Hybrid Design Culture of Contemporary Singapore
- PERFORMANCE – Thinking Globally Acting Locally
- REGIONAL EXPRESSION – Giving Shape to Identity
- MATERIALS AND MEANS OF BUILDING
This is a research paper based on an aspect of the hybrid design culture of contemporary Singapore. Emerging economy in Asia, Post-Colonial era and Globalisation have forced Asian architectures to re-look at their present architecture practices and researches. This paper evaluates and analyses the recent work of William Lim, Marine Parade Community Centre (MPCC)
No. This is not the future world, countries mingled, races mixed, vices and virtues crossed: it is the Colonial Exposition – Paul Morand
During the colonial time, hybrid in architecture was necessary for the functioning of colonial power, as mediators between colonized and colonizer. Ironically the consequences of hybridization are erasure and blurring of boundaries between race and dissolution of the codes of difference. Moral and physical disharmony was the only possible result from hybridization.
Even after the post-colonial time, western culture is still dominating the world. The post-colonial time has resulted in Asia as a whole experiencing a combination of inferiority complex and cultural withdrawal syndrome – which translates into an indiscriminate protection of tradition and culture. This can be found not only in the juxtaposition of architectural styles on the urban landscapes, government system, economic system or education system, but in the very instincts of each Singaporean.
The wide acceptances of Western ideas of modernity were mostly won through many painful struggles. Western Global Capitalism idea for an example has created a single huge marketplace. With huge economies of scale that reward doing the same business or selling the same product all over the world at once ,can homogenize consumption and production simultaneously all over the world. And because of globalisation as a culturally homogenising and environment-devouring force is coming on so fast, there is a real danger that in just a few decades it could wipe out the ecological and cultural diversity that took million of years of human and biological evolution to produce.
On the other hand, the processes of economic globalisation bring a greater mobility of capital, goods, services, people and knowledge from one location to another. These exchanges Global Flows are facilitated by laws and institutions and correspondingly require spatial resources. This is where the question of the city architecture and urbanity appears. Globalisation inevitably affects the morphology and nature of the city. It will affect local social and spatial structures. We have witnessed the tremendous reductive practice of producing local identity and replaced by the sense of “placelessness”. Kitsch aesthetics are found everywhere. Buildings throughout the world look the same.
The homogenising tendency of globalisation and western culture influences raises important ethical questions among architects. In recent years there has been an increasing assertive and efforts to change and modify the architectural theory and practice. Tokyo will prove this point. Tokyo is one of the successful cities that have successfully maintained its attractiveness and dynamism because of its chaotic order, pluralistic richness and unintentional complexity.
The recent Community Centre building designed by William Lim, a Singaporean architect, also suggested that an architectural project could engage with the dilemma of globalisation by making a new kind of ‘glocal’ space, a hybrid of Global culture and local culture. Using Bay Joo Hwa Philip Framework, this paper will be divided into three sections to evaluate and analyse the hybridity in William’s design:
- Performance (refers to the functional of the building and its background)
- Regional Expression (respond to people and their needs)
- Materials and Means of Building
The Marine Parade Community Center was designed by William Lim Associates as a multipurpose complex with a cafe’, cultural events, theatre, sport club and a karaoke house. It was a government sponsored community club which is situated in the public housing heartland and offers a myriad of programmes under a common roof. Marine Parade Community Centre (2000) designed by William Lim, a pioneer, provocateur and pluralist, describes his work as “contemporary vernacular and a celebration of “ pluralism”. These can be seen later through the interesting details of the building.
3.a Hybrid functionality
The universal typology of a social club started way back in Russia during the pre 1st world war revolutionary idealism. It served as a testament to the underlying power of social concept. In Soviet, this place was used as the ‘social condenser’ – a concept peculiar to Soviet society, which was intended to absorb and transform one individual. Since then, the typology of social club has been known as a community centre where it is a centre of communal life and activities (based on physical or mental recreation) where all the members of community, of whatever degree, can meet on common and equal ground.
In Singapore, Community Centre is managed by the Singapore People Association. In the turbulent 1950 and early 1960s Singapore faced formidable challenges. It was a poor and divided society with closely knit communal groups pulling in every direction. The community Club was used to help foster racial harmony and social cohesion to form the basis for national building. Ultimately the basic function of a community club as asocial condenser has been suited to the local need of a propaganda tool by the government.
The Community Club of the constituency of the Prime Minister of Singapore (Marine Parade), so any decisions around this space are likely to carry some political charge. For example: the hype was considerable: “It will be the most significant piece of public art ever in Singapore. It even has the potential to be the Southeast Asian version of the Sistine Chapel in Italy.” – Alan Rubenstein of La Salle-SIA College of the Arts. This is in parallel with the latest vision for Singapore to be a Renaissance City. In order to attract more global talents and capitals, the Singapore city has to improve on its sphere of global life.
” …to establish Singapore as a global city of the arts. We want to position Singapore as a key city in Asia and as one of the cultural centres in the world. The idea is to be one of the top cities in the world to live, work and play in. Where there is an environment conducive to knowledge-based industries and talent. Where Singaporeans can be creative and well-rounded individuals.
Many do not agree with the vision though and called the vision a “Reconnaissance City’ where most of Singaporean artists are ended up working with cynicism and disillusionment under the steady, unflinching eye of the State. Nevertheless this iconic landmark in the town has explores deeply the definition of community by giving a distinctive character of combining art and architecture. It is a statement that is intentionally designed to inspire the users of the Centre, a unique and stimulating experience both spatially and visually. The global ideology has solved a local problem.
Modern and economic developments are essential for modernity and for effective integration into the contemporary world culture. – William S.W.Lim 
John Friedman in his essay entitled “The World City Hypothesis” defined a hierarchy of so called global cities in which Singapore was seen to play a vital role. Though Singapore does not have the population size of “primary” global cities, but in terms of its importance as a major financial centre and business district has acquired the status of a regional metropolis. The significant role in the global system has drawn Singapore into a world arena and created “social schizophrenia between, in the on hand, regional societies and local institutions, and on the other hand, rules and operations of the economic system at the international level”. Friedman carried on and saying “in such cities, the traditional structure of social and political control over development, work and distribution have been subverted by the placeless logic of an internationalised economy by means of information slows among powerful actors beyond the sphere state of regulations.
The above discussion has a significant effect on the Singapore architecture. Globalisation is therefore inevitable. Any architect projects have to be conscious of the important role of globalisation but not neglecting the regional culture and values. Like Tan Kok Meng mentioned, Global icon acts as hardware whereas the vibrancy, spontaneity and unexpectedness of the regional acts the software. In the case of Community Club, it plays a significant role in counterbalance to the excess of globalisation and the ideology of the freemarket. Its function is global but what the users do inside is local. The design brief is universal but the physical realisation is regional.
Back To Top
El Lissitsky argues: “Building designed to serve all of society have often gone beyond a functionalist approach, and developed ambitions to express the social aims in the form of the architecture itself.” The notion has been carried out by William Lim as a part of his contemporary vernacular design process.
Back To Top
The MPCC challenged the conventional representation of institutional types. The corner often a space of contestation for public symbols because of its visibility and prime frontage is given over to a public artwork rather that the traditional icons of institutional power (like the ubiquitous clock tower). One would distinctly acknowledge the mural wall as features addressing the busy road junction and signalling the portal to this constituency. It has been drawing a wide range of reactions from the members of the public, and it is this active reciprocity that suggests a more enriching social space between building, the uses and the users.
The mural wall, a result of a regional competition has effectively introduced public art and concurrently serves as a symbol for the community. The 3-dimensional wall mural (entitled: Texturefulness of Life, Surachai Yeamsiri, 1998) with its digital messages, neon lights, swirling motifs and ‘cyclone eye’, is particularly ambiguous and evocative of complex meanings and associations. (refer to pg 14) He describes the work in terms of its “dynamism symbolic content, the whole coming together either recessing or projecting”. He argues that the work of art has “to frame the community and yet simultaneously “disengage” itself from the activities within the CC. The paradox here is evident, the library that ought, one might think to look in, looks out while the CC, which one would have thought look out and engage with the community looks in.
Back To Top
The building responds to the tropical climate with the layering of the façade by a variety of sun-shading devices and a reinterpretation of the traditional 5 foot way. The major spaces are naturally ventilated and there are numerous shaded outdoor spaces.
The partially covered basketball court on the rooftop has creatively solved the tight site constraints and provided a tropical response for active day usage. The “crowning glory” of the CC is its roof form, which can be read as a metaphor for the leaves of a palm tree. The roof floats above the rooftop basketball court. At another level, the form of the building can be interpreted as a ‘dragon’ as a crest and the mural artwork as the eye of the dragon. The horizontal louvers in the library block can be seen as the tail fins of the auspicious beast. Inside, the staircase also resemblance a swirling dragon.
This is clearly a Chinese culture influence as to the Chinese dragon is a symbol of power and royalty.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of kitsch in the design. The stereotype modern louver has been used frequently as a sunshading device and therefore is visually associated with tropical architecture. Apparently the louvers on the façade do not effectively shade a space. Ironically to the passing eye this has been misinterpreted as a tropical sunshading device.
5. MATERIALS AND MEANS OF BUILDING
Back To Top
The American architect Robert Venturi saw architectural meaning in the surface of buildings. In his book Learning from Las Vegas, he famously coined the term ‘decorated shed’. MPCC celebrates the opposite of surface – the very substance and materiality of the ‘shed’. The MPCC’s architects are interested in structure, techniques and materials not for their own sake but for the ideas that they convey about place, light and the building itself.
The potentially rich harmonious of programmes is expressed architecturally as a collage of diverse elements. For example: the library is predominantly glass with horizontal fins and a transparency which belies the usual idea of a library as an inward orientated pursuit. The juxtaposition and interlocking of the more transparent ribbon window box of the library with the more opaque art mural-skin around the corner podium suggested a more complex representation of the ‘institutional’. The use of brightly coloured mosaic tiles, glass-enclosed units, wooden strips, galvanised stainless steel, the neon light lighting, and the roof gestures, the playful details convey a host of popular association – cinema, dance hall, cabaret club, shopping centre – which may not detract from the essential social function of the MPCC as a populist but also consumer-driven in the public housing heartland.
The palm roof (refer to pg 15) is a reminiscent of the traditional tropical house rooftop (roof made of palm leaves) and is relevant cultural subject to the centre. The juxtaposed with prominent modern glazed air-conditioned boxes and metal sunshading devices into a cohesive composition of old and new, where the consciousness of the regional and modern is augmented simultaneously.
‘How far can the architect act as a mediator between local and global aspirations given the fundamental ambiguities that exist in Asian societies? The age of simultaneous realities is upon us, and their capacity to co-exist in an eclectic and sometimes syncretic manner is a positive trait. Many architects attempt to synthesise the multiple strands of influence with varying degrees of success. There were early attempts to be local and “authentic”, but we are now seeing the encompassing of many different influences, which has led to a wide degree of experimentation and… (eclectic) expression in architecture’ – Hasan –Uddin Khan
In architecture the term, Modern denotes the essence of universalism, while ‘modern Asian’ is undeniably equipped with a strong sense of particularism and disguised under the name regionalism. However, if we look more critically, the two terms are in fact intertwined. Asian architectures are the product of the overarching modern-colonial ideology which has long governed the praxes of modern architecture. 
By thinking global and act locally a building can counter-balance the westernised idea (inevitable) with local culture or identity. For an instance: the quality of tropical “village” social community is achieved, “defamiliarized” and the recreated with innovatively modern building technology, materials and aesthetic language. The status of westernised or kitsch can be elevated by introducing diverse elements.
In general MPCC has demonstrated the glocal project could be modern and yet urbane in its inventive engagement with a globalized world. Ultimately, William Lim approach has promoted a pluralist approach expressed through a multiplicity of materials and forms. These are the mirror of an emerging hybrid condition (pluralistic, diverse and transgressive) as the hallmark of the new Modern Asian
 Paul Morand, Rien que la Terre à l’Exposition coloniade, Revue des deux mondex IOI (July 15, 1931):334 Back To Top
 Patricia A. Morton Hybrid Modernities – Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris (MIT Press, London) p. 200-2003, p. 313-321 Back To Top
 Tan Kok Meng, Asian Architects 1, (Singapore, Select Publishing, 2001) p.35 (Essay by William S.W.Lim on Asian New Urbanism and Social Justice) Back To Top
Cherian George, Singapore: The Air Conditoined Nation – Essays on the Politics of Comforts and Control 1990-2000 (Singapore, 2001) p. 170-175 (Chapter 20: Where East Meet West, And West Beats East) Back To Top
 Ibid Back To Top
 Thomas Friedman 1999, The Lexus and the olive tree, London, Harper Collins p.56 Back To Top
 William S.W.Lim Asian New Urbanism (Singapore, Select Books, 1998) p. 152 Back To Top
 Focas- Forum on Contemporary Art & Society – Work/Play Kitsch and the Singapore Modern (Singapore, The Necessary Stage, 2001) p. 81-117 Back To Top
 Robert Powell, Tay Kheng Soon & Akitek Tenggara, (Singapore, Robert Powell Publishing, 1997) p.166-168 Back To Top
 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture and Decorative arts, Institute Publishing Co ltd, Kajima, 1991 Back To Top
 Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and Bruno Stagno, Tropical Architecture – Critical Regionalism in the age of Globalization (Wiley Academy, London, 1998) p.229-230 (Chapter12 by Bay Joo Hwa Phillip – Three Tropical Design Paradigm) Back To Top
 William S.W.Lim No limits – articulating William Lim (Singapore, Select Books, 2002) Back To Top
 Ibid p.38-41 Back To Top
 John Willett, The New Sobriety 1971 – 1933: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period (Thames and Hudson, Great Britain, 1978) p.130 Back To Top
 Lawrence, Weaver, Village clubs and halls, Country Life, (Convent Garden 1920) pp 3-4. Back To Top
 The People’s Associations: 30 Years with the People, Histories of the People Association. Back To Top
 Quotation taken from the speech by MR Lee Yock Suan, Minister for Information and The Arts, on the completion of the Renaissance City Report, delivered in Parliament on 9 March 2000 Back To Top
 Cherian George, Singapore: The Air Conditoined Nation – Essays on the Politics of Comforts and Control 1990-2000 (Singapore, 2001) p.144-145 (Chapter 17: Fun and Serious Business in the Renaissance City) Back To Top
 Tan Kok Meng, Asian Architects 1, (Singapore, Select Publishing, 2001) p.35 (Essay by William S.W.Lim on Asian New Urbanism and Social Justice) Back To Top
 John Friedmann, The World City Hypothesis, 1986 Back To Top
 Tan Kok Meng, City of Icon, HINGE no85, May 2002, Hong Kong, p.41-42 Back To Top
 El Lissitsky translated by Erich Dluchosh, Russia: An Architecture for world Revolution (Lund Humphries, London,1930) Back To Top
 Tan Kok Meng, Asian Architects 2, (Singapore, Select Publishing, 2001) p. 169-173 Back To Top
 d+a Design and Architecture (Asia),Issue 002, 2001 p.50 Back To Top
 Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and Bruno Stagno, Tropical Architecture – Critical Regionalism in the age of Globalization (Wiley Academy, London, 1998) p.249-252 (Chapter12 by Bay Joo Hwa Phillip – Three Tropical Design Paradigm) Back To Top
 Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas(MIT Press,1997) Pg.102-150 Back To Top
 Sunday Times, November 8, 1998 Marine Parade’s Going Big on Art “, The winning artist’s statement: “a mix of materials to reflect the eclectic mix of traditional and high tech environments in Singapore. ” Back To Top
 Robert Powell, The Urban Asian House – Living in Tropical Cities, (Singapore, Robert Powell Publishing, 1998) P. 15 Back To Top
 Modernity and Maternities – Universalism and Particularism in Modern Asian Architectural Research mAAN2nd International Conference “Towards modern Asian Architecture” Back To Top
 Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and Bruno Stagno, Tropical Architecture – Critical Regionalism in the age of Globalization (Wiley Academy, London, 1998) p.252-254 (Chapter12 by Bay Joo Hwa Phillip – Three Tropical Design Paradigm) Back To Top
Reader's top 10 incoming search terms:
singapore house, marine parade cc, marine parade community centre, marine parade community club, marine parade community building, contemporary vernacular architecture, covered basketball court designs, community centre design, contemporary vernacular by william lim