Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

My Wishlist for Architecture in Singapore

1) Creation of a Department of Architecture and Design in the Singapore Art Museum (Or alternatively, a museum of architecture and design)
The department would be the guardian of Singapore’s design heritage, would be a home for a permanent collection of design drawings, documents etc related to Singapore architecture, and would provide dynamic and critical curatorial direction to affect critical discourse. (I’m thinking along the lines of how exhibitions like Henry Russell Hitchcock’s 1932 “International Style exhibition” , Paolo Portoghesi’s 1980 “Presence of the Past” or Mark Wiggley’s 1989 “Deconstructivism” left a profound impact on the movement of architectural discourse. ) Exhibitions on Singapore Architecture need to be more than just “showcasing Singapore’s design to the world” at fancy international biennales.

2) A permanent architecture column in the Straits Times, with a qualified resident or rotating architectural critic
I mentioned this in a previous post. If Singapore is serious about the development of architecture, we must also be serious enough to devote space in our print media to educate the public on the role and place of architecture in society and why good/critical architecture matters and what makes compelling architecture.

3) An annual speculative architecture competition for a temporary architecture installation/pavilion that goes up for 3 months each year.

I was thinking of something along the lines of MoMA’s annual PS1 competition that temporarily transforms their space in Queens every summer with a winning installation. It is often a rite-of-passage for up-and-coming architects before they “make it big”. It could alternatively take the form of a commission for temporary follies like the yearly Serpentine Pavilion or Kumamoto Prefecture’s Artpolis project.

4) Creation of a National Trust Fund for Historic Preservation (possibly a tax-free endowment fund) that will heavily fund or subsidise the acquisition, repair, maintenance, and adaptation buildings of heritage value that cannot withstand the onslaught of the free market and developmental pressures independently.
We all witnessed the controversy of the Butterfly House and the we-have-no-choice-but-to-tear-this-down-for-development lame argument. Singapore cannot rely on URA alone to safeguard our heritage because their ultimate responsibility is to focus on development. (note that R in URA stands for Redevelopment)

If any emotionally valuable piece of architectural heritage cannot stand up to the test of the free market, then it deserves a subsidy that is commensurate with its heritage value / design merit (that is often never factored in when people tear stuff down to rebuild and redevelop)

(As a loosely parallel example, Central Park in New York was restored after decades of degeneration with private money by way of the Central Parks Conservancy, independent of municipal authorities)

5) A set of incentives to encourage developers/clients to commit to innovative architecture. (e.g. a tax rebate on rent earned for every project that passes the scrutiny of a design jury, or that wins the President’s design award, etc)

Alternatively, we can tax ugly insensitive buildings. Like the Supreme Court. (just kidding) I prefer carrots to sticks.

But otherwise, I think URA and Design Singapore are coming up with a fascinating slew of initiatives. I only wish their intentions were more pure than "making Singapore a design hub of the world". ..... *sigh*

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Clients - our allies

Sometime back, Sy Lyng posted an article on the need for architectural “mediators” in Singapore. If I remember the gist of her posting correctly, she referred to such architecture mediators as people who were not career architects, but were important facilitators who took a sincere interest in enabling good architecture to be built.

Along the same vein, I wanted to devote this post to a special category of people who are not the architects but are as crucial to a project’s success. Without these people, many masterpieces and imaginative forms would not have been realized – they are the clients, or the crucial decision-makers in the commissioning process.

Whereas most architects believe that the ideal client gives the architect the free rein, I beg to differ, somewhat. The most successful commissions often begin clients who have a strong vision and intention of what outcome they want. They share with architects the faith in the power of architecture. The strength of their vision and intention often gives clarity to the parameters (and meaningful constraints) that they lay down for their architects. At the same time, they trust the architects to be their own.

Rarely are they followers seeking to commission a building similar in form to something that already exists somewhere else. Instead, they believe in that which has yet to come into existence and make discoveries together with the architects during the design process. In short, they care about the design of the buildings they commission but never usurp the role of designer.

Beyond all these, the strongest architect-client partnerships depend upon a deep affinity, chemistry, and mutual understanding in a highly personal relationship.

For architecture in Singapore to flourish, it is not only important for us to nurture design talent, but to cultivate interest within potential allies within the power circles (in real-estate, in decision-making processes, in academia, in administration) to share the belief in compelling architecture and powerful spaces. The architects cannot go it alone.

I raise here, examples of important people who made it happen because they had a vision and cared about design.

1. Hilla Rebay
Was the curator of Solomon Guggenheim’s personal collection of “non-objective art” She sought to exhibit his collection in a “temple of non-objectivity” and found that the only architect with whom she could share that vision was Frank Lloyd Wright.
The result: Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

2. Jonas Salk
Envisioned a research space for scientists where “anyone with a mind in the humanities, in science, or in art could contribute to the mental environment of research leading to discoveries in science.” He wanted a space where a scientist could “invite Picasso”.
The result: the Salk Institute, (Louis Kahn)

3. Phyllis Lambert
Daughter of Samuel Bronfman, CEO of Seagram. When it was decided that a tower would be built to house Seagram’s headquarters, Phyllis Lambert personally insisted that a great architect be commissioned for the building. She ended up choosing Mies van der Rohe for his most successful skyscraper tower – the Seagram Building.

4. Deborah Jacobs
Head Librarian for the Seattle Public Library. Together with architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, visited every new library in America, consulted IT experts on the future of the printed book, to clarify the vision of the library of the 21st century.

5. Francois Mitterand
Francois Mitterrand initiated the French government’s decision to fund and build contemporary, audacious and sometimes controversial buildings to reaffirm France’s cultural leadership in the world. The spectacular result includes I.M. Pei’s Louvre extension glass pyramid, Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe, Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Vilette, Christian de Portzamparc’s Cite de Musique, Otto von Spreckleson’s Grande Arche de la Defense,

6. Zhang Xin
CEO of Beijing-based real estate firm SOHO China. As a bold personal initiative, she gathered 12 leading East Asian architects (including Singapore’s Tan Kay Ngee) to each design a villa by the Great Wall in a unique commission that has been compared to the historically important Weissenhof Siedlung housing exposition of the 1930s. For her efforts, she became the first non-architect to win a prize at the Vennice Biennale.

7. Simon Cheong
CEO of Singapore-based developer, SC Global. His commitment to high-quality design (in view of his target market of the high-end residential sector of single professionals) led him to commission signature residential projects, including Chan Soo Khian’s Lincoln Modern and Mok Wei Wei’s Three Three Robin.

(I know it sounds slightly lame, but I had to force in a Singapore example to give ourselves some optimism, much as I find it hard to personally buy into the “commodification of design” phenomena)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Architects, and the work that they did as students

Most of us regard an architectural career as a rite of passage. First is the romance of architecture school, of studio classes, model-making, drawings, charettes, sleepless nights. And then many start work in the real working world, to find it hard to transfer many of the wild (and possibly brilliant) ideas into built reality. When faced with real-world demands of cost, zoning, building code, achieving maximum usable square footage, and mechanical and structural demands, the days of school are inadvertently dismissed as the last place where we can truly play with ideas.

A consequent dichotomy ensues. On one hand, the many architects too deeply entrenched in real-world architecting find it hard to create compelling designs. On the other, the many academic practitioners focused on pursuing personal creative research ideas fail to translate their whimsical graphics, subject to the vagaries of architectural fashion, into real workable buildings (and consequently fail to win real commissions). This begs the question – how then does one inhabit that fine line that separates creative idealism and real-world workability? (knowing that it is the synthesis of the two that leads to a compelling result)

Having raised the above questions, I wanted to bring up a few examples of architects, both in Singapore and abroad, whose professional work were a direct extension from their student work.

Tan Kok Hiang, Forum Architects
Student thesis project: reinterpretation of a mosque

Professional creative work : Assyafah Mosque – a critical work that dislodges itself from the traditional iconography of the mosque and re-adapts itself to the realities of a cosmopolitan city-state.

Mok Wei Wei, W Architects

Student thesis project: re-experiencing the sensuality of Chinese courtyard spaces in sequence (or something to that end)

Professional creative work : the most direct reference is his Morley Road house, which literally recreates strong sequencing and courtyard experiences in a modernist idiom. But the strong element of sequencing in his work can also be discerned in his other work, such as the Da Paolo e Judie restaurant, National Museum extension, and his installation design for the Overseas Chinese exhibition.

Wong Mun Summ, WoHa

Student thesis project: vision of tropical high-density city (or something to that end)

Professional work: Many work that deal with the specifics of tropical climate in architecture, including Moulmein Rise (and its monsoon windows), Singapore Arts School (with its internal linkways, lush vegetation, and inner courtyard spaces), Tan Quee Lan Suites (high-density apartment configurations with inner courtyard spaces) The most direct reference is probably his scheme for the Duxton Plain public housing competition.

Zaha Hadid

Student thesis project: readapting Kazimir Malevich’s “Tektonics” painting (of overlapping geometric forms suggesting a city floating in space) into a 14-storey inhabitable bridge spanning the Thames.

Professional work: the first work that brought her to fame, the competition for the Peak tram station in HK, was an application of the same Malevich-ian formal imagination into architecture.

My point is this, just before we let our student work in our portfolio fade away into a bygone era, we must remember that in each studio project lies the seed of our future design careers, as long as we continue to nurse the ideas developed as students and synthesize them with what we now learn at work. That, coupled with faith, persistence, and idealism, (and experience!) may well produce something truly compelling some years from now.

This leads me to wonder what would be the final result of Sernhong's Pirated City or Hann's Mediaworms and Telepods years from now.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Monday, September 03, 2007

PUB Building - my response

As mentioned in my earlier post, I found myself rather impressed with the tone and content of the article that appeared in Straits Times, though I disagreed to certain points being made. I wrote an email to the email address provided at the end of the article and it turned out to bounce back. I shall hence reproduce my unread email here as an 'open letter' to the journalist... to stimulate the thoughts of anyone interested in the topic.

Dear _______,

Allow me to congratulate you on your article on the Singapore Power Building. I have long desired to more sophisticated critiques on Singapore architecture in the ST than the usual "nice, sleek, chic, trendy, elegant" lifestyle issues and I think your article did justice to the building. I felt that you would appreciate some comment/disagreement by someone else who is interested in the subject matter, and so I thought I'd drop you an email.

Judging from the tone of your article, I was unsure whether you felt that the recladding of the Singapore Power building was a success, or whether you felt that the recladding did some damage, but was at least better than total demolition.

Given the brightness of the Singapore sun and the reflection off the new cladding, I feel that the newly refurbished Singapore Power building has lost some of its weight. The weight of the massing in brutalist architecture, in my opinion, depends greatly upon solid mass, shadows, and matte surfaces (which explains Corbusier's love for beton-brut as a finishing) In this regard, the metal skin is unsympathetic to its massing.

Also, the shiny metallic reflection makes the building uncomfortably conspicuous, a bit like coloured gables added to a naked HDB slab block to ask for attention, or a girl who dresses in an uncomfortably flashy blouse. I wonder if the building is comfortable in its new skin. It perhaps epitomizes Singapore perpetual discomfort with oldness and aging, and her insecurity complex of having to always be new and modern.

Another key disagreement that your designation of the PUB building as a "corporate building". Corporatisation of Singapore infrastructure only took place in the 1990s, starting with Singtel in 1991, then SBC and PUB in the mid 1990s. As such, at the point when the design
competition was organized in 1971, this was to be a public/civic commission that would house a government statutory board (the then PUB).

I raise this point because the vision of a modern Singapore in the years of early independence (1965 – early 1970s) was that of a modern socialist state. The idea of global capitalism / corporatism only started to sit in toward the mid-late 1970s when the government pushed for more capital-intensive industries instead of labour intensive industries. (Architecturally, this would perhaps correlate with the completion of Pei's OCBC Tower in 1976.)

I find it hard not to infer a link between a brutalist aesthetic and the prevailing public commissions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in socialist states. (ie. most of western Europe, for example) In my personal opinion, the PUB building belongs not only to the same family
as the Subordinate Courts, Jurong Town Hall, and Science Centre, but also to the family of similar publicly commissioned Brutalist buildings in Europe and USA. It was but part of an international wave that Singapore eventually picked up, with some lag time.

I strongly agree with you that Couvent the Sainte Marie de La Tourette should not be compared with PUB Building because its nature, patronage, etc (basically everything except its massing) is different. However, I feel that the PUB Building rightly deserves to be examined
alongside Kallman, McKinell & Knowles' Boston City Hall. Both are inherently different buildings, suited to different program briefs, in different cities, but both are important public commissions housing government functions. Also, the Boston City Hall was completed in
1968, whereas the PUB building design competition took place in 1971.

Boston City Hall - by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles

Hence, I would not be surprised that the architects of the PUB Building were indeed aware of the Boston City Hall and its "inverted ziggurat" massing at the time of the design competition. I believe that the PUB Building was definitely not a conscious copy, but my basic argument is that it was definitely under the influence of the prevailing trends.

Lest I get carried away I should end here. All in all, I just wanted to say that it was very refreshing to read your piece on the Singapore Power Building (despite my disagreements) and a welcome respite from the usual articles couched in "design-lifestyle" terms. Perhaps it's time ST got a proper architecture critic in the likes of Nicolai Ourousoff or Ada Louise Huxtable.

Best Regards
Ronald Lim

PUB Building - and architecture criticism in Singapore

Early last month, an article appeared in the design pages on the Straits Times Life! section on the PUB Building. I found myself impressed with the article for its relative sophistication (as compared to the standard articles on "sleek lines", "chic", "resort touch") The author carried the tone of an "architectural critic" rather than a "design correspondent", and took into account the history of its making.

I personally believe that it would be a good thing for Singapore's architecture scene if the Straits Times had a resident architectural critic who writes "think" pieces on Singapore architecture in relation to its history and culture - for the discerning public. [ My reference points are personalities such as Ada Louise Huxtable, Nicolai Ourousoff, Paul Goldberger, Edwin Heathcote who write/have written extensively on architecture in The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Financial Times] I reproduce the article on the PUB Building here. I will post a personal response to the article separately.

Staying Power - The 30-year-old Singapore Power Building, with its recently refurbished facade, is an enduring symbol of modern architecture

AT A time when Singapore's modern architectural heritage is at the mercy of being sacrificed for quick gains in en bloc sales, the Singapore Power Building (SPB) in Somerset Road is a beacon of hope and reason.

It may be argued that unlike residential developments like Beverly Mai, Futura or Pearl Bank Apartments which have been sold or are waiting for buyers, the SPB faces no such danger since it is a commercial building and corporate headquarters.

History, however, has shown that this is no guarantee of survival. The iconic Singapore Airlines Building (1969), designed by Lim Chong Keat, was demolished and replaced by a pedestrian, if much larger, building for the same owner.

The Alfred Wong-designed Hotel Malaysia (1968) in Tanglin Road was torn down for an unremarkable residential development.

Thankfully, Singapore Power chose not to redevelop its corporate HQ, opting instead to refurbish and reclad the 30-year-old building in silvery metal last year. Even so, the success of the latter exercise was not a given.

Directly across Devonshire Road from the SPB, the Orchard Telephone Exchange (1970), one of Singapore's last good examples of Brutalist architecture, has been brutalised with the insensitive application of similar metal cladding.

Its masculine Brutalist look, originally expressed in the rough Shanghai plaster finish, is now hidden by a shiny new skin.

Thankfully, the SPB's architecture proved more resilient than its Brutalist neighbour's as it is less dependant on its original ceramic tile finish. Its newly clad fins also manage to retain their original delicate proportions, a key element of the SPB's tropical modern architecture.

The SPB was originally called the Public Utilities Board (PUB) Building. A contest to design its corporate HQ was launched in July 1971. Of 23 submissions, four were picked by a jury headed by then PUB chairman Lim Kim San.

The proposal by the now-defunct Group 2 Architects, formed by Ong Chin Bee and Tan Puay Huat, won.

While the other three finalists sought to project a corporate presence with imposing towers, the winning design, in the jury's words, allowed 'natural form and function to achieve character and dignity' for the building.

The design proved that 'corporate' need not mean 'tall'. Instead, the horizontal was emphasised in the design, rendering the building approachable and accessible, and befitting PUB's role as a public supplier of gas and electricity.

Beating the tear-down mood The building, completed in 1977, is a 'ground-scraper', comprising two parallel slab blocks facing north and south connected by a lift and stair core. Between the two blocks is a landscaped court.

The horizontal emphasis of the building's facade is achieved with distinctive rows of vertical fins, arranged in a staggered manner that emphasises horizontal movement and reportedly limiting exposure to the sun by 60 per cent.

A secondary horizontal rhythm is established by grouping two or more rows of these fins in blocks, and emphasising them with chamfered parapets at the ends.

In the original facade finish, two-tone bands of tiles further accentuated the horizontality of these grouped rows of fins. Unfortunately, this subtle but important effect has been lost in the current monochrome metal cladding.

The SPB's defining architectural motif is its 'inverted ziggurat' facade. Again, this breaks down the vertical scale of the building and emphasises its horizontality, while leading the eye to the building's entrances.

As a result of this architectural manipulation, the SPB appears considerably lower than its 17 storeys. Instead, it projects a welcoming human-scaled street presence.

The 'inverted ziggurat' motif achieves two further functions. It reflected the actual distribution of office spaces required by PUB's departments at the time, with more space needed on the upper floors. And they also create overhangs that help shade the finless floors below.

Hence, though critics have compared the SPB with the 1962 Boston City Hall by Gerhad Kallmann and Le Corbusier's La Tourette monastery (1957-60) for the use of fins and the inverted ziggurat motif, the similarities are stylistic and superficial. The SPB's architecture, an organic response to its functional and climatic requirements, has become an enduring symbol of the PUB and SP.

One of the hallmarks of corporate buildings of the 1970s was its dedication of the ground floor to public access and use. Despite today's overriding concern with security, the refurbished SPB has managed to retain just that.

The building is entered via wide steps under columns that soar three- or four-storeys high. Graced by the original wall-relief sculptures, this public concourse visually and physically connects Somerset and Devonshire roads.

From the concourse, steps lead to upper and lower public service areas, a cafeteria and carparks. This naturally ventilated concourse offers an airy, shaded tropical experience where the line between what is interior and exterior space is blurred.

While the refurbishment is to be applauded, a conservationist would still prefer a faithful two-tone ceramic retiling of the facade and express regret at the much enlarged penthouse, which is draped in contrasting green glass and aluminium panels.

But, given the tear-down mood of the times, better this than be relegated to the pages and panels of architecture books and exhibitions.

Calvin Low is a writer who is trained in both architecture and journalism.