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we first visited Singapore in 1986 I noticed how compliant and alienated the populace appeared , with the young people withdrawn in their headphones and sequestered in blank blocks of high rise apartments with washing hanging from ropes strung from the balconies and amazed at how, though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.
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) Continue reading