Tag Archives: symposium/talk/conference

Reclaiming urban spaces: Hub-to-Hub public art program

“It is a deadly paradox for Singapore to be risk averse as a nation when Singapore’s very survival depends on its ability to coolly and rationally deal with the uncertainties, dangers and risks that constantly confront [it].”

– Tay Kheng Soon, ‘A World Class City Deserves a World Class Architecture. How to Get There From Here,’ Architecture Journal 1987 (School of Architecture, National University of Singapore, 1987): 38.

Uncertainties, dangers, and risks: factors that make for intriguing urban environments, yes? I don’t refer to a physical sense of risk and danger. I’m talking about surprising conditions that grab hold of our mental faculties, senses, and powers of perception until we come to terms with what we’re experiencing.

Encountering risk and uncertainty in public spaces often results in an affecting experience – the learning of something new, and an enhanced feeling of connection to a place. It can happen on Singapore’s sanitised and orderly streets, but not that readily. More often than not, you need to have an inkling of the areas in which it might occur, and make a project of seeking it out if you’re so inclined.

My curiosity was piqued when I heard about the Hub-to-Hub temporary public art project, which is currently being staged at seven sites in the Bras Basah and Bugis area. Risk is at the heart of its agenda – in both its animation of public spaces and its collaborations between creative professionals (and students) from diverse disciplines and nations. For this, I applaud its curators.

One of them, Prof Steffen Lehmann of The University of South Australia, revealed at the ‘Hub-to-Hub 2011 Symposium’ (held on Sunday 16 October at the NLB) that he hopes the art event will be a tri-annual one, encouraging Singaporeans to reflect on and “interrogate” the role of public space. Sounds great. Is it happening?

The sites offered to the creative teams ranged from the semi-Arcadian (Dhoby Ghaut Green), to the semi-commercial (outside The Cathay), to the intimate and tucked-away (Stamford Green), to the prominent and prestigious (outside SAM and 8Q), to the understated and circulatory (Waterloo Centre).

The varied installations connect with their sites to greater and lesser extents. The works I enjoyed the most, however, are those that thoroughly invite the passerby into an exploration and mental collision with the installation:

  • Stilt House at Dhoby Ghaut Green by Team Europe. I wondered, “Is it safe to climb it?” and “What are its walls made with?”
  • III Movement at Stamford Green by Team Aural. I thought, “This is an interesting way to listen to the city.”
  • Multiculturalism and the Giant ‘Mop’ at SAM@8Q by Team Australia. I temporarily asked myself, “Do the creators want me to walk inside it or stay at the edge?”

The seven interventions will be in place until 4 November 2011. You can download a walking map with info about each project from the Hub-to-Hub site, as well as background info on the program’s aims and curatorial topics. Taking in each work involves an easy walk from Dhoby Ghaut Green to the Waterloo Centre.

Hub-to-Hub was co-organised by re:ACT and its main sponsor is the URA’s A+UDE program.

Big Ideas, Small Island: ‘Making Future Cities’ conference

Making Future Cities was the first international conference of the SEC (Singapore–ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability – see my blog post of 5 September for further info on the SEC). The three-day conference was held 12–14 September 2011 out west at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The event was not open to the public. It called for “understanding and evaluating the contemporary urban system, its recent history, its present dynamics, and its possibilities.”

The program was heavy, befitting the seriousness of the subject. Up for discussion were Asian urbanisms, transport, zero-carbon-emission buildings, air travel and border conditions, food, the political economy of territory, resilient cities, and more. The opening addresses preluded the challenges that would inevitably be debated; Professor Kees Christiaanse of ETH commented that it is not possible to create a manual for making sustainable cities.

I managed to catch two half-days of presentations, and sat among a full house of academics, researchers, PhD students, and URA representatives. The work presented included the research of PhD candidates from ETH and the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), FCL researchers, ETH professors, and invited academics. The focus was global, but some presentations were dedicated solely to research on Singapore.

The first morning’s presentations by PhD candidates discussed the urban environment of Singapore’s Little India and Kampong Glam, Changi airport and its surrounds, enclaves in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the consumptive aspects of Shanghai’s built environments, and the strange border condition of China’s Pearl River Delta. During the session’s summary, the suggestion was made that the Rochor area is Singapore’s only remaining ‘urban’ area – with mixed use, varied building forms, mixed social groups, some secrecy, and some filth.

During the last afternoon of the conference, I heard Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic of the FCL present some of her research into the conditions of ‘city and territory’ in Belgrade, the Netherlands, and the Nile Valley. Her presentation served as a precursor to the research she’ll be undertaking at the FCL on Singapore’s relationships with (and impacts on) the areas beyond its borders.

With regard to Belgrade, Milica highlighted how political forces have changed the nature of the city, its territory, and its meaning. Her discussion of planning practices in the Netherlands revealed how territory is traditionally viewed there as a space of social practice – never pre-given and natural. Her research in the Nile Valley discovered the influence of resources on the condition and perception of cities and territories.

‘Social and urban economist’ Professor Dieter Läpple presented a keynote address titled ‘Perspectives of Resilient Cities.’ He suggested that our modernisation processes, production regimes, and modes of consumption have eroded resilience – not only of many natural systems but also of many social systems. Resilient cities, he said, make room for diversity, redundancy, and contingency. They have robust, adaptive, inclusive, and innovative structures. The reconciliation of development and sustainability will need different strategies in every city, but global guidelines can be derived, he suggested. He challenged the FCL to embed itself in global sustainability.

During the closing round table forum there were provocative remarks and passionate voices of disagreement. You might say it’s the sign of a fruitful exchange of ideas. Before the audience got stuck in, Professor Chua Beng Huat talked about ‘the Singapore model’ as a series of practical decisions made in response to circumstances, rather than a replicable template. Professor Wong Yun Chii mentioned “virtual water” – the water Singapore would consume if it grew its own food. Professor Tay Kheng Soon talked about ‘rubanisation’ and hurled some dirt too. Carolyn Steel uttered words such as “richness” and “love of life” – surprising but welcome.

There exists the hope that the FCL research will result in guidelines and policy recommendations for a positive impact on Singapore’s built environment. I wish the FCL the best of luck. I hope its work can find regular and digestible coverage in popular forms of media in order to encourage sustainable thinking from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

The Rail Corridor: Singapore’s backyard? A connecting spine?

ArchiFest Public Forum and URA ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ Exhibition

Singapore’s newest ‘site’ continues to ignite passion and encourage debate. The former KTM railway land was discussed at length during yesterday’s ArchiFest Public (AFP) Forum. Along with the URA, Singapore’s designers and the wider community are keenly contemplating the possibilities for this unique land. The AFP Forum provided an opportunity for some of the online chatter to be aired in person. The URA did not give a presentation.

A couple of concepts emerged that resonated strongly (at least with me). The idea of regional connectivity as a shaper of rail corridor interventions is perhaps the most poignant. This idea was mentioned and alluded to by some of the speakers and reinforced by ‘Herbert’ – a member of the audience. Contributing to a surprisingly lengthy Q&A session at the end of the forum, Herbert aptly pointed out that many maps of Singapore fail to show neighbouring countries, instead illustrating Singapore as an isolated island. Neighbourly connections, he suggested, could be the story of the KTM land, informing interventions and art installations, and at the same time reinforcing history and place. He made a valid point.

The lovely idea of a green rail corridor as a ‘backyard’ for the residents of Singapore (the ‘front yard’ being the Gardens by the Bay) was also raised during the forum. This idea apparently first emerged during the ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ workshop, held on 8 October (which I didn’t attend).

Now for more detail …

The ArchiFest Public Forum was organised by the Singapore Institute of Architects and held at the National Library Building on the morning of Sunday 9 October 2011. The forum did not set out to discuss specific concepts for the KTM railway land, but rather, ideas and possibilities.

Speakers included Dr Lai Chee Kien (Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, NUS), Dr Shawn Lum (President, Nature Society Singapore), Tobias Baur (Director of Atelier Dreiseitl), Seah Chee Huang (SIA council member and Chairman of ArchiFest Organising Committee), and Dr Tan Beng Kiang (Deputy Head, School of Design and Environment, NUS).

A Q&A session was moderated by Kelley Cheng (Editorial Director of Singapore Architect magazine and Founder/Creative Director of The Press Room). The forty-odd-strong audience seemed to consist of people from the architecture/design community and the general public.

I found Dr Lai Chee Kien’s presentation, titled ‘Railway Heritage in Singapore,’ rich and illuminating of the past and present. With the aid of a wonderful set of historic images, he revealed how:
–       the Singapore rail line was once heavily used on Sundays by Singapore residents heading to gambling dens in Johor Bahru (with ferry transfers between Woodlands and JB)
–       Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Ipoh were three of the main stations on the line, offering hotel accommodation
–       On the Malaya Peninsula, the line’s location near the west coast allowed for proximity to rubber estates
–       Hindu temples along the Singapore line catered to Tamil labourers
–       Duxton Plain Park is a remnant of an earlier branch of the Singapore line (hence the topography of the park today)
–       The original Singapore line was deviated from Bukit Timah southwards due to flooding in the Orchard Road section of the line

Dr Shawn Lum presented ‘Perspectives from Nature’s Viewpoint,’ emphasising the ecological value of connected nature areas. He asked the audience to think of the nature areas near the KTM land (including the unprotected Clementi forest) as ‘islands.’ General ecological rules suggest that large, interconnected, and topographically heterogeneous islands will support more species than smaller, distant, homogenous ones.

The KTM land, said Dr Lum, offers the potential to create clusters of habitats along its length. Habitats along the rail corridor could link with existing surrounding nature areas to create a chain of habitats encouraging pollination and migration across a substantial area. He highlighted the possibilities inherent in management for biodiversity.

Tobias Baur alluded to the landscape architecture opportunities of the rail corridor (and the possibilities that could arise by linking with waterways) via a selection of international projects. These included the Sagrea Linear Park (Barcelona), concepts for Kaohsiung Port Station (Kaohsiung), Solar City (Linz), Zoll Hallenplatz (Frieburg), Tanner Springs Park (Portland), and Bishan Park (Singapore).

Seah Chee Huang presented five adaptive reuse projects – the High Line (New York), Cheonggyecheon (Seoul), Kraanspoor (Amsterdam), Tate Modern (London), and the London Old Gas Cylinders and Shunt Lounge.

Dr Tan Beng Kiang showed preliminary student work from an architecture studio at NUS, which is also currently on display at the URA. The ‘Rail Ideas’ project aims to emphasise the rail corridor as a connector for heritage, nature, mobility, communities, and education. Dr Tan pointed out that 1.12 million people live within 2km of the rail corridor. Among the student ideas were a food village, a skate park, a farmer’s market, a bicycle hub, and an edu-farm.

Dr Tan shared a great stop-motion-style video compiled by NUS students called ‘Operation KTM Street View.’ It’s composed of shots taken every 10m along the rail corridor.

The Re-imagining the Rail Corridor exhibition at the URA Atrium presents student concepts (from various design schools), information about the corridor, and a handful of concepts from professional designers. FARM, for example, proposed a gigantic seesaw for pedestrians sited within an existing bridge. FARM described it as “a whole new way to ‘ride’ the old railway tracks.” Sounds fun.

More info about the Rail Corridor here and  here.

Keeping it real. Engin Celikbas of KesselsKramer speaks for The Design Society

On 29 August, I attended a lecture at LASALLE College of the Arts organised by The Design Society and presented by Engin Celikbas, CEO of Dutch creative agency KesselsKramer (Amsterdam and London). The lecture was titled ‘Past, Present & Future of KesselsKramer’.

If you’re familiar with KK’s work in branding, communications, and publishing, you’ll know it resides on the wonky side of things. It generally has a gritty, raw, and irreverent vibe. (Visit their website and you’ll know what I mean.) True to brand, one of Engin’s opening comments was, “I have no idea where this industry is going.” As you’d surmise, he didn’t talk much about the future of KK; but this omission said more about the agency’s way of working than trite predictions would have.

The well-attended session provided a good opportunity to see past work such as campaigns for the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, Ben, and Citizen M Hotel. Engin also showed KK’s satirical royal wedding souvenir plates, which ended up selling in the thousands. Some publishing work was featured, including In Almost Every Picture #1 – a collection of hundreds of photos taken by a husband of his wife in the 1950s and ’60s. The photos were found by Erik Kessels at a Barcelona flea market. The resulting photo book seems an interesting study of habit, fascination, and amateur skill, yet perhaps it also resonates with a slightly opportunistic undercurrent.

I can’t help but admire KK’s stance of valuing honesty and cohesiveness in their portrayal of people, places, and objects. There’s fortitude, too, in their decision to stop entering industry awards competitions, instead using the entry fees to fund independent projects. The agency has more or less capped its own growth (aside from the birth of more satellite offices) with its operational structure – no account managers. KK’s planners, creatives, and producers each take on management roles at different stages of a project. This results in more direct (and hopefully more open and lasting) relationships with clients. The structure limits the agency’s growth, but as Engin said, “We don’t want to be everything for everyone.”

At the end of the session, an audience question about KK’s Amsterdam office space (a collection of wacky scale-bending insertions in a former church, designed by FAT) yielded an admission from Engin that would have pleased any spatial designers in the theatre: “The space affects your mood.” (He meant in a good way!) He also mentioned that the church’s location in the centre of the city – with connectivity to people, places, and events – was a mood enhancer. It did make me pity anyone about to trudge back to an office in an industrial park.