Monday, January 15, 2007

Then and Now - Further Elaborations

In response to Hann’s response, I find a need to elaborate and further meditate upon my “Then and Now” posting of Alfred Wong’s National Theatre alongside our new Esplanade performing arts centre. My intentions for the original post appear to be misunderstood.

Rather than to elicit a purely formal comparison between both buildings, my intention was to place both buildings in an active dialogue, bearing in mind the contexts surrounding their births. Different as their contexts were, the intentions for both buildings’ constructions were uncannily similar-- to impress onto the built environment (and thereby onto public imagination) the prevailing aspirations for their respective ages through architectural expression. Both were flagship public projects which enjoyed state patronage.

If I may raise an example to prove this similarity, it is the medium of the postcard. A Singapore postcard from the 1960s was likely to feature the National Theatre, as uncannily as how a Singapore postcard from today would feature the Esplanade as an icon of Singapore. (The image of National Theatre here was indeed a postcard image.) In both cases, architecture played a symbolic role through their urban presence and image. Given this similarity, the true reason for their difference rests in the prevailing contexts.

The National Theatre came into being at a time of uncertainty. The nation of Singapore in 1965 was then an untested artificial concept, and its survival questionable. At a time when the hitherto-colonial city’s inhabitants were disparate Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, only an overarching national aspiration could unify the people toward the goal of a viable nation-state of Singapore. Unsurprisingly then, the source-material for the expression of the National Theatre was not from the vernacular culture of the disparate communities of Singapore, but rather the national flag. (a artificially constructed symbol of statehood that was only created in 1959)

Axially (and structurally) weighted on the five spokes, each spoke symbolised each of the stars on the Singapore flag: democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. The curvaceous form of the sculptural fountain was the crescent of a Singapore flag: representing a young nation on the rise. Although its cantilever was formally dynamic, it was nonetheless strictly symmetrical and centrally unified. The theatre would be a statement on a nation aspiring to modernity, resting on a base of social discipline.

Perhaps the picture above would elucidate my point more clearly. Here, an imposing National Theatre stands witness to marchpast ceremony for the 1968 National Day Parade. The strict rhythm of National Theatre’s façade echoes the discipline of the uniformed police contingent. The stage is set for nation building. The very bystanders watching the marching regiment in awe are the target-audience on whom the building was to impress. The semiotic message behind the building was that of a modern socialist independent nation.

If the National Theatre symbolised an aspiration to modern statehood, the Esplanade’s ambition was to urban cosmopolitanism. The primary message was not that of Singapore the nation, but of Singapore the city – or rather, the world-class global city. It was the outside world that the Esplanade sought to impress, not the average man-in-the-street. (even though it did awe the man-in-the-street) The image it sought to convey was that of cultural maturity – of the occidental city variety. Its source reference is, therefore, the Sydney Opera House. Perhaps a comparison of the two images of celebratory cosmopolitanism below will do my point justice.

Hann mentions that the brises-soleil is the feature that is unique, or at least, it’s the medium through which identity show through. I concur and say that it does possibly resemble an Asian basket-weave, or the king of all fruits. But if one were to critically read into the building, one notices that the Singaporean uniqueness of the building rests literally just on the skin. The body-massing and plan on which the skin sits is generically cosmopolitan. (a la Sydney Opera House. Designed by Michael Wilford, no less.) Perhaps uncannily, the Esplanade encapsulates the paradox of Singaporeaness, or its identity-oblivion thereof. That maybe we are not as Asian as we claim to be. Hopefully though, not quite like the picture below.

Do not mistake my opinion. Controversies notwithstanding, I believe that the Esplanade is imaginatively successful. It has drawn city inhabitants to a place like no other building has, where city dwellers make memories and are awed by the image of a city. Yes, it symbolises our aspiration for Singapore to be a world-class city. Yet, the Esplanade still sits on the fence between being what it feels like it ought to be, and what it wants to become. Perhaps this is merely symptomatic of where Singapore is at this moment of its history. Hopefully that will change with we make more personal memories there, and the place starts to take on a different meaning.

This entry is very much inspired by my dearest professor of architectural history, Joseph Siry, who taught me how to weave every individual building a single broad narrative, from whom I learnt how to make my own discoveries from the work of every master.