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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
I did find a few of the more iconic Modernist structures in the city, as well as a few surprises.
But after a couple of days of walking around, I honestly don't have that much to show for it.
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 architect Moshe Safdie. It opened in 2010 and includes botanic gardens, two greenhouses, a huge luxury indoor shopping mall with a canal and boats meandering through the middle, several museums, and (of course) a large casino.
But the most distinctive feature of the hotel is the SkyPark, which is a three-acre park on a giant platform that spans the top of the three hotel towers.
The platform and even the supporting towers are an architectural marvel. Each of the three towers, which contain the resort's 2,500 hotel rooms, are actually constructed as two separate, asymmetrical towers that come together at the middle sections and then spread apart again, and lean on each other for structural stability. None of the three towers is exactly the same. That must have been an absolute nightmare to build. Temporary structures had to be built around them while under construction, because they only had structural integrity when they were complete.
Additional structural engineers had to be on site, monitoring and assessing the structural integrity of the project daily during construction. Imagine the pressure those engineers were under...
But back to that SkyPark platform that sits across the top and is cantilevered over the north side. That platform holds three invisible-edge swimming pools (that are actually one, nearly 150-metre long pool in three sections), several kiddie pools, hot tubs, as well as gardens, bars, restaurants, and even a jogging track.
The hull of the SkyPark was pre-fabricated off-site in separate steel sections and then assembled on top of the towers. The completed platform is actually floating on joints, designed to help it withstand the natural motion of the towers. Each joint has a unique range of motion (about 500 millimetres, or 20 inches. When up there, I didn't feel any movement, though.
The towers are built on reclaimed land (polders) from the sea, so there was a lot of concern about settlement and sinking over time. So engineers built and installed custom jack legs to allow for future adjustment at more than 500 points beneath the pool system. This was done out of concern for making sure the pool remained level, so that the infinity edge would continue to function properly.
Sitting poolside with a cocktail while enjoying the view of the Singapore skyline made the 100f-degree weather and oppressive humidity a lot more tolerable, I have to say.
And so did the air-conditioned garden domes in the adjoining Gardens by the Bay.
Not to be confused with the Singapore Botanic Gardens (a UNESCO World Heritage Site which I also visited - and were wonderful), the Gardens by the Bay are part of the Marina Bay Sands complex, and are built on an adjacent site. They include two glass domes: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. The Flower Dome is the wider and more squat of the two. There are mostly orchids inside, along with a sort of meeting hall, along a meandering path.
The Cloud Forest Dome is taller, and is more photogenic, perhaps. It contains an artificial hill with waterfalls and tropical foliage cascading down the sides. Floating metal walkways wrap around and through the hill.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out they are air conditioned, which is funny because many of the plants and flowers inside were tropical and require heat and humidity.
One of the most recognizable features of the gardens are the large metal "supertree" sculptures scattered throughout.
These are actually a sort of chimney flue that expel non-toxic gases from the biomass boilers that provide the energy to cool the domes.
In this day and age, given concerns for the environment, it's understandable that this whole project has been criticized as wasteful and decadent. But at least there is a concerted effort to create a carbon-neutral solution to help alleviate some of that. The biomass boilers burn green waste from tree trimmings gathered from the entire city, and covert that into energy. It's an innovative idea, as there are always plenty of tree trimmings.
Still, I understand that there's a fair amount of hostility to this project. Haters gonna hate, right? Something this big and crazy and popular will always be a target for some criticism. When I posted some photos on Instagram of this place, there were some snarky and hostile comments about it. I think some people seem to see the Marina Bay Sands as the symbol of the new, greedy, redevelopment-focused Singapore that is busy erasing its architectural heritage in pursuit of the next dollar, and is creating a Disney-like alternative universe.
But there's great and wondrous stuff there, too.
For me, personally, architecture is about experience. It's why I love what I love. And the Marina Bay Sands provides one hell of an experience. It's a marvel to see and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time there. And since the Marina Bay Sands was built on reclaimed land, no historic structures were demolished to build it.
I am active in historic preservation and believe it's vitally important to preserve and respect historic architecture everywhere - from all periods. But I also believe it's important to accommodate new projects. We do have to move forward, as well. I sincerely hope Singapore takes action to preserve what's left of their historic architectural heritage.
But I also love the new projects like Marina Bay Sands, which evoke the sense of "anything is possible" optimism that was always such an important part of the spirit behind Mid-Century Modernism.