Casino gambling came to Singapore in 2010 with the opening of the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) complex near the commercial heart of the city and Resorts World Sentosa across a causeway on a small island to the south. The developers played it safe, hiring big-name, silver-haired American architects--Moshe Safdie for MBS and Michael Graves for Sentosa--to brand the projects as world-class efforts. Safdie designed a trio of swooping towers topped by a three-acre, surf-board-shaped park with an infinity-edge swimming pool, landscaping by Peter Walker, and killer views. The 55-story towers and dramatically cantilevered rooftop park work as an iconic, though somewhat cartoonish, addition to the Singapore skyline and come with an attractive waterfront promenade and a museum shaped like a lotus flower. On a recent trip to Singapore, I didn't get the chance to visit Sentosa, but from the photos, the resort there will not surprise either fans or critics of Graves. While Singapore had hoped the two casino complexes would loosen up its stodgy reputation (and generate big profits), neither of the projects delivers architecture that says "cool" or "cutting edge."
Moshe Safdie's Marina Bay Sands complex features a 3-acre park spanning three hotel towers.
A waterfront promenade at the Marina Bay Sands anchored by Safdie's multi-petaled museum.
Ironically, Singapore is developing home-grown architects a lot more adventurous than the big guys from abroad. Three of them--Soo K. Chan, Kay Ngee Tan, and Richard Hassell (of WOHA)--participated in a "Design Roulette" that I organized for Asia Design Forum, a nonprofit think tank. Structured as a round-robin with each speaker presenting five images in three minutes, being interviewed for seven minutes, then interviewing the next person, the event generated a lively conversation on design, urbanism, art, globalization, and criticism. It brought together the three Singapore-based architects, along with architects Lyndon Neri (Neri+Hu from Shanghai), Tim Johnson (NBBJ from New York), Robert Whitlock (KPF from New York), artist Danwen Xing (from Beijing), and Alex Cho (from Jumeirah hotels in Singapore).
Chan, Tan,and Hassell all work out of renovated buildings close to each other in Singapore's Chinatown and their designs share a modern vocabulary rooted in respect for the local climate and building traditions. I visited a wonderful park pavilion by Chan that creates a shaded outdoor room and reconfigures adjacent spaces to make the public park and an MRT station in the park work better. I toured WOHA's new School of the Arts, a large concrete cube downtown within which Hassell and his partner Mun Summ Wong carved big outdoor spaces that provide protection from sun and rain. The building, which Wong himself calls "aggressive," has elicited both praise and criticism for its muscular massing and roughly finished outdoor areas. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it's a gutsy design that doesn't play it safe. And Tan showed me plans for an undulating, multi-tiered headquarters for a company that runs food courts and bakeries.
A new park structure by Soo K. Chan creates a multipurpose outdoor room.
WOHA carved large voids from within its blocky new School of the Arts.
The work being done by these emerging architects points Singapore in a new direction where the local guys can play on the same level as the imported stars. In fact, Chan, Tan, and WOHA are all busy designing projects in other parts of Asia and expanding their practices. I bet they soon become the players to beat in design competitions around the world.