How Singapore is revealing its soul – Marina Bay as a successful feat of urban planning

Sanne van Oosten

What makes a city a pleasant place to visit for tourists? What characteristics does a city need to give tourists positive memories of the city they visited? For many European tourists the answer to this is easy: a city centre needs an abundance of historical buildings so the city has an authentic cultural feel to it thus giving the city a soul. But what about Singapore? What if the main part of the city isn’t all that historical at all and is actually quite modern? Of course, Singapore has some beautifully preserved historical buildings, but for the most part, the city centre contains modern high rise buildings. Not the ambiance that makes most European tourists enjoy the city they are visiting. But Singapore has found a successful solution to this. Singapore has created one central area where people can meet and be proud to be in Singapore: Marina Bay.

Marina bay is a newly developed area in the Singapore river. With great views of the skyline a 3.5 kilometer walkway was created with jaw-dropping architecture and alluring activities. First off, the Art and Science museum is built in the shape of a white flower and features well thought-out exhibits linking the two ostensible conflicting disciplines of art and science. Then there is the Marina Bay Sands, also known as those-three-towers-with-the-boat-on-top, which might just be the most eye-catching building of all of Singapore. A walking bridge in the shape of a DNA cell, appropriately termed The Helix, links this to the Esplanade theater. A theater I’d call much more appealing than the fruit it is shaped after. (Durian, anyone?) All in all it is a centre of great features of modern architecture amidst spotlessly clean walkways, thanks to ridiculously strict rules on littering. And there is more to come. On the 29th of June the Gardens by the Bay will open, giving Singaporeans a place to escape the urban jungle and enter an lush garden. As it hasn’t opened yet, we have not been able to see it. But watching it from a distance this garden also promises to be good.

All of these newly developed constructions are stunning in themselves, but Marina Bay offers a total that is more than the sum of its parts. All of the architectural wonders mentioned above are connected through a 3,5 kilometer pedestrian walkway. This walkway has varied characteristics, but all along the way it offers Singaporeans a chance to see each other in a relaxed setting face to face, thus creating an opportunity for urban cordiality. Even though people don’t necessarily know each other personally, seeing the people peacefully walk by creates a feeling of interconnectedness. The place where this all happens is what urban planners like to call civic space. And the backdrop is exactly that: a dazzling scene that makes you happy to be in Singapore, if only for a few days.This gives Singapore the soul, ambiance and character that so many tourists in the past might have missed.

Every evening, the civic space of Marina Bay is accompanied by an enrichment in the form of a light and water show. When hearing about this I didn’t think that it would be all that special, but I turned out to be completely wrong. The light and water show is made with exactly that: light and water. While beams of light are decorating the nighttime sky all around you, water is sprayed up in the bay. The water isn’t just lit up like so many other shows I’ve seen, but this water is used as a screen on which the life of a human being is played, from birth to death and afterlife. Meanwhile, the images on the waterscreens perfectly interplay with the dramatic music that really lifts the spirits. At the end of the lifetime depiction, a Singaporean rendition of Louis Armstrongs What a wonderful world is played, underlining the theme of the show, that the world is truly wonderful. That is exactly the feeling you are left with when the show is over.

Many European tourists yearn for authentic experiences in their touristic activities. But what is authenticity? Something that is created naturally and without help from any visionary or planner from above? In that case, most of the European capitals actually aren’t the least bit authentic anymore either. Even though the historic buildings are in the style of the time they were built, one can wonder how much of the original building is still left after many occasions of extensive renovating. Not only that, elaborate lighting plans and strict building regulations in the area are thought-out in order to give people the maximum experience of their capital.

Granted, Singapore’s Marina Bay will be perceived as the least bit authentic, but the European capitals aren’t really that authentic either. Singapore doesn’t even try to achieve authenticity, and Marina Bay is completely fabricated by urban planners. They set out to create a civic space, while creating maximum opportunities for stunning views of the cityscape, paying attention to the positioning of the buildings and planting ample green to give people the sense that they are in a natural place. But hey, whatever works right? Marina Bay is a successfully manufactured civic space which gives Singapore one central soul that so many tourists used to miss in the city.

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One response to “How Singapore is revealing its soul – Marina Bay as a successful feat of urban planning”

  1. Jeanne van Oosten says :

    As you say, it all depends on how you define ‘authentic’. Like you, I don’t think you can equate ‘authentic’ with ‘old’ or ‘historic’: countries like the USA and Canada have very few ‘historic’ or ‘old’ buildings compared to European cities; does this make them less authentic? European cities are beat all hollow by cities and artefacts in the Middle East and Far East; so are these the most ‘authentic’ of all? Are urban artefacts only ‘authentic’ if they grew like Topsy, without planning? I disagree. In fact, the strict urban planning of The Netherlands I would call very authentic for that country. As for Singapore, the dictionary gives the definition of ‘authentic’ as ‘not false or copied; genuine; real’: all those terms can be applied to Marina Bay. Perhaps we should just refuse to use the word ‘authentic’ at all with respect to tourist attractions because it doesn’t seem to mean anything at all.

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