Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities - Part 1

Singapore is a city on the brink of adulthood. Like many cities undergoing this stage of maturation, Singapore has an insecurity-complex fuelled by the need to prove that it “has arrived” in the league of big cities. In view of this observation, I thought it appropriate to draw an analogy from a different moment in the history of a different city, one that Singapore likes to compare itself to: New York.

Compared to most European cities, New York is much younger. (hardly two centuries older than modern Singapore) Much of New York’s development was driven by maritime trade and industry, the primary source of its wealth. As can be imagined, much of New York’s initial growth was haphazard until the 1811 grid plan. It wasn’t until the early to mid-1800s that a class of wealthy Americans emerged, thanks to trade money. New York had no aristocratic wealth to speak of.

Members of this new leisure class were able to afford their grand tours of Europe. They went to the historic and cultural centres in Europe and saw in these cities what their own did not have: art and culture, grand museums, palaces, public parks, libraries, concert halls, and modern underground railroads, etc. It is this insecurity-complex, this need to be as great as Paris or London or Rome, that led to the creation of institutions and buildings like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, The New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, etc.

Most of you probably find this tale familiar. After 40 years of economic prosperity, many of us have travelled and seen some part of the world to feel that we must have our Guggenheim Bilbao (Marina Bay IR), our waterfront performing arts centre (Esplanade), our museum in an imperial classical building (the old Supreme Court / new National Art Gallery), our London Eye (Singapore Flyer), our Central Park (“Central Linear Park” in the new Marina downtown) and our hi-rise Manhattan lifestyle (the new Marina downtown).

These developments have as much potential to make Singapore a richer and more exciting place, as they have the potential to sap up and displace all that is authentically Singaporean. When we desire to be world-class, we desire to enter a “class” whose standards are pre-determined by others, not by us. This implies that the others who set the standards of “world-class” are better than us. It also implies that we do not sufficiently trust our authentic selves to manifest externally.

As opposed to being world-class, I much rather we be in a class of our own. Instead of aspiring to be the “New York or London” of Asia, would we have the courage to be the “Singapore of the world?" What would that entail? That is when we can finally use our imagination, and stop playing catch-up.

(Part 2 will focus on Architecture. Specifically, I will attempt to compare the proliferation of neo-Modern design aesthetics in Singapore today [as a symbol of good taste] with the proliferation of neo-classical beaux-arts architecture in New York from 1800s through the early 1900s)