The Rise of Style: Singapore Architecture and Media
"Abstraction Machine" needs to awaken to the concept of architecture as culture
By Tan Kok Meng
There can be no doubt that over the last few years, architecture in Singapore has been basking under a very healthy limelight. The city's bookstores are stuffed with a plethora of "shelter" magazines, architecture journals and books, both from international and local publishers; all well-thumbed by a steady flock of eager browsers. Basheer Books, by far the most popular among them, has in the last five years had its shelf space expanded thrice over; a fact which says much about the rising consumption of design publications. For a bookshop in a city with a population one fifth that of London's, the range of books available at Basheer's rivals even that of the Triangle Bookstore. The local English-language newspaper – the Straits Times – carries a weekly lifestyle section that shows off sleek new designer homes in full-colour images to its 380,000 readers. On an even more far-reaching scale, local TV programmes, hosted by attractive female presenters with mellifluous voices, regularly showcase sharp new architecture: the camera lovingly caressing every inch, every corner, of these latest developments. On top of this, many images and models of concluded competitions, school projects, and works of international architects are regularly exhibited in publicly accessible spaces around the city – galleries, convention centres, and atria of shopping complexes.
Whether you like it or not, specialists and the ordinary populace are being increasingly exposed to representations of architecture through popular media. And these representations chiefly privilege things visual: films, videos, photographs, computer renderings, drawings, diagrams, physical models and photographs of these models. The image has come to represent architecture.
The problem with this heavy reliance on images instead of experiencing the real thing has already been highlighted in another context by Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": that the image severely reduces the aura of the object. The aura, unlike the image, is that which can never be seen, but is sensed and felt only in the presence of the real thing. The image, on the other hand, is a twice-removed, decontextualised, two-dimensional representation. We can now see where the usual disappointment after an initial encounter with the image ("But the photo looked so much better!") stems from.
Radically turning this image and aura dichotomy into a dialectical pairing, Beatriz Colomina claims that architecture is not only constituted by media, but also in media. For her, the aura-less reproduction of a work of architecture in media is another kind of original architectural production. Simply put, there's the physical thing, and there's the representation of this thing in, say, a magazine feature. Both have their own validities; they interrelate and are equally potent in transmitting meaning. Computer renderings with the perfect blue glass, skies and trees so favoured by our clients and architects are mesmerizing things in themselves. While claiming to give a close representation of the proposed finished work, they also project the reading of such architecture: perfectible picturesque objects standing alone in an artificial manipulated context – canals become beautiful rivers, other high-rises seem further away, mosques and temples get erased.
Not to discount the splendid efforts of the publishing industry in forging an extremely verdant design landscape within such a small city, but because their command of the public's attention is so complete, there is cause for some worry, for two reasons.
The first has something to do with the conflation and confusion of taste-driven aspects of popular culture and the value-ridden facets of so-called "high culture". Through the process of identification with design associated with social prestige and cultural sophistication, works of architecture featured in popular media easily become exemplars of good taste. Equally important is the process of canonisation linked with the implicit or sometimes rapturous acclaim given to architectural works by critics, academics and specialist writers in the selection and articulation of these works. People naturally perceive these works as good design. As if not problematic enough in themselves, good taste and the real values of good architecture become indistinguishable: something is popular and desirable, but is it good?
The second has to do with the way naturally complex architecture (simply because it exists in a real place with all its socio-cultural, economic, and political forces) is articulated in a too-simplified way. In Singapore, the most popular of these over-simplified articulations are found in the mass-circulation glossy "shelter" magazines that tend to present architecture in a series of carefully-composed, professionally-taken photographs of uninhabited, finished buildings, complete with matching designer furniture. At Basheer Books, it is readily noted that "theory books are hard to sell". The most fast-moving publications are the ones with "lots of pictures". Furthermore, it does not help that the write-ups which articulate such works generally tend to mirror the photographic images – merely euphoric descriptions of spaces that do not delve into the realm of ideas and concepts.
A consequence of this is that editors, photographers, journalists, TV producers and critics literally become the producers of such mediatised architecture, actively framing and shaping public opinion, tastes and values about architecture. It should have "simple clean lines"; homes should be like resort hotels, and form should follow function – never mind what that means.
What examples are there of architectural representations not reductively framed in terms of style, but rather in terms of ideas? CONTENT by OMA, appropriates graphical methods from pulp comics or builders' directories to present new ways of extending the boundaries of architectural thinking; No. 250 – an exhibition by Herzog and de Meuron at the Schaulager – displayed not finished buildings, but the design thinking behind them in the form of drawings, sketch models, material samples and 1:1 scale mock-ups; NEST magazine (now defunct) had as its sole enterprise the aim of showing homes as idiosyncratic ways of occupying and decorating spaces in equally innovative graphics, instead of promoting design as "looks."
In the articulation of "designer" architecture on TV too, since the programmes are targeted at a general audience, there is similar simplification of the complex contextual specificities of each work into bite-sized design jargon. For instance, the audience has learnt that desirable contemporary design ought to have "a zen-like quality," simplicity and clarity. Slightly more exuberant design is considered as the result of moments of weakness, euphemistically excused as "playful."
With this reductive populist discourse, there is a corresponding reduction of architecture into a clutch of styles. When potential commissioners of new architecture see these picture-perfect photographs, these graphics done in the same computer rendering styles, and subsequently desire them, cycles of production and reproduction of the same kinds of architecture are perpetuated at a superficially visual level. And architecture becomes reduced to recombinant stylistics.
The rise of consumption of designer-styled architecture, whether in terms of real commissions or as images in media, corresponds to the larger worldwide trend of recent years. Contemporary Asian, Modern Tropical, New Asian House, Neo Modernism, Tropical Minimalism, Contemporary Vernacular: all these designer labels have been used in the media to promote the new range of more interesting works coming out of Singapore, so as to align them with the global design market.
Since there is a shortage of better quality architecture in the local scene, whenever an interesting new work appears, it gets covered by various forms of media; sometimes appearing as parts or fragments in, for instance, a special pictorial edition featuring designer bathrooms. These image-laden picture books appear at an ever-increasing rate to satiate the appetites of consumers whose obsession verges on the pornographic.
Because the more interesting works tend to be residential buildings, these get featured more than any other types in the media. As exemplars of trendy and good design, their images become copied or re-adapted onto other building types as recombined fragments. Good design becomes reduced to a collage of decontextualised bits of other designer architecture. Soon, we see community centres that look like tropical bungalows, bungalows that look like factories, factories that look like schools, schools that look like condominiums, condominiums that look like office towers. Even more extensively, and as instantaneously as images zipping across the worldwide web, designer fragments fly across different cities, continents, and climates."Kitsch", as Tay Kheng Soon would label such adaptations.
The media is what some have called an "abstraction machine" focusing on certain information, people and things while ignoring others; necessarily so because media space is not unlimited. The Singapore media tend to focus on a dozen or so young practices, all with relatively similar design agendas and aesthetics.
Two factors exacerbate this focused narrowness in Singapore's context. First, a small land area for development. It is arguable that the small physical size – just 690 square kilometers – is a determining fact that shapes socio-cultural life in this city. Physically, in this relatively developed country, there is not a lot to develop unless there is another spike in the economic charts together with a population surge of new immigrants demanding more offices, factories, housing and amenities. The present architectural activity is mainly limited to adding new high-end high-rise housing in the city centre and at the fringes and perhaps some new cultural and institutional infrastructure. High land prices also mean less social mobility and a lower renewal rate of landed housing stock.
Second, a small local architecture market. For public architecture, the highly developed state-defined design parameters based on principles of egalitarian standardisation, orderliness, buildability and maintenability have ensured little diversity of outcome. This is exacerbated by the fact that these commissions are still being monopolised by ex-state-owned consultancies and big practices. As for residential architecture, the lack of real diversity in the make-up of the middle and upper middle classes in terms of value-systems, aspirations, and nuclei family composition, has not prompted different ways of thinking about architecture. These social factors in total mean that innovation is not really needed. In recent years, the local architecture scene has been characterized by the reproduction of looks and the gradual modication of existing ideas.
Contrast this with the period between the late 60s and late 70s, a period of rapid urbanisation that demanded new ideas and experiments to come up with new architectural typologies. Paradoxically, when media focus on architecture was not as pervasive or widely available, we were bequeathed with wonderful originality in buildings like the People's Park Complex, a vertically stratified mini city within the city; the Pearl Bank Apartments, offering spatial complexity within a unified megastructure; Pandan Valley Condominium, with its utopian ideas of communality; and the Golden Mile Complex, a dense urban form with the potential of growth through horizontal extension across the city.
Limited land area, a small population, a practically homogeneous society, a small market, and the lack of a need for innovation: everything seems to be working against fostering an authentic, vibrant architectural culture, one not based on numbing reproduction. Our architects must fully exploit the few opportunities left to create genuine design in order to forge a richer, more diverse architectural culture. The framing of architecture as style, conscious or otherwise by the Singapore media, works against this.
We could well learn from The Netherlands. For a small country only five times Singapore's land area, and with a population just 3.5 times that of Singapore, the influence of architectural ideas and innovations coming out of it is immensely disproportionate to its size. Look and be amazed by the number of architecture schools, private societies, and state-supported professional and research institutes there. How is this made possible? By looking at architecture as culture, as the exchange and innovation of ideas; by looking outward, participating in a globalised architectural world; by giving money and conceptual space to enlarge the local architect's capacity for developing new architectural ideas and concepts; by encouraging diversity in all aspects. These they have done with the help of a whole range of publications, lectures, exhibitions, conferences, and events.
Singapore over the last few years has explicitly articulated the need to make the city more amenable to global creative and managerial classes by improving the city's cultural life. DesignSingapore Council, initiated by the National Arts Council, was set up to promote Singapore's design talents and to market it as a city with a feeling for design. It also funds and produces a stylish design quarterly, and a website with selected news from the Singapore design scene for those purposes. In March 2005, it helped organise and host the "SingaporEdge" gala event in London, "a multi-sensory experience of Singapore's emergent creative culture: from the arts to architecture, city planning to interior design, product and industrial design to music, film to new media, and cuisine to fashion."
These laudable efforts are examples of how inextricably linked the media and architecture, or any form of design for that matter, are in Singapore. There is no question about the commitment. Although it is a state-controlled effort, the real actors behind the scenes deciding and framing what goes on here should take up the challenge to foster a diverse and rich architectural culture, one which is not instrumentally aimed at furthering some other agenda, but one resolutely based on interpreting and reflecting on the existing authentic culture in the physical and mental landscapes of Singapore or inventing new ones. And we need the media to co-inhabit and co-produce these.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006