From Singapore With Love
“Interviewer: The greatest invention of this century must be…?
Lee Kuan Yew: The air-conditioner, for me.” (Kuan Yew 2008)
In Singapore, everything simply works. The air conditioner cools, trains arrive on time, the streets are clean, rain always falls at 5pm, everybody has a smile on their faces, and the unemployment rate is at 2%. Everything works, everyone is happy. The average outdoor temperature is 32 degrees Celsius, while the room temperature is 22 degrees. Prostitution is legal, pornography is not, and neither are chewing gums. In Singapore, Buddhism coexists with Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, the Chinese with the Malay, the Indian, and more and more westerners. It is easy to think that it is a melting pot, a fusion cuisine, but in Singapore, the population does not mix, just as they do not mix the ingredients in their ethnic cuisines. There are rules and laws that tailor even the smallest details of human activity. It is a society that works more like a molecular than a fusion cuisine. A discourse the city itself would adopt in describing itself would probably be the one of a fact, supported by statistics, methods of systematization, processing and application of data under the banner because we believe in statistics.
How to talk about a city that has developed in the last fifty years? A city which existed as a fishing village, a kampong, a swamp, nature, a field and finally as a commercial port? This city is the embodiment of economic progress, the Asian tiger, the achievement of the fifty-year rule of Lee Kuan Yew. Here we have an extremely open and totally uncorrupted market with price stability and one of the highest GDPs in the world. Singapore is a global, green, eco-sustainable smart city – whatever that means.
The city at your service.
Enjoy your stay! Changi airport welcome sign
“Why come to Trade I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave. ‘You can resume your flight whenever you like,’ they said to me, ‘but you will arrive at another Trade, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trade which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.” (Calvino 1972)
A city is created where man finally no longer has to adapt to those awkward things while traveling: a new place, culture or language – a city is created that adapts to your needs completely. A city at service to you and to us – Singapore. Singapore embodies a place that does not aspire to be continual, permanent, rather simple, beautiful and effective. Had Calvino’s Marco Polo arrived in Singapore, he would have certainly taken a stroll along Bayfront whose similarity with the Manhattan skyline would have impressed him; he would have sat on the Singapore Flyer, designed after the model of the London Eye, done his shopping at Orchard, modeled after Oxford Street, bought Made-in-China souvenirs in Chinatown, eaten Indian food in Little India, smoked shisha in Arab Street, and ended his day at the lmax 3D theater, watching the new LEGO Movie…
What does the symbol of a city which became a sort of a generic collage, an Asian version of a sober Las Vegas, look like? It is no longer a symbol associated with a specific event, as is the case with the Statue of Liberty, the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower or, for example, the World Trade Center. If you type Singapore into Google, the first image that appears is a hotel. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is the heart of the new city ideology – it suggests the temporality of the place where the main instance is the traveler, the one who comes to see, to invest, to spend, to go away. Instead of the non-place of the hotel – as perceived by Marc Auge – it becomes an identity carrier and a symbol of the generic; the generic becomes a brand.
100% control, 100% optimized, 100% designed
“When we build buildings, we build people too.” (CapitaLand, 2014)
All the denivelations have been levelled out, the tropic vegetation tamed, and every blade of grass is in its right place. This is a city without insects, while nature can be found only in gardens: sometimes it’s a Mediterranean garden in a glasshouse and sometimes a tropical forest made into a garden. It is an island, a state, a city and a corporation. It is a Smart City. And it is growing; it is getting bigger and better and more and more efficient. The entire coastline is actually a designed port that functions as a tactile zone linked to the global network through ships and planes. In the last 40 years, the island has grown by one quarter, the population has increased four times, infrastructure is built, the GDP has been growing continuously, and the government is stable. What else can be built, how much territory can be added, what else can be demolished and rebuilt?
A typical new Singaporean settlement seems somehow familiar – blocks of identical multi-storey buildings, arranged in a grid with a central public space, flanked by a highway and connected by public transportation. Well, it is Vers une Architecture taken to infinity. It is the perfect model of Le Corbusier’s vision of a city, a functional model that is referential to reality in a 1:1 scale. It is a constructed utopia of modernism. A city that is capable of transforming its own city center, without any difficulty, into a Formula 1 street circuit for a single afternoon. A city that celebrates infrastructure. A city according to instructions: 100% controlled, 100% optimized, 100% designed and 100% air conditioned. Growth and control are seen as national pride, one of the attributes of their distinctiveness, and the inclination for success is practiced from an early age.
“It is shown with pride, not shame.
They think there will be no crime.
We think there can be no pleasure.” (Koolhaas et al. 1995b)
But such optimized, efficient society comes at a price – in it there is no room for discussion, idleness, drama, comedy, thoughts and dreams, and all those other things people do while they are not productive. Wishing to avoid disagreements and conflicts, the identities are manipulated through a designed appreciation of a specific culture, of its ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Culture and public practice become a decoration, a commodification, not an open field for dialogue. At a point where culture becomes too loud, the economy slows down; Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford, says Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the homeland.
Singapore has not decided on accepting any of the standard types of government, such as democracy, communism, or monarchy; instead it relies on the patterns of corporate (but still territorial) policies. The Government is a brand where every sector is depoliticized; it is stubbornly insists only on the politics of profitability and economic growth. Singapore pushes the limits of the concept of state company, placing every society – building segment under its authority, and governing the city by a corporate logic. Thanks to the specific situation characterized by the absence of a strong cultural and historical identity, paired with a 100 % control over a relatively small area, an ideal ground was prepared for the creation of Singapore Inc., a brand that creates a simulation in lieu of society.
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” (Kuan Yew 1987)
Or as Gibson would say for Singapore: it is “[…] an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.” (Gibson 1993)
Is this your grandfather’s road?, Residents’ Committee’s kindness movement
McLuhan’s global village, Saskia Sassen’s global city, Koolhas’ generic city – they all tell a story of a 100% city… It is a continuous urban space with no beginning or end that accumulates everything: a space of exchange, housing, commerce, communications, transport, production, and consumption. The generic city is a city of constant change, a place without a defined center. The topics of the generic are the infrastructure, technology, systems, control and optimization. All the worlds are becoming the same. The apocalypse now is personified in the smog of the polluted metropolis, a childhood on dumpsites, the tornadoes, the gap between the rich and the poor, while the romance now is presented through the global exotic of crowded markets, people of different colors, totally politically correct, and composed of iconic lnstagram moments. Ultimately, these are the elements of which we can put together the picture of any city: New York City, Jakarta, Cairo, Athens, Singapore… , a generic city, or as McLuhan would say: The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village. (McLuhan, 1962)
The same global village, a generic city, offers another side to it. Like familiar strangers, everything around us is new, yet we are not lost. There is a certain beauty in the generic, or better yet, in the familiarity of the unknown occurring through globalization. In an unfamiliar country, the infrastructure, both the physical and the digital, becomes something like a universal language. All roads, paths, t rains, shortcuts, spaces – everything is in our pockets. Just like in Star Trek, you have your own tricorder and you feel safe. The sameness and a set of global standards managed to create a village of exceedingly dense population of residents of high longevity and high literacy with unlimited possibilities of access to knowledge. The consequence of generic globalization is a metropolis lost in the limbo of permanent urban renovation for which it will forever seem like it was built just a few days ago. The city we knew yesterday will no longer exist tomorrow. Where is my street (Is this your grandfather’s road?), the Singaporeans wonder? This is urbanism at a 100%, the platform on which we stand, neither entirely negative nor positive.
Proposal for a different reading of the generic
A Great Way to Fly!, Singapore Airlines
“What if we are witnessing a global liberation movement: ‘down with character!’ What is left after identity is stripped? The Generic?” (Koolhaas et al. 1995a)
What are the deficiencies of identity, and consequently, what are the advantages of the generic, Koolhaas asks. Perhaps the process of homogenization – which seemingly accidentally, manifests itself globally – that is in fact a deliberate step from diversity towards similarity. Perhaps identity and character are only masks for concealing the generic. Perhaps the generic city is freed from the captivity of centralization and the unidirectionality of identity.
Perhaps it should not be viewed solely through Koolhaas’ critique, but its possible articulations should be sought. When it comes to the generic, it is about the inversion of history and tradition. The history of planning becomes the planning of history. Time exists only in relation to the future. There are no rules or instructions for use, only personal interpretations. These are the worlds that go beyond fixed categories; these are the genres which are populated by avatars, hybrids, cyborgs, peoples of multiple identities and those without identity, their successors and predecessors. None of them is perfect, nor is the world in which they are living. Instead of a fixed definition, they chose the unlimited list of possible readings. The lists that offer paradigmatic relations – active approaches to the realization of answers – are no longer fixed or unambiguous, but are relative in their relations. The limits of fixed categories are lost in the continuous city. The generic city is a city that reinvents itself. The generic city becomes a copy of which there is no original, a simulacrum of the cityness of digital society. The question is how to find consistencies and articulate what might be cityness in the context of a generic city?
16 December 2014, Singapore
Calvino, Italo (1972). Invisible Cities. Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Gibson, William (1993). Disneyland with the Death Penalty. Wired Webpage, retrieved from http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/gibson.html.
Koolhaas, Rem, Bruce Mau and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (1995a). ‘Generic City’, in S, M, L, XL, 1238–70. The Monacelli Press.
Koolhaas, Rem, Bruce Mau, Jennifer Sigler, Hans Werlemann and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (1995b). Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large. Monacelli Press.
Kuan Yew, Lee (1987). , Strait Times.
Kuan Yew, Lee (2008). ‘MM: No Pushing Back Climate Change’, Strait Times: 20.
McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.