Nature of the Experiment

Text by Eugene Tan

"Singapore is a very small place in a very, very large, variable, changing world, and if it is not nimble, if it is not swift in making adjustments, it will perish and the people know that." These words from Mr Lee Kuan Yew articulate Singapore's approach to its policies, national initiatives, and affairs in general. We track some of these state adjustments and their physical bodies, where as with all ventures, we see a mix of successes and failures.

Inaccurate reconstruction

In its nation-building years, Singapore undertook a series of projects that saw it come to terms with itself and its place in the world. Its rapid development and favor of economic progress might be seen as prompts for projects that attempted to reconstruct some of the culture and heritage that had been neglected and were quickly being lost. Also viewed as contributors to our tourist industry, and hence viable investments, such cultural initiatives included the Geylang Serai Malay Village, Singapore Handicraft Centre, and might have also included a folk village of attap huts along the Singapore River. The decisive failure of such synthetic spaces may have informed the recent approach to cultural heritage, seen with the Malay, Indian, and Chinese Heritage Centres where the index takes precedence over the spectacle.

Another pair of national projects characterise Singapore's attempt to keep pace with global developments and was seen in Jurong with the Science Centre Singapore, and the duo schools, the German-Singapore Institute and French-Singapore Institute. Part of Singapore's strategy to promote science and technology to all age groups, both were impactful during their tenures, but much like the technology they were intended to broadcast, grew obsolete over time. The German-Singapore Institute and French-Singapore Institutes ceased operations after 10 years, while the Science Centre will move to a new home in 2020.

Those years also saw the development of town planning blueprints that would eventually be adopted across Singapore; part of which included the integration of public facilities within housing estates. Yan Kit Swimming Pool at Tanjong Pagar, for instance, was a successful recreational facility that embodied the government's intention of an improved environment and personal well-being that accompanied urban renewal. In the following years, such pools would be built at many other estates, the most iconic ones including Buona Vista Swimming Complex and Bedok Swimming Complex.

While Tanjong Pagar had its own Community Centre, it was at Tampines North some years later where we began to see these civic facilities taking on not only much more focused social agendas, but also increased architectural attention. The evolved Community Centres such as William Lim's Tampines North would go on to spawn other recognisable developments such as Marine Parade CC and Henderson CC. Suggesting that these town planning models were a process which required some degree of testing, Mr Lee Kuan Yew intimated: "perhaps we have learned how to improve on this."


Tampines North CC

At a time when Singapore’s community spaces were shifting from basic structures to purpose-built architecture, Tampines North Community Club presented a social condenser - a civic agenda in built form.


Geylang Serai Malay Village

The Geylang Serai Malay Village was developed to revive the 'old' character of a Malay kampung. It was hoped that one could provide a quantifiable 'sense of place' through literal transpositions from Malay culture and history.


Yan Kit Swimming Pool

Representing an emergent model for intra-town recreation, the Yan Kit Swimming Pool is fondly remembered for its water follies and coloured mosaic tiles that surrounded the bodies of water – unusual for public swimming pools in Singapore at that time.


Singapore Handicraft Centre

Conceived by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board as a stellar showcase of local and regional crafts, the Singapore Handicraft Centre was a noble attempt to preserve Singapore's heritage of arts and crafts. 


German / French-Singapore Institutes

Using an architectural language similar to the neighbouring Jurong Town Hall and Science Centre, these adjacent institutes contributed to the industrialisation of Singapore by providing timely manpower to new and emerging industries.


Science Centre Singapore

Keen on promoting scientific education as a means of tapping into the technological sector, the Science Council of Singapore first mooted the idea for the Science Centre Singapore in 1969. With the approval of the Government, a section of the National Museum of Singapore was carved out with the intention of giving science and technology a unique platform, allowing the latter to focus on its artistic and historical collections.