VIEWPOINT ON THE SINGAPORE ARTS CENTRE
to the design of the Singapore Arts Centre (SAC) is motivated by a desire
to contribute to the development of cultural awareness in Singapore, of
that the arts centre project is able to arouse controversies shows that
it touches nerves in a way which other projects do not seem to do. This
project, therefore, could possess the unique ability to stimulate self-awareness.
The project focusses on the dilemma of being Asian and Modern at the same
time and, because it is to be actually built, it is bound to take on an
air of urgency.Otherwise, in the com-fort of cosy academia, the Asian
dilemma can go on being debated in
a leisurely manner ad infinitum. Therefore with the SAC, resolution is
The question of cultural identity in this day and age cannot simply be
a recall of the past, nor can it be an uncritical adoption of western
standards and conceptions. If our people do not realise that which is
unique in themselves, they have to adopt a critical (meaning pene-trating
and discerning) attitude towards the barrage of western ideas as well
as their own heritage.
They must come to terms with the West, albeit on the basis of a critical
understanding of who and what they are. What it takes culturally to achieve
a Modern Asian identity in the context of a closely- networked globalised
world is, therefore, the essence of the challenge of today, and the building
of the SAC is the symbol of this. Maybe I am too ambitious to expect this.
The concept and the design of the SAC represents, as I see it, an important
step in the quest for a new Asian identity for us.The dilemma is made
all the more stark when, with available money, it is easier to obey the
dictates of the international arts circuit than
to persist in clarifying our history, nurturing fresh sensibilities and
inspiring latent fires of creativity.
It is easier with money to buy a show, employ an architect, hire consultants.
It is more difficult to use money and resources to build cultural confidence.
The building of the SAC represents all those issues to me.
Dramatist Kuo Pao Kun's call a year ago when he said "this arts centre
should not be the last of the great western arts centres, but be the first
of a series of new Asian ones" drove the point home.
What followed is a tribute to the receptiveness of the steering committee
which took time to alter the design brief in response to the reactions.
At the conclusion of the year-ago debate, I was beginning to be a little
apprehensive about the call for "Asian-ness" in the brief and
implied in the design. I was at once glad that the glaring omission in
the original brief was being plugged, but also afraid that a clamour for
superficial ethnic featurism might result.
But fortunately this concern has not materialised thus far. The design
we were shown has avoided the obvious dangers. Both the architects and
the steering committee should be complimented for not allowing the project
to become an exercise in token "Asian Ethnic featurism" but
continue to indicate some sort of contextual modernism in their approach.
The design is a straight-forward fulfilment of the technical and functional
requirements. It has also demonstrated that it is true to the nature of
modern construction methods and materials with which it is to be built.
It is undoubtedly a modern building as it conforms to the key tenet of
modern architecture which says that fake architectural elements and false
construction features are to be eschewed in a design. The few concessions
to local features do not detract from the modernist stance of the design.
This is preferable
to a "post-modernist reviva-list" approach which could result
in an indigestible conglomeration of all the architectural tokens of each
and every ethnic community and sub-community. Mercifully, this has been
avoided. For this, the steering committee and the architects have to be
But all this still begs the question. What should an Asian arts centre
in Singapore at this time be architec-turally? As far as I can see, this
is still an open question. The present design inspires no clarification
of this central question. Moreover, what message it may have is distracted
by the larger globular structures which dominate the appearance. The large
lumps obscure in more ways that one. This essay is an attempt to uncover
what is figuratively concealed.
Quite apart from style is the intractable problem of dealing with the
visual dominance of the western arts facilities which constitutes the
bulk of the requirements, contrasted against the secondary presence of
the eastern arts facilities. The reality is that the western blockbuster
shows will, willy-nilly, dominate the arts scene. The Asian arts shows
will initially be few and far between. This issue must be recognised for
what it is. I, therefore, see that the design strategy must address this
in a creative way.
The Asian arts com-ponents should be designed as a wonderful garden which
drapes over the entire complex. But this will require a radical reconceptua-lisation
of the design.
In no other project-type is the issue of cultural disparity and the need
for cultural assertion as sharply focussed. This is, therefore, the principal
issue which has still not been addressed in the brief and certainly not
in the design. What it comes down to and which is most unsatisfactory
with the present design is the sheer visible size of the three halls in
the total composition. Is there consciousness of this as an inherent cultural
issue? When we compare the first design of a year ago with that shown
now, the three halls are similarly huge as the ones shown earlier.
The only difference is the spacing.
No attempt has been made in the interval to diminish the visual dominance
or to achieve a more balanced composition between the added Eastern and
the original Western per-formance elements in the massing. Not only is
there a lack of cultural sensitivity to this issue, the solution adopted
to employ the soft shroud-forms to drape over the massive theatre structures
beneath is a tacit acceptance of the facts of contemporary cultural life
as being dominated by the West.
The attempt to shroud the shapes is appreciated, but it is an impossible
task. Thus the architectural effort to conceal, unfortunately, invites
greater attention to the ungainly shapes and size of the three basically
western-type performance halls. They are the bane of the design both architec-turally
The design is unsatisfactory for another important reason which follows
from that already mentioned. It is obvious that the architectural imagination
has been inhibited seriously by the functional requirements of theatre
planning and the acoustic requirements, all based uncompromisingly on
state-of-the-art western models.
But this is to be expected, given the premium placed by the steering committee
on the functional theatre planning criteria and the acoustics of the halls.
The predominance of these factors is intentional and right. And this is
clear when one remembers that the two technical consultants responsible
for these factors were appointed first to work closely with the steering
committee to determine the design criteria and presumably to devise methods
of management and control of architects who were to be appointed later.
This is to ensure that the subsequent architectural design energies will
not triumph over sober realities. It should, therefore, also be remembered
that it was specifically declared by the steering committee that it was
not only looking for talent, but that it was also looking for an architectural
team who could and would work along with them.
It is right to insist on functionality, but this must be balanced against
sensitivity. May it be that the steering committee has succeeded too well
in this respect and the other committees less so? Looking at the design,
it is clear that the architects have indeed gone along with the philosophy
of the steering committee and the functional consultants. It would thus
appear that they did not have an easy time in attempting to "transcend"
(words of Michael Wilford, the architect) the functional constraints imposed
and seem to have failed to seize the "opportunities" (again
Wilford) offered by the constraints. Hence the need for the "cloud-like"
(heard in the audience), "marshmallow" (again audience), "concrete
blobs" (Straits Times forum letter) and, in
the words of Wilford himself, "cocoon" and "Russian Doll-like"
(rotund) shapes to "shroud" the huge fly-towers and the acoustic
echo-chambers of the western concert halls, the lyric theatre and the
On the cultural symbolic plane of reckoning, the acceptance of the dominance
of the hall structures is symbolic of an implicit acceptance of the dominance
of western arts in the consciousness. That the huge structures were allowed
to overshadow actually and symbolically the diminutive Asian arts performances
spaces and received no effective correction in the design is demonstrative
of either a timidity and/or an insufficient consciousness of the importance
of this as a cultural issue.
The historic moment that this project pre-sents to Singapore to interject
at this juncture of Asia's new age is drifting away. To those who would
argue that Asian performances are not excluded from the three great halls,
let it be said that the few occasions when Asian arts will perform in
these halls will not alter the perception of the disproportionate relationship
of the arts as represented in the design of SAC and visible every day
on the Esplanade by the Bay.
And, in an unintended way, this disparity between East and West is, unfortunately,
to be endorsed culturally through the mere building of the SAC in the
manner designed. How an awkward consciousness sufficiently knowledgeable
and talented, but one stubborn enough to insist on confronting the issues
inherent in the Modern Asian dilemma - in design and programmatic terms,
which this project poses - will handle this confrontation is not to be
known. How such a talent will respond to the challenge - of repre-senting
the inevitable and unequal juxtaposition of East and West in a design
brief of an arts centre to be built in Asia today - is a tantalising thought.
This, it seems to me, should be the very essence of the challenge of the
SAC project. And thus, I sense it has failed to inspire. To inspire, the
SAC quest must be sufficiently grand in scope and bold in conception.
The participation in the resolution of the central dilemma of our times
must surely be the challenge and the main reason to embark on an undertaking
such as the SAC. Anything else relegates the project to just another building
project on which it is usually sufficient to be nonchalant.
I suppose, it will be necessary at this time for one to ask, "And
so, what to do?" I, too, ask this question. And I admit to being
perplexed. Asian arts in their traditional form belong to a different
context to that of the western concert hall tradition. As theatre consultant
David Staples said, Asian performing arts are largely performed outdoors
or in covered outdoor spaces, are part of religious obser-vances or are
meant to celebrate auspicious calendar events.
Moreover, many of the lyrical musical instruments used do not project
acoustically. To play to large audiences, they have often to require amplification.
The entire proposition needs deep examination and time to mature. Can
be plucked out of their social and religious contexts, as western arts
were prior to the modern period, and be represented in a concert hall
in the manner western performances are? What kind of settings and treatment
of material are appropriate in our situation when many of the traditional
arts practices are still part of the continuing social and cultural context?
Can the kind of auto-nomies in aesthetics, morality and reason be achieved
and appre-ciated in performances in a decontextualised manner? What facilitating
institutions and physical props need to be provided and, most importantly,
in what ways can the general public adopt the place as a wellspring of
their inspiration and a mirror to the world?
Whatever the answers to the above questions may be, the design strategy
must provide more scope for the celebration of the out-doors in the design
of the Asian arts section.
To do this, I thought, given the demands of the theatre and acoustics
consultants, the resulting large halls could be placed lower into the
ground to occupy less surface ground space. This would immediately allow
more scope for publicly accessible spaces and give the Asian arts component
greater scope to develop the informal relationships between the performance
and the audience, as per normal.
But I am aware that there would be serious technical difficulties in doing
this on this site. However, if these diffi-culties can be solved, the
overpowering presence of the large volumes could be mini-mised and more
top-side space given for the Asian elements.
This would, simultaneously, allow the Asian performance facilities more
prominence, to take centre stage as it were. The need to shroud or cocoon
the ungainly structures would be avoided and the problem turned into an
asset. Some of the roof structures could become amphitheatres or stepped
galleries or terraced platforms, padi field-like, to stroll on and to
gain a view of events on Marina Bay. Some performing spaces could even
be hill-top-like places surmounting the western halls.
In such an approach, the sunken structures also offer opportunities of
a different kind. New connectivities are possible. The intelligent decision
to place the carparks under the Marina Drive extension could then lead
directly into the lobbies and foyers of the theatres. And one would be
entering these theatres and halls at a higher level than usual, thereby
producing a dramatic entry sequence.
At strategic and meaningful locations, the underground and underwater
situation offers a most unusual possibility of introducing a sub-aquatic
theme into the theatre arts environment. Something never done before.
Filtered sea-water aquaria could surround public areas, providing excellent
sound insulation and dramatic contrast. The tropical sub-aquatic theme
will, I dare say, create an unforgettable image. This will surely, with
other themes in the design, place Singapore on the cultural and architectural
I cannot really know whether any of my ideas will work. The only reason
to suggest them is that a certain mundane-ness has crept into the design
we were shown. The functional and the technical have somehow overwhelmed
the architectural imagination.
I sense that the design is done in some desperation to meet the demands
placed on it. And thus, I did not sense any uplifting in the mood of those
who saw the exhi-bition and who attended the talks that followed.
Such a major architectural and cultural undertaking must at least draw
the kind of enthusiastic response from Singaporeans as did the new Changi
International Airport and the Benjamin Sheares Viaduct when they were