Friday, October 12, 2007

UOB Plaza article - my response (Part 2)

And here is my email response to the article in the previous post on Tange's UOB Plaza.

Dear Calvin,

I wanted you to know that your column on the UOB Plaza was an engaging read that yielded some surprising discoveries that I would not have realized had you not brought it up. I can discern the massing of the old octagon tower in the lower UOB Tower now, hidden beneath the tiles!

A few critical questions persist, nevertheless, with regard to the UOB Plaza and I was disappointed to find that your column did not address them sufficiently. While I give the architects benefit of the doubt that their design was tailored to the specificity of the site, the context, the client and the brief, one cannot ignore the formal geometric similarities between the UOB Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall completed a few years earlier.

Tokyo City Hall

This leads rise to the perception, rightly or wrongly, that the UOB Plaza is not an original signature, but a replicate cousin of the original. This, despite the beauty of the final product. A similar example would be Cesar Pelli’s acclaimed World Financial Centre in New York and his subsequent Canary Wharf Tower in London, with all their formal similarities…. even though the outcomes were still tailored differently to their respective contexts.

This observation alone perhaps explains why I find myself preferring the OUB Centre to the UOB Plaza. It just feels more fresh and dynamic.

The other connection that I was surprised your article did not pick up, (though I may not be 100% right about this point) is that Kenzo Tange was the masterplanning consultant for Singapore’s skyline – chief of which was the “layering” effect of placing the shorter buildings in front, and taller buildings behind (as viewed from the waterfront). What coincidence that he designs two of the three “prized” trophies within his own skyline tapestry!

Deyan Sudjic, in his recent book Edifice Complex wrote about “collect(ing) images of the rich and powerful, leaning over architectural models….” as evidence of the relationship between architecture and power. On the website of Kenzo Tange Associates (and also printed in a past issue of Singapore Architect magazine, in an article by Tsuto Sakamoto), there is a black-and-white image of Kenzo Tange alongside Lee Kuan Yew in front of a model.

The issue of Kenzo Tange building in Singapore is clearly much more than Tange’s own architectural vision in isolation. I believe that he happened to fit squarely with LKY’s [the REAL architect of Singapore] autocratic vision for a technocratic, cosmopolitan, modern city-state.

When you raise the example of Bawadi’s advertisement (which I have yet to see) where the UOB Plaza rubs shoulders against Petronas Towers, I fear that it is not because it “stands for the best of Singapore and its architecture” or is even iconic enough of Singapore’s urbanscape. It was probably chosen more because it fell within the iconography of the following formula:
grand-skyscraper = developed+cosmopolitan = $$$+ prestige.

Oddly enough, people describe Singapore’s “signature” skyline with reference to “Manhattan” with a strange kind of pride. (Our city planners, foreign journalists, travel journalists, etc). Few realize the irony that when they do so, the merit goes to Manhattan, not to Singapore.

I rest my case for now, and look forward to your next article.

Best Regards
Ronald Lim