Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities - Part 2

In my last post, I related how New York, at a different moment in history, went through the same series of insecurity complexes afflicting present-day Singapore. The insecurity-complex I referred to, was that of needing to prove that they “have arrived” though not just there yet. This insecurity naturally extended to the realm of fashion and taste – in architectural design.

We have achieved a certain level of prosperity that engenders a need to prove our sophistication. That we are aware of what is good design and what is “obiang” or distasteful design. To satisfy our need to prove our sense of sophistication that arrives with wealth, we now witness a proliferation of sleek and cool (and dare I say, skilled and masterful) works of design architecture in Singapore.

I am referring to the rectilinear neo-Modernist aesthetic of clean crisp lines and clear cubic volumes interplaying to create Miesian forms and spaces. Like in the picture below. (This is a house by one of the finest Singaporean architectural practitioners of this aesthetic. The trend is definitely catching on amongst other "design-conscious" architects)

Discursively, the form of such work is not locally-derived, but adaptive translations of foreign concepts into Singapore. (i.e. They are not expressions of Southeast Asian / Singaporean culture, but they are Western / Occidental concepts fitted into a Singaporean context.) The source material of such work (and of Modernism in general) begin with Cubism, then subsequently with Piet Mondrian, Gerrit Rietveld, Mies, and Neutra, amongst others.

I find myself undecided as to whether this architectural aesthetic is worthy of pursuit. On one hand, the translation of such concepts into a Singaporean tropical context itself involves the work of contextualisation, and there is no doubt that the final result is a piece of quality architecture. (if applied with skill, sensitivity, and care) On the other hand, such work is more an expression of foreign-ness, not local-ness. Also, by holding up the canon of a pre-conceived aesthetic, are we missing out on the chance to create something truly original and compelling?

Perhaps I could elucidate the problematic by turning back to New York. Back in the 1800s through the early 1900s, an architect was respected for being “Beaux-arts trained”. (An architect who was schooled at the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris) The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago spawned a nation-wide “City Beautiful” movement. Well-proportioned classical civic architecture (designed according to Beaux-Arts principles), which came to be equated with good architecture, was extensively commissioned.

Talented “Beaux-arts” American architects, including Mckim, Mead & White, Warren & Whetmore, Carrere & Hastings , produced well-designed and well-proportioned civic buildings such as the New York Public Library (picture above) and Grand Central Station. These architects copied (or you can say, translated) the canonical works of Pericles (Parthenon), Gianlorenzo Bernini, Filipo Brunelleschi, Henri Labrouste, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and adapted them to a New York context. Their work was artful, skilled, masterful. (And even innovative, in their re-adaptation of classical principles) If anything, their patrons perceived such classical architecture as symbols of good taste and sophistication. (Sounds familiar?)

On the other hand, there were those who went it alone, and embarked on more personal and original pursuits that were not in vogue. They were the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Frank Lloyd Wright vigorously pursued the personal question of an “organic architecture” and “American”, while Sullivan pursued a rationality based on “form follows function”. In those days, Wright was regarded as an outcast.

Today, when we study the world history of architecture, Wright and Sullivan’s impact on the discourse of architectural history is unquestioned. (because of their originality and their vision, no less) Yet, we only come across the work of McKim , Mead & White or Warren & Whetmore when we study the local architectural history of New York. Why is Wright more remembered and more impactful than Charles McKim or Stanford White, even if they were all excellent architects who designed beautiful well-liked buildings?

I think I know the answer. Wright had his own vision and set his own standards. His standards were his own, and he pursued them relentlessly. McKim,Mead&White (or any other Beaux-arts New York architect for that matter) held up Bernini, Francois Mansart, Brunelleschi, Labrouste, Schinkel (i.e. the canon, the influential masters) as their standard. Their skill arose because they held themselves up to these pre-determined standards set by the masters, but that also meant that they forever would live in the shadow of the masters.

Now you understand why I am concerned with the prevalence of this neo-Modernist sleek design aesthetic in Singapore, much as I admire its skill and sensitivity. This is also why I think we may be short-changing ourselves in our pursuit of “world-class” or “world-renowned”, when we can create something much more compelling by freeing ourselves from such externally-determined standards. Yes, the masters are great, and we could and should learn from them. But we must remind ourselves that we can be as great if we have the courage and vision to pursue the underlying substance, more than the overlaying style and form.

PS// Tay Kheng Soon wrote a harsh critique of Chan Soo Khian's so-called "Neo-Tropicality", dealing with the same questions. It is worth a read as a complement to the topic explored in this entry. Here is the link.