Friday, July 22, 2011


I'm in Singapore this week, visiting friends and en route to Indonesia. The last time I spent some time here was twenty years ago, except for a very brief visit in 2000. The difference in twenty years is remarkable. The city seems to have loosened up a great deal, the river front has been rejuvenated and is flanked by scores of outdoor restaurents that, in turn, are backed by pubs and clubs. The most clear difference is the enormous number of new buildings. The city boasts of high rises designed by the likes of I. M. Pei, Kenzo Tange and Norman Foster. The new Marina Bay Sands complex, with three fifty story towers that are topped by a gigantic concrete boat containing a beach and infinity pool (fifty floors above the ocean!!) - well, maybe some like it. It is remarkable, that's for sure. I've never seen a building like it.

The Marina Bay Sands - Three 50 floor towers capped by a concrete ship

And then there is the beautiful new theatre arts centre, the Esplanade, designed by Michael Wilford. It now gives to the mouth of the Singapore river an iconic building to rival Sydney Opera House (I guess that's the point.)

The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore

Yesterday we criss-crossed the city by foot, from Little India, though Arab street and the colonial quarter along the river front to Marina Bay. Along the way we stopped to see Norman Foster's new Supreme Court Building.  Its flying saucer roof provides the city with another iconic architectural feature, though it does blend with the dome of the old court house, which is presently being renovated and will become a museum. As we entered the lobby of the Foster building we were confronted with a barricade of x-ray machines and security guards. After being frisked and having had our bag checked, our camera was removed and we had to sign a form in order to deposit it in a locker. We had forgotten to bring IDs but luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, we weren't asked for any. When signing in a camera my friend had to note down her passport number, which she couldn't remember, so she just made one up. This is no doubt a crime, and in this capital and corporal punishment republic that could possibly be a flogging offense. The fact that she chose to break the law within the hallowed walls of the Singaporean Supreme Court seemed to me quite hilarious.

Norman Foster's Supreme Court, with its Flying Saucer

Once inside no one stopped us from going anywhere, so we took one escalator after another and went up and up until, on the eight floor, like in a science fiction movie, we ascended into the saucer and what confronted us was as unexpectedly brilliant as anything Hollywood could provide. The fast moving escalator spat us out onto a vast expanse of grey carpet that extended onward, undisturbed by furniture or any objects at all, towards a 180 degree semi-circle of glass panels that leaned outfrom the building some meters. Had I dared, I could have lain on the windows. The view, and above all, the ingenious framing of the view, was unforgettable. With my camera locked away downstairs I was forced to simply drink it in, and preserve it in memory. We could see the colonial buildings, like the old parliament building, now an art museum, below us, the meandering river Singapore, the new financial district and Marina Bay, with its three towered vulgarity, the cargo ships in the harbour beyond, one of the world's busiest, and in the far distance what I assume was Malaysia, though it might have been Indonesia. And further in the distance again, was that the equator that I could spot in the shimmering humidity? What most surprised me was two things: firstly the huge space that was set aside to take in the view, which had no utilitarian use at all - strange in this hardworking, materialist, capitalist city; secondly, that we had the best view in Singapore all to ourselves. Obviously it is the city's best kept secret, a secret well wrapped up within the solemn confines of the house of the law.

I highly recommend it. But don't run any risks- bring your passport number with you.


  1. Hello:
    This is all absolutely fascinating and a wonderful glimpse into, and taste of, today's Singapore which, very clearly from what you write, contains some very good examples of modern architecture by some of the world's leading architects.

    The Marine Bay buildings topped with a 'floating' ship appears to us to be ghastly in the extreme.

  2. Singapore is so small and so crowded that an unforgettable view over the city and harbour becomes critical. Even more importantly, you could locate the colonial buildings, the new financial district and the harbour, the three elements that made and continue to make Singapore special. Imagine if all the old, historical buildings were pulled down and concreted over :(

    You are almost in Australia as we speak. Why not pop into a plane and come and visit us.

  3. Australia will have to wait until the next time I'm afraid. Thanks for the invitation :)