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Tay Kheng Soon
Singapore July 1994



My response 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 Singapore.

The fact 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 needed urgently.

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 complimented.
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 and culturally.

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 medium theatre.

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 eastern performances
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 world map.

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 completed.



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