriant vegetation yourself) but the Singapore vision of a “City in a Garden” is now firmly a reality, with vibrant greenery adorning horizontal and vertical surfaces everywhere; hiding concrete flyovers, enlivening building facades, providing shaded walks for pedestrians. Surely this is the closest we have come to realizing Yeang’s ‘tropical verandah city’ treatise of thirty years ago?

The environmental benefits of urban vegetation are well documented – reducing the urban heat island effect, providing natural shade to both buildings and inhabitants, sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, etc. But I'm sure it's not just me who thinks that, in addition to the environmental benefits, the actual aesthetics of a Patrick-Blanc planted façade or a WOHA green wall are incredibly exciting; a ‘new’ aesthetic totally fitting to the age we now inhabit? Doesn’t urban greenery just feel right intrinsically? Surely the demise of our cities that began perhaps 50 years or more ago coincided with the total divorce from nature and natural materials? And thus, through extension, shouldn’t organic material and vegetation be at the forefront of reconnecting architecture with its environment? Well to see how that's done, visit Singapore. Residing in Chicago as I do now (which lays claim to having more green roof than any other city in the US) I can testify that western cities have a long way to go till they even begin to approach the organic-ness of Singapore.
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Pinnacle     Facade Detail
Figure 5. ARC Studio's The Pinnacle at Duxton Figure 6. Facade Detail


Singapore excites in many other ways, some not so obvious from aesthetics alone. 80% of residents in Singapore reside in high-rise, government-built housing (with most of the remaining 20% living in private-market high rise housing). 80%! In most of the western world the mere placing together of the terms ‘high-rise’ and ‘public housing’ spells disaster. But in Singapore somehow the government’s Housing Development Board manages to build these towers and, through a process of subsidies and support, allows for high-rise home ownership to the point where virtually everyone happily lives in a high-rise apartment (supported by urban facilities at the ground plane). Now admittedly the vast majority of these urban towers are neither pretty to look at nor innovative in their execution, but they all contain decent-sized apartments (often much larger than their equivalents on the normal commercial market) and benefit from natural ventilation etc.

Whereas the majority of these tower blocks are not particularly inspiring architecturally, the Housing Development Board’s latest development – The Pinnacle at Duxton Plain – is radical in several areas (see Figures 5+6). Whilst openly admitting that, having partially completed a PhD on the benefits of skybridge connections between tall buildings I am rather sold on the idea, The Pinnacle comprises seven towers linked by skybridges at the roof and half-height levels which are just fantastic; communal, recreational park space for the benefit of all residents, offering great views of the city. These are the wide-open spaces that tall buildings commonly don’t have (and offer the additional benefits of alternative circulatory paths for fire evacuation, redundancy of service routings etc). As I have noted before on numerous occasions – I think it is completely nonsensical that we have made a push for ever-higher, ever-denser cities, but allow the ground floor to be the only plane of physical connection.
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   Figure 7. ARCStudio's The Pinnacle At Duxton – People From Left To Right: Tay Yew Nguan, Director of the Corporate Development Department, Housing Development Board; Lawrence Pak, Deputy Director of the Building Technology Department, Housing Development Board; Antony Wood, CTBUH Executive Director; Bertram Lee, Assistant Director, Ministry for National Development (MND); Lim Yuin Chien, Director Corporate Communications, MND


Our future cities need to embrace more horizontal connection between towers, and bring the multi-use functions of the city up into the sky; the schools, the shops, the parks, the doctors surgeries etc. This is not a strategy to be implemented at the expense of the ground plane but in support of it, for if we concentrate ten times more people on the same plot of land, then we need ten times more of the urban support facilities, including circulation. ARC Studio’s (see Figure 7) The Pinnacle at Duxton Plain, with the seven linked towers now topped out and ready to receive their first inhabitants in 2010, perhaps goes further than any project globally in realizing that connected vision.
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Figure 8. Model of Singapore at the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority


I met many people and was shown much courtesy and kindness during my time in Singapore. Highlights included meetings with Larry Ng Lye Hock, Group Director for Architecture & Urban Design, and Tracey Hwang Li Shih, Deputy Director at the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA: The body that has been responsible for much of the excellent visionary urban planning and policy of Singapore over the last 30 years, see Figure 8); Ashvin Kantilal, President, and Ow Chin Cheow, Executive Director, of the Singapore Institute of Architects; Lim Yuin Chien, Director, and Bertram Lee, Assistant Director, of the Ministry of National Development; Lawrence Pak, Deputy Director of the Building Technology Department and Tay Yew Nguan, Director of the Corporate Development Department of the Housing Development Board; K. Thanabal, Deputy Director, and Thung Sek Kwang, Senior Executive Engineer, of the Building and Construction Authority; and PengBeng Khoo and Belinda Huang, Directors of ARC Studio.
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Figure 9 + 10. NBBJ's 2008 The Sail at Marina Bay - People From Left To Right: Gary Cher, Manager Project Division, City Developments Limited; Dr. S. Nasim, Managing Director, Meinhardt Singapore; Lim Tow Fok, General Manager, City Developments Limited; Antony Wood, CTBUH Executive Director; Ludwig Reichold, Managing Director, Dragages Singapore; Dr. Juneid Qureshi, Associate Director, Meinhardt Singapore; Loke Kwong Yoon, Director, TEAM DESIGN Architects; Nicolas Ramillon, Project Manager, Dragages Singapore.

The memories that I will most take away with me from the trip are the four tall buildings I was lucky enough to tour during my time there; to the rooftop heliport of the 226-metre/741-feet Swissotel with its stunning views on the Singapore skyline (see Figures 1+2); from top to bottom of The Sail at Marina Bay through the kind efforts of building owner CDL as well as contractors Buoygues-Dragage, Meinhardt and Team Design (see Figures 9+10); the personal escort of The Pinnacle at Duxton Plain Housing scheme by the Ministry of National Development and the National Housing Board (see Figures 5+6); and, last but not least, the personal tour of the Newton Suites project by WOHA founders Mun Summ Wong and Richard Hassell (see Figures 11+12).

   Newton Suites
Figure 11. WOHA's Offices - Richard Hassell & Mun Summ Wong, Founding Directors, WOHA with experimental green wall Figure 12. WOHA's 2008 Newton Suites – Looking up

This latter building with its skygardens and full-height green wall (this must be the tallest continual green wall in the world? The building was recognized as a Finalist in our 2008 CTBUH Awards for the Asia & Australasia category) continues the bravery of urban and architectural experimentation that is evident everywhere in Singapore. It is this that makes the city worthy of visit and study and, I hope colleagues at CTBUH agree, makes it worthy of a destination for a CTBUH conference in the not-too-distant future.

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Picture Gallery
Click an image below to enlarge. Photos courtesy of Antony Wood.
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Singapore Central Business District

View from top of 226m (741ft) meter high Swissotel Tower Singapore Flyer + land reclamation Moshie Safdie's Marina Bay Sands under construction  Marina Bay Sands Model

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ARC Studio's The Pinnacle at Duxton The Pinnacle at Duxton - Looking Up
The Pinnacle at Duxton - Skybridge
The Pinnacle at Duxton - Facade
Project Team (for name listing see Figure 7)

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Model of Singapore - Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority Model of Singapore - Close up
NBBJ's 2008 The Sail at Marina Bay NBBJ's 2008 The Sail at Marina Bay - Corner Detail
 The Sail at Marina Bay - Project Team (for name listing see Figure 10)

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WOHA's 2008 Newton Suites - Looking up Newton Suites - Corner Detail
Newton Suites - Environmental Deck Richard Hassell &
Mun Summ Wong, Founding Directors, WOHA

Ashvin Kantilal, President, and Ow Chin Cheow, Exec. Director, Singapore Institute of Architects

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SOM's and DCA Architects' 2005 One George Street
One George Street - Looking Up
Ken Yeang's 2005 National Library National Library - Corner Detail
National Library - Skygarden