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Singapore Sojourn

Updated: Oct 1, 2018

Cargo ships waiting to come into Singapore Harbour at dawn. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I'd always wanted to go to Singapore. But I'd also known a lot of people who have been there - and a few who have even lived there - and most of them told me not to bother. The clichés are that it's "too boring, too clean, too safe" to merit a visit. "It's the Switzerland of Asia" is a common retort I hear. Well, as it happens, I love Switzerland and have spent a lot of time there. So I guess that explains why I also loved Singapore. I guess I like boring.

The Clarke Quay area is definitely one of the more "Disney-fied" parts of Singapore. I don't really recommend it, unless you're going to Jumbo's for chilli crab. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Truth is, there is some merit to the claims that Singapore is a sort of Disney-fied version of Asia. It is very clean, and very safe. Everyone speaks English (it's one of the official languages). And there are even American theme parks there, like Universal Studios.

Ummm... no. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But I was actually expecting it to be more like that than it actually was. I was surprised to find that the city in some areas was a bit grittier and less polished than I expected. Certainly wasn't rough, by any means. But there were uneven sidewalks, open trenches, a few weed-strewn vacant lots with rusty bicycles, and exposed, unkempt power lines, and even some crumbling buildings in some areas. Reminded me of Honolulu a bit. Tropical climates are brutal and nature is constantly trying to reclaim the city - even in wealthy, "sterile" Singapore... There's nothing wrong with that. I actually appreciated it. Felt more real.

There was hardly any trash anywhere, though, and everyone was unfailingly polite and friendly. As I was walking around the city in 100f (38c) weather, lugging a camera and backpack, multiple people in cars pulled over and asked me if I wanted a ride somewhere, unsolicited. I don't even think they were trying to kidnap me or steal my camera.

Most people seemed genuinely surprised to see someone walking around at all. Maybe in the winter, when the weather is a bit cooler (does it get cooler?), there are more people about? I dunno. But one thing I noticed is that there were not a lot of people out in the streets. Many areas are not very pedestrian-friendly, and most people seem to drive everywhere. Vietnam was a constant sea of humanity wherever I went. By comparison, Singapore seemed almost empty most of the time.

Besides the chilli crab, my main motivation for visiting Singapore was the architecture. I had seen many photos over the years which seemed to hint at a treasure trove of Modernist architecture in the city-state. Since the country boomed in the post-WW2 period, it was to be expected that Singapore would still have a lot of great Mid-Century Modern buildings.

Modernism everywhere in the 1970s!

Funny thing is, I never actually even saw a supermarket my entire time there...

Unfortunately, Singapore has gone through a huge building and redevelopment boom over the past 15 years or so, and that has taken its toll on its stock of Modernist architecture - at least in the city center. Admittedly, I never had the opportunity to see much of the island, and I'm sure there must be more out there in the outer districts. But I actually found very little in my walks around the central business district.

One of the few Modernist buildings from the 1950s left in Singapore's Central Business District. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The redevelopment boom and lack of any sort of historic preservation laws or popular movement has started to become a crisis in a city that is now concerned about losing its identity, as gleaming new office towers, shopping malls, and apartment buildings replace the historic structures (not just the Post-War Modernism, but also the more historic colonial architecture from the pre-war period).

PARKROYAL on Pickering by local architecture firm WOHA. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another view of PARKROYAL on Pickering hotel by WOHA Architects. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The main entrance to the hotel and the underside of the building. PARKROYAL on Pickering hotel by WOHA Architects. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I honestly didn't have any sort of guide handy and couldn't find much online. So I didn't really know where to look for the Modernist stuff I was seeking. I only really knew about a few buildings, including those designed by Paul Rudolph in his later period.

The Colonnade Apartments were designed by famed Modernist architect Paul Rudolph, in his later brutalist/metabolist period (1980). It's unfortunately heavily guarded behind walls and a gate, and they didn't let me in to get better shots. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I did find a few of the more iconic Modernist structures in the city, as well as a few surprises.

OCBC Centre by I.M. Pei, built in 1976. Photo ©Darren Bradley

1950s apartment building in a swank part of the city, surrounded by mostly newer apartment towers. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Singapore General Hospital. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But after a couple of days of walking around, I honestly don't have that much to show for it.

I expected to find a lot more Modernist churches like this one... Photo ©Darren Bradley

You have got to love a good revolving restaurant... Photo ©Darren Bradley

But with the oppressive heat, I have to admit that I retreated pretty quickly to the luxury of one of Singapore's more recent architectural wonders: the Marina Bay Sands. This resort, owned by the Las Vegas-based company, was designed by arc