“ Almost all of Singapore is less than 30 years old, the city represents the ideological production of the past three decades in its pure form, uncontaminated by surviving contextual remnants. It is managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness; even its nature is entirely remade. It is pure intention: if there is chaos, it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity. Singapore represents a unique ecology of the contemporary. ”
(Rem Koolhaas, Thirty years of Tabula Rasa, 1995)
Singapore, founded as a trading post by the British East India Company in 1819, has evolved and transformed into a flourishing nation with urban planning which is regarded by many as the plan for a ‘model city’. It is a forward-thinking approach that allows flexibility to accommodate future developments while being sustainable and environmentally conscious. Singapore, the young city-state has a relatively small area of approximately 712 sq.kms. almost all of which is urbanized supporting a melting pot of various cultural ethnicities ranging from Chinese migrants, the Malay, and a strong Indian population. The size and context of the development of Singapore post-colonialism, provide the ideal stage for the manifestations of the ‘tabula rasa’ planning approach. A concept illustrated by cities like New York wherein the grid is superimposed on the city and is all-consuming. The planning of Singapore began with the conception of a Concept Plan meant to serve as a guide for the next 40 years of development, punctuated by the decadal Master Plan which provided detailed accounts and revisions to the overall vision. Envisioned as a ‘garden city’, with cleanness and green-ness at its heart, Singapore’s main planning body, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) began a green initiative to soften the effects of rapid urbanization by extensive afforestation and nature conservation.
With a determination to achieve perfection, the approach to create a new identity for Singapore, the focus was laid on tackling the issues of housing, increasing tourism, amalgamating all the functional and administrative infrastructure of a nation within the folds of a city; all while avoiding the perils and chaos of democracy, led to the creation of this hypermodern, urban city; with towering buildings overlooking planned vistas, micro-schemes creating mixed-use- work, live and play environments like Marina Bay and this deliberate urbanization replacing the old remnants of the low-rise city, erasing it from existence. All the while, ignoring the notion that spatial stratification often leads to social stratification. A deceptively simple term, ‘urban renewal’ allowed the governing bodies in Singapore to set the course for this city-state to emerge as this unique urban haven. While urban renewal initially envisioned a tripartite system of conservation, rehabilitation, and rebuilding; its manifestation in Singapore has taken on its own interpretation. The transition began with the unification of the island land from two typologies, hinterland, and town; into one cohesive base to serve as the site for the envisioned metropolis. The amendment to the Land Acquisition Act which allowed the government to acquire any land it deemed necessary for national development purposes further aided the agenda to create a new Singapore under the premise of urban renewal. This led to the systematic removal of the older developments, which were often deemed ‘squalor’ to hasten the process of renewal and slowly but surely ‘New Town’ grew over the entire landscape of Singapore culminating in the global city we see today. The architecture of the city has abandoned the humanist approach, with megastructures like the People’s Park Centre which dismantled part of the old Chinatown to create a new towering complex with a 20-storey apartment block, 10,000 meters square of offices, over 300 shops; all connected with pedestrian bridges to ensure continuity and connectivity. The project is best described in the words of Rem Koolhaas as, “ a tropical version of Malevich’s Architectons: prismatic rectangular volumes of naked concrete assembled with apparent casualness”. Another development, the 22-storey Golden Mile Tower perpetuates the monolithic megastructure ideal.
The ‘tabula rasa’ planning approach has successfully removed the last vestiges of the old Singapore; it is a picture-perfect city. A city without the grim, grit and cracks which often punctuates one’s cityscape and grounds them to the realities, instead the view is of a pristine façade. Today, one of the most expensive cities to live in, Singapore offers modern infrastructure, smooth transportation nodes, an extensive park network; in short, achieves excellence but lacks authenticity, it lacks true character at its core. It is an experimental lab that could be placed anywhere in the world and it would fit. Traditional Japanese aesthetics have an appreciation for an element of ‘Wabi-Sabi’, a worldview that appreciates the inherent imperfections in the matter; achieving the ideal city, a modern-day Eden fails to account for the humanist aesthetic. It creates a prison of perfections, where all beauty is created to observe and not discern and is guided and enforced by strict laws.