11 September 2010


Voon Wong, Director, VW+BS
Yicheng Pan, Director, P.A.C

As a former outpost of the East India Company and later a Crown Colony of the British Empire, Singapore had inherited its economic stance from its colonizers giving it a head start in the region. However, it has since created an economic environment that is almost the antithesis to London’s. These differences can be seen from the comparisons of specific building types as well as the urban fabric.

Singapore’s economic foundation is deeply rooted in the events of 9th of August 1965, when Singapore was thrust into independence. Momentarily shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty, a primeval instinct for survival became the guiding principle for its economic planning. Every aspect of planning, from policies to the urban environment is orchestrated, designed and tailored to ensure an efficient economic engine whilst eliminating unpredictable organizations that might retard growth.

The administration of comprehensive large-scale masterplans becomes the modus operandi for urbanization in Singapore. Large parcels of land, dedicated to specific industries are developed rapidly, often with the mass implementation of a single building type. Such engineered clusters of industry demonstrate the political will to not only facilitate the operations of large corporations but also accommodate and sustain foreign investments. In Singapore, architecture and urbanism serves as agents that could stimulate growth and realize economic goals.

Despite the image of homogeneity which industry clusters in Singapore create; the mix of functions within a cluster can be unique, unimaginable or even schismatic, such as the configuration along Bedok North Avenue 4 - a “Stacked-Up Factories” building type, arguably a local invention arising from the need to multiply “land” while maintaining accessibility and convenience for factories, is dovetailed with and towers over 三清宫, a Taoist temple. This unlikely configuration evidently defies any conventions and accepted principles within the discipline of urban planning and design, however, it is unquestionable that logics and careful scrutiny have been applied to create this anomaly. A masterplan driven largely by Utilitarian and Functionalist criteria can produce an urban fabric that generates an experience that is contrary to our common understanding of cities. Is the adjoining of the temple with the “Stacked-up Factories’ a way to isolate buildings that create pollution -fumes created from daily burning of incense and fumes from the large trucks and factories? Or is it a socio-centric decision to provide a place of worship for the Chinese population in the area?

For whatever reasons it may be, and no matter how truly unique the urban configuration is, Singaporeans are not surprised, for everything that one can or cannot imagine has been planned and serves a larger purpose. Perhaps this sense of indifference; this apathy, best describes the Generic City - Singapore.

In contrast to the highly planned environment of Singapore we look to the area of Shoreditch, located in the East End of London. The antithesis of the highly purposed urban areas in Singapore, Shoreditch has seen a slow and organic evolution over the centuries. Activities continue to evolve, thus changing the life of the area and in some instances, the physical environment as well.

Despite the efforts of the likes of Sir Christopher Wren to introduce a masterplan after the fire of London in 1666, a holistic strategy was never adopted by the City. Later attempts to impose order and logic to the city were localised, an example being John Nash’s plan for linking Regent’s Park to Regent Street. Patrick Abercrombie’s plans in 1944 tackled the problem of expanding London by creating new towns in a ring outside of the City. The City itself was, unlike Singapore or Paris, never the subject of wholesale sweeping away of the old fabric in favour of the new.

The East End of London originally
developed in response to the increased number of ships coming in and out of London in the 16th century. Shoreditch was in the 16th century a centre for theatres and was the location for the first playhouse in England. Wealthy Huguenot silk weavers moved to this area in the 17th century, thus establishing it as a centre for textiles. Later it became the home for clothing and furniture workshops – due in part to the large Jewish community that lived in the area. It fell into decline in the 19th century, becoming rife with prostitution, crime and poverty. Recently Shoreditch was the subject of considerable gentrification, finding new life as a hub for creative industries. It has evolved in a way that is free of government intervention – from a light manufacturing area to an area for a service industry which is related to what has gone on before.

The building types here are in the main low-rise Victorian workshop buildings. This has afforded a flexibility of usage that has been demonstrated over many years. Additionally spaces under railway arches, between railway bridges and disused warehouses have all found new uses with the influx of creative and their support industries. The result is an untidy but layered and vibrant piece of urban life.

The comparison with the occupational typologies found in Singapore is an interesting one; on the surface both cities feature areas that are populated with a single building type. Singapore’s (relatively) instant masterplanning realigns both buildings and infrastructure, resulting in entire areas that are in danger of not only losing flexibility of use, but also severing connectivity to the adjacent areas.

Could a third way be found by drawing lessons from both the highly organised strategies in Singapore and the organic growth patterns found in Shoreditch?

These photographs are taken by Voon Wong and Yicheng Pan as part of the Uniquely Singapore - Distinctively London? exhibition.