Examining Rem Koolhaas’ prologue to Singapore Songlines
Is Singapore haunting the West, or vice versa?
By Masturah Alatas
Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis… or 30 Years of Tabula Rasa remains one of the best essays about Singapore connecting architecture to culture and politics. Written by Dutch architect and philosopher Rem Koolhaas, the essay is also the prologue to the book, Singapore Songlines (Quodlibet, 2010), which is essential reading for those who want to understand how, in just 30 years, the Singapore government – first under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and then his successor, Goh Chok Tong – was able to provide public housing for a large percentage of its inhabitants and erect an ultra-modern city on a tiny tropical island the shape of a Dutch clog 43km long and 23km wide. Singapore Songlines tells us what the driving spirit was behind the making of post-colonial Singapore between the years 1965 and 1995.
The most obvious consequence of this build-from-scratch, tabula rasa approach was that almost all of Singapore's colonial and pre-colonial history was erased. "Landmarks disappeared," writes Suchen Christine Lim in her essay, 'A Fistful of Colours and Urban Renewal in Singapore'. "Whole communities were uprooted and relocated." The backward, crowded, slummy, stinky, chaotic, lawless, Third World-ish image of colonial and early post-colonial Singapore was replaced by a more pristine, orderly, regulated and decongested one of a First World city. Singapore acquired a skyline, a stock exchange and an odourless river.
But how will the Singapore of today, which has a current population of five million, respond to population growth in the future? What more can be built in Singapore? What more will be torn down? How much more land will be reclaimed? Partly for this reason, Koolhaas writes in Singapore Songlines, "Singapore is doomed to remain a Potemkin metropolis." Singapore, if the nation's government continues to be consistent with its policies, will always be in a state of constant urban renewal and will thus always look as if it has been erected in recent time, just as legend has it that Prince Potemkin of Russia built a fake village in the Crimea to impress Empress Catherine during her visit there.
The "songlines" in the book's title was inspired by travel writer Bruce Chatwin's literary work of the same name, and alludes to his idea that indigenous Australians walked all over the land, singing it into existence. The songlines, therefore, are the founding myths of a place and the genealogy of its development. They suggest that a people's language, identity, sense of self and song cannot be separated from the environment.
Singapore Songlines was first published by Monicelli Press in 1995 as part of S,M,L,XL, an encyclopaedic work about the contemporary city that Koolhaas co-authored with Bruce Mau, Hans Werlemann and Jennifer Sigler. It is over a thousand pages, weighs six pounds and costs a lot more. But in March 2010, Singapore Songlines was published as a monograph in Italian by publisher Quodlibet. As translator Manfredo di Robilant suggests in his afterword to the Italian edition, it is precisely because Singapore Songlines is published on its own, as a standalone book of 109 pages replete with pictures from the original edition, that it can be appreciated not just for the contemporariness and universality of its themes but also for the interpretative challenges its prose presents. Koolhaas is much more than an architect. He is also a provocative writer and thinker. Singapore is not just a place to be superficially admired or disliked. It is a place which merits serious contemplation and interpretation.
A novelty about the Italian repackaging of Singapore Songlines as a standalone book is Koolhaas' prologue, allowing us to see whether he has changed his mind in the 15 years that have gone by. In the prologue, Koolhaas throws out some provocations and it would be interesting to see Singaporeans react to some of them. For example, he says new cities like Singapore are the product of "political systems that were different from our democracy – the condition that 'we' still considered essential for the generation of civitas," the "we" here being Europeans. Debate question: How important is democracy for the creation of nice, functional cities and communities, assuming that it is possible to reach some kind of general consensus on the meaning and definition of democracy?
For those Singaporeans who don't like hearing that Singapore has no history, Koolhaas writes in the prologue that Singapore Songlines "suggests that, in fact, even a newly minted city like Singapore has a history and that its artificiality is not sterile – it is in fact a style – the generic – which can count on huge support." Yes, don't the majority of Singaporeans like the super clean, orderly, crime free, brand new "generic" city that they live in? And not just Singaporeans. "It is, of course, a particular paradox," Koolhaas continues, "that Singapore has survived Western denigration, and is now one of the most popular destinations in Asia for expats and corporations, attracted by its absence of corruption and the relative solidity of the rule of law there."
Koolhaas sounds ambiguous. It is not clear whether he thinks Western admiration as opposed to "denigration" for Singapore is a good thing or not. Singapore Songlines, therefore, is not just a book about Singapore. It is also, in some sense, a critique of the West: "Singapore's experiments 20 years ago are not so different from those in contemporary Europe – in simplified education, medicine, race relations. We may be less different from Singapore than we hoped." Again, it is unclear whether Koolhaas is troubled by what he sees as the growing similarities between Europe and Singapore. But the words "simplified" and "hoped" suggest that he is.
But Koolhaas has clearly changed his mind about one thing. "When the text [of Singapore Songlines] was written, it seemed that Singapore would be the template for China's development, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. To some extent it became the blueprint of our own environment: many of its themes now haunt us in our own backyard." Haunt is a strong word. Is Koolhaas anxious that Singapore has become a model for many European cities?
It is significant that an Italian publisher and not a Singaporean one would re-publish what many consider to be an architectural and philosophical classic about Singapore. Quodlibet is a small publishing house with a very good reputation that produces eclectic, elegant books with a philosophical and literary bent by such authors as Jean Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, Farrukh Dhondy, Blaise Pascal and Lu Xun. It is hardly an Italo-centric or Eurocentric publisher. Or rather it is Eurocentric in the sense that Europe likes to consume the intellectual traditions of other cultures and make them a part of its own culture. Knowing the artistic and intellectual production of other cultures is part of the European intellectual tradition.
Quodlibet's office is located within the Medieval walls of Macerata, a hill town in central Italy which also happens to be the birthplace of Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China who was the first European to enter the Forbidden City. In China, Ricci learned to speak, read and write in Chinese so that he could translate the Bible for the Chinese and in turn be able to study the Chinese literary classics. At some point, he even began to dress like a Confucian scholar. He also introduced Western sciences and art to the Chinese – maps, clocks, astrolabes and portrait paintings. Ricci's story is one of the earliest and most fascinating stories of cultural adaptation – just as Singapore's adaptation of the modern Western city is one of the most recent.
There are no skyscrapers or mega malls in Macerata like there are in Singapore. But there is something very modern, or rather post-modern, about the Italian translation of Singapore Songlines and Koolhaas' exclusive prologue. They confirm that Europe remains the place where, like the first modern cities, many ideas are first generated. Then these ideas are debated and exchanged in translation. Then they go around the world where they get tested, adapted and transformed. Then they come back to Europe and are redressed, reinterpreted. What goes away comes home different and changed. But still a part of the home. This is the homing pigeon or boomerang effect of culture.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010
Copyright © 2001-2023 The Authors