Kate Goodwin, the RA's Architecture Curator, reflects on a recent trip to Singapore for a joint event with the British Council
Image by Jono Haysom
Earlier in the year, the RA Forum (a platform for the debate of the arts, architecture and culture) hosted a series of events on the theme of ‘Future Memory’. The series looked at the possibilities and uses of memory across art practice, architecture and cities as a way to understand the past and shape the future. Intrigued by the series, the British Council in Singapore have taken it as a framework to run a series of its own events and activities in collaboration with the RA around the theme of memory, and what it might mean in relation to the dynamics of change in this city-state.
The opening event in this programme was an RA Forum held in Singapore – our first venture with the Forum to foreign shores. Two speakers from the UK who had been involved with the RA and the previous events, Royal Academician Eric Parry and Iain Borden, gave presentations alongside three Singaporeans – renowned architect and planner Liu Thai Ker, artist Michael Lee and a young architect and chairman of Singapore’s architectural festival Archi-fest, Seah Chee Huang.
Liu Thai Ker It was evident immediately that concepts of heritage, the past and memory were perceived quite differently in Singapore. London’s urban fabric is steeped in history and there are a myriad of institutions and organisations like the RA, the British Museum or English Heritage that promote the links between history, culture and heritage. In contrast, Singapore’s architecture is predominantly modern, mostly dating from after independence in 1965. It is now the world's fourth leading financial centre, and its port is one of the five busiest in the world. The city’s architecture reflects this status and is predominately modern glass and steel structures with some really interesting new projects emerging, with features like vertical, or sky-high gardens taking advantage of the equatorial climate.
Tanjong Pagar Railway Station
In his presentation Liu Thai Ker expressed an anxiety that many Singaporeans didn’t engage with their heritage – cultural or built. He felt that many memories became problematic as they were associated with a past of struggle and hardship. He also said that in contrast to most Western societies, for Asians ‘land’ in the first instance means profit, not environment. Seah Chee Huang saw the Tanjong Pagar railway and terminus, a Malaysian-owned railway that ran to Johor Bahru from the centre of Singapore which closed on the 1st July 2011, as an exciting opportunity. He felt the process of establishing the future of the site could encourage far wider public engagement driven by genuine interest in the past and Singapore’s heritage. Future development could acknowledge the meaning and memory embodied by the site and the journeys which were taken from it.
Eric Parry RA spoke about the role materials themselves can play in capturing and evoking memories. His design for the Dick Sheppard chapel at St Martin's in the Field, named after a vicar who established a refuge for returning WWI soldiers, is incredibly simple - but it relies upon the material quality and texture of the stone it is made from to powerfully convey meaning.
L: Sketch of the Dick Sheppard Chapel, St Martins in the Fields, London, 2011 by Eric Parry RA. R: The stone for the Dick Sheppard Chapel altar
Parry showed a photograph he took on a recent visit to a quarry in France. It showed the stone to be used for the altar recently extracted from the earth, unveiling a richly textured surface which had been hidden for millions of years. One thinks of memory being related to human thought and experience, but this reference alludes to a much more universal memory sparked by an idea of geological time. He noted the significance of crafting nature and the human skill and effort involved. Memory – both personal and collective – can thus be embodied within material form.
Asif Khan’s design for the Future Memory Pavilion as part of ArchiFest in October (a further element of this future memory project with the British Council) also promises to address similar ideas. The pavilion will deal with the issues of land and climate, which lie at the heart of Singapore’s heritage, through a structure made from ice and sand.
The ideas raised by the forum permeated my thinking during the trip and added an extra dimension to a number of conversations I had. The taxi driver who took me to the airport was intrigued by why I had chosen to come to Singapore, as he said he was often asked by visitors for recommendations about what they should see, and found he was lost for suggestions. As we zoomed along the expressway at dawn, looking at the city buildings in early light, I wondered what my own response would be. One of the real highlights was a walk I did with someone who understood the city's heritage, showing me some hidden treasures linking the past with the recent development, but I wondered how many tourists would venture to discover this.
How and why things are persevered however does seem to need careful consideration. A presentation given by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA (as part of the series on Future Memory in London) showed countless examples of places which had chosen to preserve elements of their built heritage for tourism - ghetto-ising it and hindering the evolution of new development. It would also appear that the idea of preserving memories must be embedded within the wider concerns of the society and people, so that the physical ‘landscape’ represents the society in the broadest sense.
I would also argue that memory is just as important in its cultural dimension, with literature, theatre and music also playing a role in anchoring memories to place. Perhaps one can have a culture of no preservation, with constant change in the built environment, but where the memory of what existed can be celebrated in some other ways. Discussing memory in Singapore has opened up the discussion for us here in London and will no doubt continue to inform upcoming events and programmes.
To find out more about Future Memory and upcoming events Click here