Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

July 8, 2008

Capturing vitality and chaos to make a great city

Filed under: General,Regulators — Propertymarketupdates @ 4:54 am

FOR the past 40 years, Mr Ng Mun Chee has wrapped his mind and fingers around almost every single building in Singapore.

Trained in technical drawing at Queenstown Secondary Technical School, the 58-year-old is one of four core members in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) model-making team.

He started out building models of HDB flats. ‘Last time it was all block architecture, quite straightforward,’ he says. ‘Nowadays, it takes a longer time to do a model. Buildings here have become a lot more complicated.’

As the local skyline took shape, he planted diminutive versions of new skyscrapers onto scaled-down versions of Singapore. The angular contours of the UOB Centre and the Bank Of China building were particularly difficult to render, he remembers.

In a storeroom somewhere in the URA Centre, models of defunct buildings, like the pre-restoration Cathay cinema, still stand – the last traces of their life-size counterparts.

‘We try to keep as many as possible. At least they can still bring back memories.’ But it is the ceaseless appearance of new structures, like the upcoming integrated resorts, that hold more interest for him, says Mr Ng.

Evidence of his handiwork can be found in the current exhibition at the URA Centre, which displays four models of Singapore, illustrating the latest development plans announced in the Draft Master Plan 2008 last month.

Some of the major changes that will take place over the next decade or so include the development of Jurong Lake District, Kallang Riverside and Paya Lebar Central as new commercial hubs, as well as the addition of 900ha of new park space and 260km of park connectors for leisure activities.

Like the shimmery, ghostly hues of most artist impressions of as-yet-unbuilt structures, the imagined future developments on the exhibition models have a fantastical quality to them.

Existing buildings are represented by models built from a locally available balsa wood. But those that do not yet exist are constructed with hundreds of pieces of translucent acrylic glass.

These imminent towers stand along cork roads and sandpaper beaches, many topped with tufts of green (sky gardens, in real life). Some in the Jurong and Paya Lebar models are lit from underneath, exuding a sort of futuristic glow.

The aim, says Ms Yap Lay Bee, URA’s head of urban design, is to engage and excite the public with these illustrations of development plans, to ’spark their imagination’.

Indeed, contemplating these miniature versions of Singapore is one way to digest how rapidly this little red dot is morphing into its next incarnation.

With these ambitious plans, Singapore continues, along with other nations, in the race to join the league of extraordinary cities, a race in which the stakes are the attraction of capital and talent essential for continued success.

One of the most high-profile contenders in this race is Abu Dhabi, which will soon boast a collection of buildings designed by prestigious names like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.

The primary lure for these star architects, writes Christopher Hawthorne of Conde Nast Traveller magazine, is ‘the pure tabula rasa potential – the rare chance to design huge, innovative buildings’ with virtually no budget, conservation and environmental restraints.

The result, he posits, is ‘a kind of dreamland – not a place in which to grapple with the complexities of contemporary cities but to leave them behind’.

Similar things have been said of Singapore’s urban development.

In a 2004 paper, architect William S.W. Lim wrote: ‘Critics have, with mounting frequency, lamented that the visual environment has in fact no context, landscape, scale or sense of history…The devastating effects of modernist planning, major rehousing and redevelopment have left Singapore with little more than a manufactured, over-regulated, glossy and tidy image of a city. In the process, it was stripped bare of vitality, complexity and chaos.’

But one could argue that, slowly and surely, the tide is turning.

Advocacy groups like the Singapore Heritage Society and the Nature Society have, over the years, succeeded in efforts to conserve significant parts of Singapore’s built and natural heritage.

To date, close to 7,000 buildings in Singapore have been conserved under URA’s conservation scheme.

And many of the lifestyle and leisure projects announced under the latest Draft Master Plan are updates on the Identity plan first launched in 2002.

Under this scheme, 15 areas such as Joo Chiat and Balestier were earmarked for enhancements, like more parking spaces and pedestrian walkways.

The aim: to retain exactly the sort of ‘vitality, complexity and chaos’ that was once so easily discarded for efficiency’s sake.

Some may carp that this is too little, too late. But surely the gradual realisation that this is not a blank slate, but rather a place already layered with shared histories, comes better late than never.

So much of what makes a city great is intangible. Plot ratio and design briefs are part of it, but less predictable is the fashion in which residents interact with these planned spaces – how they inhabit, change and grow to love their own corners of a teeming metropolis.

For a generation that grew up in a land of perfectly spaced trees and perpetual construction, it may not be the sparkling acrylic skyscrapers in the new development models that fascinate. Rather, it is what remains, after more than 40 years of nation-building, that may prove compelling reasons to engage in the next 40.

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The gradual realisation that this is not a blank slate, but rather a place already layered with shared histories, comes better late than never.

Source : Straits Times – 6 Jun 2008

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