The RA's Architecture Curator on the story behind The Future Memory Pavilion, Singapore (18 October – 19 November 2011)
Having hosted a series of discussion-based events this year at the RA on ‘Future Memory’, it has been thrilling to see how two young UK designers, Pernilla Ohrstedt and Asif Khan, have created a physical structure that responds to the theme in Singapore as part of a British Council-led initiative.
Future Memory began as a series of Forums for the RA’s architecture programme, that explored concepts of memory across visual culture and architecture as a way to understand the past and shape the future. We found that the events traversed many aspects of memory, from the physical and static embodiments of memorials to the transformative and performative. The Future Memory Pavilion, which sits on the lawn of the National Museum of Singapore for the next month, definitely fits into the latter categories.
We worked with Vicky Richardson (Director of Architecture, Design and Fashion at the British Council) to create a brief for the pavilion which was as open and inspiring as possible, encouraging the designers to make a creative response to the theme of future memory in Singapore. Their answer is a pavilion which uses two commonplace materials – ice and sand – to draw attention to aspects Singapore’s past and provoke discussion about its future.
The initial genesis for the idea came from a conversation the designers had with a taxi driver during a research visit to Singapore earlier in the year. He spoke of a location called the ‘ice bridge’ or colloquially, Keik Seng Gio which gained its name from a now vanished ice-works on the Rochor River. The legacy is all but lost, as the area now become known as ‘thieves market’ and is host to Singapore’s largest flea market.
Minnesota ice harvest, late nineteenth century. Photo: Whitney & Zimmerman For the designers, this conjured images of the beautiful, naturally-formed bridges of ice that span Niagara Falls in winter. But it also became the spark for exploring Singapore’s long history of tackling climate control - in the 1850s, ice was transported from the lakes of north America to tropical Singapore to meet the demand for refrigeration and cooling. It’s a preoccupation that continues to this day, with Singapore one of the world’s most air conditioned cities.
Along with this interest in climate, Ohrstedt and Khan looked at Singapore’s ‘land culture’ for an understanding of how Singapore has come to be what it is today. Singapore’s perimeter has grown by reclaiming land from the sea. The movement of sand was revealed to be an intrinsic part of this, through flattening the natural topography and the importing of sand from neighbouring countries.
The pavilion comprises two cones defined by ropes, one that contains a growing mound of sand that is dropped from the cone's apex, the other large blocks of ice which melt to be replenished each day. The pavilion stands as a monument to the lost hills of Singapore and invites the visitor to experience the changing temperate and physical environment inside.
As the concept came together, everyone involved in the project met regularly to follow its progress and critique the design. We gathered in the British Council offices, just off Trafalgar Square, for early morning conference calls between London and Singapore including the British Council team in both places, Singapore’s Preservations Monument Board, the National Museum, RSP Architects and Arup. There was a moment in early September when the emphasis shifted from ideas to reality and the focus moved to Singapore.
At the Academy, we focused on the interpretation of the ideas in an exhibition and catalogue, and the rest of the team embarked on the major task of getting it built. It was not until I arrived on site, on the afternoon of the opening, that it all came together for me. Mountains had been moved (excuse the pun) by those on the ground. They had been through all sorts of trials which come with an experimental project, from finding the right rope suppliers at the eleventh hour, to negotiating with the fire department and local planning authorities about which regulations the unusual structure needed to comply with.
It was humbling meeting those who had helped make it happen, from the UK fabricator Del Bond who had been on site from day one working with Shanghai Construction Group to the engineers, lighting designers and young architectural students from La Salle University who helped tying the 1200 knots that connected the rope to the steel frame.
It was both mesmerising and intriguing watching the pavilion change over the week I was in Singapore, as the sand mound slowly started to grow and the first ice stack melted and the ritual of a daily ice delivery began. I quizzed those who saw it - many whom were just passing by - about what they made of this conceptual structure. I think it will prove challenging, but hopefully will be memorable, as people come to know the story, experience the pavilion and learn that they can make their own interpretation.
It is really exciting to see what can happen with a project like this, as it takes on its own life and gains an independent momentum. A theme that started here in London as a series of discussion-based events has been taken into a new realm driven by the British Council in a completely different form, location and context. It has opened a new dialogue and aspect to the ideas of Future Memory, and certainly for me, but I hope all involved, been a really enlightening experience.