Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Living large on a little red dot

Sep 7, 2010

By Cheong Suk-Wai

ARCHITECTS Khoo Peng Beng and Belinda Huang were on a plane from Venice to Singapore when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited them in his National Day Rally speech as foreigners who have contributed meaningfully to Singapore.

The husband-and-wife team designed The Pinnacle@Duxton, the Republic's first 50-storey public flats. Now a national landmark, it was recently named the Best Tall Building in Asia and Australasia by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Of the Prime Minister's accolade, Mr Khoo, 42, said: 'We're still in shock and deeply honoured. But what we've done rests on the work of giants like URA and HDB, without which there
wouldn't be such a project in the first place.' He should know; Mr Khoo sits on HDB's Design Advisory Panel.

The Malaysian-born Singapore permanent resident is a direct descendant of the family that founded Penang's iconic clan house, Khoo Kongsi. He has been on the council of the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) for the past seven years and was the lead curator for the Singapore pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale, with an exhibit entitled 1,000 Singapores. Created by the SIA and the DesignSingapore Council, it depicts a cross-sectional sliver of Singapore as a model of how compactly people can live and still enjoy a high quality of life.

This alumnus of the National University of Singapore set up ARC Studio with his wife in 1999. Today, it is a 20-strong firm, with ongoing projects spanning from Calcutta, India, to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Fresh from his stint at the Biennale, the father of three tried to convince me last week that cramming as many people as possible into as little land as possible is a viable way to live sustainably:

What is this idea you call 1,000 Singapores?

The Government is planning for Singapore to house 6.5 million people on 710 sq km. If it can do that successfully then, theoretically, the entire global population of approximately 6.5 billion can be housed in 1,000 Singapores - or 0.5 per cent of all land on Earth. That's the equivalent of two Japans, two Italys or one Texas...What would it be like to live like this?

How did you get people at the Biennale to think about that?

We made a model of Singapore, measuring 35m long and 200mm wide, which literally slices across Singapore from Tuas to Pulau Ubin in a straight line. In doing so, we tried to show that the sectional profile of Singapore is not dense all the way as many might imagine.

We actually occupy only less than 1/5 of the 710 sq km, with another 2/5 covered by forests, parks and water catchment areas and the remaining 2/5 given over to roads, defence areas and airports. So our footprint on Earth is incredibly small and light because we chose to go with a high-rise model, which can still accommodate developments like Sentosa Cove.

But surely living compactly is counter-intuitive when most people's ideal homes are by the beach or near parks?

Quite right. The point is, by living in an extremely compact and connected way, more land will be freed up for everyone to enjoy. You won't be too far away from that seaside or mountain escape... We'd build fewer roads, string out fewer street lights and need fewer kilometres of pipes and cables, (thus turning) our homes into urban villages within which we can walk everywhere or drive about in compact electric cars.

Our sense of territory came from man's move from the agrarian to the industrial age, so that you actually needed a fence around your factories or land you owned. But today, we can leverage off the idea of interrelationships. In a high-density environment, we inherently need to share things.

But while we share freely in cyberspace, we tend to be selfish and distant in real life. So who would share meaningfully?

Let's compare Jakarta and Singapore. Jakarta is sprawling, like the fingers on your hands, with the ends of these fingers continuing to shoot outwards. With such a pattern, each bus stop and train station would serve fewer families the farther you go beyond the city. Which means that buses and trains can't run so frequently because so few people take them; and if it runs infrequently, nobody finds it convenient and so nobody uses it. Also, if a sprawling city continues to sprawl, you'll have to build and extend roads and pipes and end up with ageing infrastructure that you'll have to maintain.

Compact Singapore, by contrast, is organised in a loop. We have a central water catchment area and our houses and MRT lines just ring around it.

There's another angle to this: In Australia, more and more people are learning that living away from the city, means that when they travel they have to worry about their pets and lawns. So they start shifting back to the city where they can have the community right at their doorstep so that they just lock up and go.

So you're saying that Singapore is the epitome of compactness?

Yes. It has arrived at that out of necessity. Today, it's even managing certain aspects that it was not able to previously, such as treating waste water. But we could do better in producing more of our own food and consuming energy more efficiently. Perhaps we could cool air at night and store it for use in the day?

Also, when the Government says it's housing a nation, it's not only about the physical but also about integrated community-building. It's about the family over the individual, ownership over rental, subsidies to the right groups. We should share this (knowledge) with other countries, particularly those in Asia, whose rate of urbanism is so rapid that cities as well as rural areas are collapsing all at once from influx (into the cities) and exodus (from the rural areas).

But cities are capitalistic and capitalism is in crisis.

I'm quite aware that living in a city creates stress and possibly psychoses. But perhaps it is the pace of life and the need to overproduce that leads to that. The environment itself has less to do with it than the need to keep up. For so long, Singapore has been on the growth trajectory and when you are on that, there is constant change because that is what growth means.

But where's the room for happiness in all this?

In capitalism, many of us outsource our happiness to material possessions. Unfortunately, happiness does not reside in the physical; it resides in your attitude towards the physical. And that search for meaning is how we become more aware of ourselves.

But self-awareness is not the same as happiness.

It's not as if people here don't have any beach or jungle to go to and contemplate, you know. And we don't feel so cramped because the National Parks Board has done wonders with urban biodiversity.

Why should anyone endure living compactly to save the planet?

Only 10 per cent of the cells in our bodies are uniquely human. We share the remaining 90 per cent with microbes and fungi. So when you consider that microbes in the soil are working to produce oxygen or affix nitrogen, we should never be so arrogant as to say we are better than anything else (in Nature). We are literally breathing in one another. So we can't even think of doing something now that will not affect others in the future. We have to work to keep this Earth alive.


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