Past and future collide to create - Singapore

31 May 2017

Singapore has carefully planned its way from being a small regional entrepôt to a world city. However, new challenges have cropped up as the space available for development declines and new attitudes emerge as to what is worth preserving for future generations. Greg Noone talks to Soo K Chan of SCDA, Ng Lang of the Singaporean Urban Redevelopment Authority and Dr Gillian Koh of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy about how progress in urban planning is being increasingly defined against the needs of heritage conservation.

When Moshe Safdie and his colleagues were asked to design the complex that would become Marina Bay Sands, they felt they’d been handed a gift.

“Here we were, controlling an entire $5-billion project, from envelope to interiors,” he told LEAF Review last year. Since the vast mixed-use structure opened in 2008, Safdie has remained adamant that few – if any – other cities in the world would allow such an ambitious development project to proceed, not only given its scale, but also the serious way in which it goes about expanding the public realm.

For Soo K Chan, an acolyte of Safdie’s and one of Singapore’s most renowned architects, the very existence of the complex is testament to the efficiency of the country’s centralised approach to urban planning.

“I think the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is a sophisticated planning body, and it has all the tools and foresight to gather different government ministries to allow [Marina Bay Sands] to happen,” he says. “It had the planning tools in a small country to stimulate and kind of control what got built. And that’s quite unique, compared with having it organically grow.”

Simulated city

After centuries of British rule and a short but tumultuous period of union with neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore emerged from what the historian Jean Abshire has described as ‘a poverty-stricken country with people living packed together in slum along a river’ as a nation with a GDP larger than that of Vietnam and Cambodia combined.

“We are very much shaped by our unique position as the only island city-state in the world,” says Ng Lang, URA’s CEO. “Within the confines of a small island, we have no luxury to sprawl and no natural resources to exploit. Ironically, that scarcity forces us to innovate and find our own solutions to grow in a sustainable manner.”

The event that set the tone of this approach to city planning came in 1961, when 16,000 people were made homeless almost overnight by a fire that swept through a squatter settlement in the neighbourhood of Bukit Ho Swee. Within five years, the newly formed Housing & Development Board (HDB) had rehoused them with room to spare in 50,000 new flats, forming the bedrock of Singapore’s housing system. Today, HDB proudly states that over 80% of Singaporeans are living in such properties.

Since then, planning agencies like HDB and URA have thought not in years, but in decades. “We take a strategic long-term view; we constantly review how the future economy and society will evolve, and how our spatial and urban plans can support them,” explains Lang. “I think it is this iteration of reviewing how urban plans, growth and social outcomes can reinforce one another that helps us develop complex developments that work.”

The most striking way in which URA envisions bringing these three components together lies in the agency’s plans for the managed decline of the automobile in Singaporean life. Cars are dirty, polluting vehicles that require roads to travel on: space that might otherwise be used by pedestrians or cyclists. Minimising their impact on Singapore’s mass transit system requires restructuring the way residents reach their homes and places of work: something URA is entirely willing to do.

“Jobs have traditionally been concentrated in the central business district (CBD) in the south and in the industrial zone in the western part of the island,” says Lang. “There is now an aggressive plan to decentralise future jobs and locate them closer to homes, reducing the need for workers to commute. For every future job created in the CBD, we hope to create more than three closer to where people live.”

If citizens cannot rely on that option, they are encouraged to climb aboard the country’s burgeoning public transportation system. By 2030, the subway network is planned to have doubled to 360km, with the ultimate aim of 80% of households being within a ten-minute walk of a metro station. Cycling is also actively being promoted as a greener mode of transport. A heavy investment is being made in autonomous vehicle research, too, to study how and where the technology can optimise mass transit for the benefit of businesses and the wider citizenry.

Sky high

One might imagine that an urban planning system that so prizes the optimisation of space would radically circumspect the role of the architect. This has not been the experience of Chan, who has taken full advantage of long-standing planning rules that mandate greenery and the preservation of the local landscape by scaling back the height and density of developments in suburban areas.

Within the confines of a small island, we have no luxury to sprawl and no natural resources to exploit. Ironically, that scarcity forces us to innovate and find our own solutions to grow in a sustainable manner.

“The planning guidelines are quite liberal in terms of setback, compared with Hong Kong, for example, or Bangkok,” explains Chan. “So, excepting certain areas, we’re able to build structures like clusters of towers in green sites with utopian landscapes. There are a lot of condominiums built like that.”

One such example has been the Interlace by Ole Sheeran. Following strict guidelines relating to height and space laid down by the developer, Sheeran and his firm literally flipped the idea of a conventional residential tower block on its side. The resultant stacked blocks not only form quadrangular open-air courtyards, but also contend unobtrusively with the rest of the Singaporean skyline. 

SCDA’s design for SkyTerrace @ Dawson also had to abide by seemingly rigid development guidelines, but Chan nonetheless found room to innovate. The development contains five towers, each bridged to the other by sky gardens, yoga pavilions and green terraces. Most of the studio flats offer high ceilings that allow natural light and air to permeate the space – a signature of Chan’s designs since he oversaw the renovation of his first home in Singapore into an elaborate colonial-era shophouse.


“[When designing,] I remembered the shophouse that I grew up in as a child, because it’s quite primal, the first four years of your life: not remembering everything, just the sights and smells, the darkness and light,” he says. “And I considered the lack of distinction between the inside and the outside, because I remember days when we’d have these torrential downpours. Rain from the roof would slope and collect in the sunken airwells, flooding them with water and then, eventually, draining away.”

Post-expiration preservation

The Singapore shophouse – a long and narrow residence, typically 5m wide and 15m in length – is the abiding symbol of the country’s efforts to conserve its own heritage. “In the city centre, we have several significant conserved districts in Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India,” says Lang. “Across the island, we have conserved close to 7,200 buildings.”

Many of these buildings are markers by which ordinary citizens might judge the architectural evolution of Singapore and thereby retain their own kind of utility. There have, however, been important exceptions to the degree in which the state is prepared by default to preserve certain sites. The case of Bukit Brown – a former Chinese cemetery that gradually turned into a local tourist attraction – has been held up by many as an illustration of just how much of the country’s heritage the government is willing to sacrifice in the name of expediency.

Unlike Western cemeteries, which generally comprise row upon row of austere-looking tombstones, Chinese grave sites are elaborate and aim to make a visual statement as to the families buried there. Even after residents ceased being interred in Bukit Brown, the site remained popular for walkers and tourists. Not only is it home to up to a quarter of Singapore’s bird population, but it is also one of the only preserved spaces on the island that stands as testament to its multicultural history. Rarely are tombstones inscribed with ancient Hokkien characters watched over by statues of Sikh guardsmen.

All of this was placed under threat when the government announced plans for a new eight-lane highway that would force the unearthing of 5,000 graves at the site and set a dangerous precedent for the redevelopment of the entire space. According to Dr Gillian Koh of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, many of Singapore’s heritage and nature conservation groups had already suspected such a plan was afoot, and subsequently hatched their own.

“Over the years [before the announcement], they’d already been doing audits of the flora and fauna in that area,” Koh explains. Heritage tours of the cemetery also helped to raise the level of awareness of Bukit Brown’s historical significance. After some support was gained on the ground for the site’s preservation, the government made some minor concessions that would help mitigate the environmental impact of construction, and pledged to digitally archive the contents of the graves that would eventually be destroyed.

Singapore soul

While the road was eventually approved, Koh believes that the episode is illustrative of a growing public concern that the approach of urban planners over the past few decades has overridden the preservation of sites that contribute to what she calls the “Singapore soul”.

“There is a slow but strong popular mood,” she explains. “It’s not restive, aggressive or adversarial, but a sort of ‘you know, come on, let’s be sensible about this’ attitude. I think this emboldens the campaigners, who know that they have made headway not by banging tables, but by being evidence-driven and rational in their advocacy processes.”

Then, of course, there’s a third option for preservation that’s increasingly being pursued in Singapore. “There are situations in which we can adopt a practical approach to allow conserved buildings to be integrated with new ones, so that new and old can reinforce each other,” says Lang. “An example is the former Clifford Pier and the Custom Harbour Branch Building located at Marina Bay, which have been conserved, restored and integrated with a boutique waterfront and lifestyle development. The conserved buildings help to shape a distinctive character and identity for the area, and provide a reminder of our history even as we develop a new growth area.”

In this sense, no one can rightly say that urban planning in Singapore is detached from its historical memory, despite the unique pressures it faces in the availability of land. Nevertheless, the city continues to face challenges in how it confronts the preservation of sites and structures that confound easy demarcation. And it is those wild spaces – those groves, forests, lakes and hills that fall beyond easy definition on the map – that remain as much a part of the soul of the city as its architecture.

National Design Centre, Singapore, by SCDA.
SkyTerrace @ Dawson, Singapore, by SCDA.
Bukit Brown cemetery.

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