Examining Rem Koolhaas’ prologue to Singapore Songlines

A recent post on [polis] led me to reread Rem Koolhaas’ seminal text and a critique of it in QRLS, which reminded me how when we first visited Singapore in 1986 I noticed how compliant and alienated the populace appeared , with the young people withdrawn in their headphones and sequestered in blank blocks of high rise apartments with washing hanging from ropes strung from the balconies and amazed at how, though the city ran smoothly and everything appeared absolutely perfect, there seemed to be an undercurrent of dis-ease, only once we ventured away from the main streets did we find  “real” people  of many nationalities as vendors of  foods and artifacts from the surrounding regions diverse ethnic groups. While buying some cloths and puppets from Indonesia and Sulawesi we chatted to the vendors who still lived in shophouses clustered together in streets by their nationality we discovered that they were soon to loose their homes to upgrading and “theming” – just like we saw had already been done in the Chinese and Indian quarters.

Orchard Road Xmas 2011

The critique of Singapore by Rem Koolhaas in S,ML,XL is directed at this loss, not of a historic district worth saving in itself, but the loss of the roots of the people who make the city what it is, this same erosion taking place in our cities casts a shadow on our modernity, how will we retain our roots yet make space for the ‘now’ and the ‘just now’?. 

From [polis] “Taking Singapore’s Orchard Road as a linear slice of urban fabric, it may be read as representative of both the city-state’s remarkable capacity for economic development and complete disregard for historical strata. In an awkward attempt to impose a blanket of elite market-driven exchange without the frayed edges and individual liberties of Western urban models, Singapore has stirred heated debate over its cultural authenticity. What is the genuine essence of a city that functions in a constant cultural grey zone, importing multinational corporations and citizens from abroad?” 

Singapore’s tabula rasa developmental logic has subtracted any perceivable contextual background, adding only glamorous foreground. The Potemkin Metropolis of Singapore — more harshly described by William Gibson as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” — is a model for rapid urbanization in a part of the world where priorities diverge from those established in other global cities. Food poverty, defective infrastructure and destructive flash floods continue to shape the reality of countries in the region. Singapore developed by betting on qualities that rarely push cities to greatness in Europe and North America. It implemented a rigid, authoritarian ethos that appealed more to immediate conditions than to the cosmopolitan lifestyles of New Yorkers and Londoners. The city-state renowned for its prosperous economy, the banning of chewing gum and effective strategies against crime remains the odd man out within a broader geographical context accustomed to hardship and scarcity.

“It is shown with pride, not shame. They think there will be no crime. We think there can be no pleasure.” (Rem Koolhaas)

From  QRLS by Masturah Alatas

North Bridge Road towards the direction of Raffles City in 1986

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.

Tan Quee Lan Street on left of picture in 2011

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 Songlinesas 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.”

King Wah Watch Shop House 1986

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?

Orchard Road Xmas 2011

The qualities that Singapore achieves through its complex assemblage of Western semiotics are fundamentally different than those which these signals create when embedded in their original context. While Prada may celebrate high fashion in Milan, a utopia for up-and-coming fashion designers, Singapore’s commodity market honors the brand only, not the creative talent from which it emerged — consequence without cause. Without historical background, even originals become simulacrum. 


Benjamin Leclair-Paquet is a researcher whose interest lies at the nexus of innovative means of participation through design and heterotopian architecture in violent spaces.



Credits: Text by Benjamin Leclair-Paquet and Andrew Wade. Photographs by Benjamin Leclair-Paquet.

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