World Architecture Festival, Singapore 2015

Blog — 10 Nov 2015

We recently spent an interesting few days in Singapore attending the World Architecture Festival (WAF). As well as presenting three of our completed projects, shortlisted for WAF / INSIDE awards, we spent time watching and listening to architects from around the globe as they showed what they do across the 26 categories that WAF and INSIDE define. It is a fascinating, random, but not necessarily representative cross section that goes from super practices to unknown studios. It makes for interesting viewing. Architects from such varied backgrounds with vastly different budgets produce schemes that are on the face of it very different, but often share the same ideals.

Singapore is a phenomenon in itself, 50 years old as an independent state and a remarkable example of strong centralized government. It is outstandingly clean, polite and well ordered, no graffiti, no gum, no litter. It benefits from an incredibly efficient metro system and the taxis are cheap too. It is a constantly evolving city, expanding in land mass and height, and there are some interesting buildings and masterplans being built by big name architects such as Foster, Liebeskind and Hadid, but there are three recent projects that are worth discussion.

The overall winner of WAF was Ole Scheeren and OMA’s “Interlace”, a thousand apartment megastructure not far from the central business district of Singapore and developed by Capitaland. It is uncompromising and willful, 31 overlapping blocks that are set out on a hexagonal grid. The overlaps create terraces and framed gaps that break up the massing both vertically and horizontally. It is a huge gated building set in an island site, suburban and apart from the city, like one of the Garrison Forts that the British built in the late 19th century. It is very white, (for how long I wonder in this tropical climate) its angular jagged massing is quite aggressive and unflinching, it makes no concession to orientation, windows are tinted and air conditioning condenser units sit on balconies. Is this really the best world architecture has to offer? It is a bombastic humorless building that reminiscent of a Russian Constructivist sanitorium.

Interlace, Singapore
The State Industry Building, Kharkow

Much more playful and decorative was Thomas Heatherwick’s “The Hive” - all buildings need names don’t they? It is on the Nanyang Technical University campus to the west of the island. A simple idea, stacks of classrooms around a shared space. In contrast to “Interlace” it takes advantage of the climate, no need for doors or lobbies and open stairs make for a very democratic architecture. It has a sculpted hand made feel with embossed precast panels in warm beige and pinkish concrete. No doubt this will be a building of the year sometime soon, it has that populist feel that Heatherwick imparts. But is it good architecture? It is spatially constricted, the organisation of the plan is questionable creating classrooms that are dark and lifeless, exposed services crawl around the building like jungle creepers. There are some great details, the balustrade, signage, staircase enclosures are all inventively put together. But I can’t help feeling it was like being in Bedrock City, looking for Fred Flintstone.

The Hive
A classroom in The Hive
A classroom in Bedrock City

The Park Royal on Pickering is a hotel and office building designed by WOHA and completed 3 years ago. This is a great piece. It understands the context of Singapore and it is beautifully put together, the quality of detail apparent from the elevations through to the bathrooms. Of the three this is the building that feels like Singapore architecture has moved the game on. The vertical gardens, open corridors, public spaces, shared spaces and streetscape and beautifully detailed rooms are memorable, and very much a representation of Singapore’s transformation into a verdant world city.Perhaps because the architects are based in the City they have an empathetic understanding of it.

Park Royal Hotel
Vertical Garden, Park Royal

Next year WAF will be in Berlin, that promises to set up a much more Eurocentric and perhaps less experimental shortlist. For all the questions they raise, these Singapore projects are memorable and challenging.