MRT stations as art galleries

MRT stations as art galleries
The artwork at the Stadium MRT station. At the time, the recently completed Sports Hub was just an idea. Inside the station, a central skylight floods the space in a soft glow.

January 1996. Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Canada:

I'm sitting in a plane waiting for the "de-icing" machine to clear yet another winter snowstorm off the back of the 747, excited to be making my very first trip to South-east Asia for my job interview at the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in Singapore. Outside, the temperature is minus 15 degrees.

Twenty-four hours later, like every first-time visitor to Singapore, the humidity hits me like a brick. How can a place be so hot in the middle of January? Not long after, tired and jetlagged, I'm having my first "Uniquely Singapore" experience - an interview facing no fewer than 12 people! It is hard to recall exactly what I said back then, but it must have been something right, as I was offered a three-year contract that was to be just the start of the most exciting and challenging 17 years of my life.

As a transit architect, my job has taken me to many places, and Singapore has been by far the city in which I have worked the longest and the place I still consider home (I'm a Katong boy at heart). Over the years, I worked on all of the new MRT lines: North East, Circle, Downtown and Thomson. The experiences and challenges are numerous, but a few aspects stand out.

In Toronto, I had the responsibility of managing the long-running "Art in Transit" programme. After joining the LTA, I soon learnt about the fantastic artworks that were commissioned as part of the first phase of the MRT. Clearly, the early leaders understood that a metro system is much more than just a means of efficiently moving large numbers of people around. It is the very heart and soul of the city, crossing all demographic and cultural boundaries, and the most intensely used public infrastructure in the nation.

Following the Toronto model, I put forward a proposal to incorporate art in all 16 stations on the North East Line, commissioning artists to create site-specific artworks that would resonate with the local community and be a showcase for the artistic talents of Singapore. With the invaluable guidance of Constance Sheares, our curator for the programme, we invited a selection of established artists such as Chua Ek Kay, Goh Beng Kwan and Tan Swie Hian, along with emerging talents such as Vincent Leow and Ian Woo, to make proposals for specific stations.

Over the course of the next five years, together we created artworks that today adorn the North East Line. Working with Constance and the artists was a magical time, with lots of "creative friction", especially from my neighbour in Katong, Teo Eng Seng, with whom I shared numerous arguments. But through them all, the artworks got better and better. And after all these years, we remain friends, and Eng Seng's hard work and dedication created a truly outstanding artwork for Outram Park station.

The programme continued to be developed in its second edition for the Circle Line, but with a focus on younger artists and also introducing new forms of art, such as video and even an interactive computer programme. Completed in 2012, this collection of artworks has added significantly to the cultural capital of Singapore.

The programme now feels like it has a life of its own. The first artworks in the third edition for the Downtown Line were unveiled in 2013. Artworks for the rest of the Downtown Line stations are in production and the artists for the Thomson Line have already finalised their designs.

In partnership with local charity Art Outreach, the auction of original artworks raises money to provide free lessons about the ideas and concepts of the artworks at local schools. Art Outreach also provides guided tours of selected North East Line and Circle Line stations. The LTA is right to be proud of its achievement and to showcase it to the world.

Aside from the art programme, the Circle Line offered one other unique opportunity - the chance to hold an international design competition for two of the stations. Held in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Architects, the competition attracted more than 80 entries. Judged anonymously by a panel of prominent local architects headed by Singapore Institute of Architects' former president Alfred Wong, the jury selected a small practice, WoHa, as winners. Then started another unique journey working with Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ to realise their vision for the two stations - Bras Basah and Stadium.

To go back to the stations today, as I did recently, reminds me of those days. The hard work, the arguments and the passion are all aspects that are necessary to create great art and architecture. The quality of the two stations stands testament to the fact that there were plenty of all three aspects involved.

Stadium station, in particular, stands out. At the time, the recently completed Sports Hub was just an idea of the Singapore Sports Council. We knew nothing of the design but decided to pay homage to the old stadium by reflecting the curve of the building in the façade. The opposite side of the building is a simple line that reflects the orthogonal theatre and leisure complex next door.

Inside the station, a central skylight floods the space in a soft glow. Bringing daylight underground has always been one of my central tenements of metro station design, and Stadium station does it with such sophistication. With a photographic artwork by Roy Zhang depicting the elegance of a football player in flight, it has deservedly won several local and international design awards (as has Bras Basah station). And, of course, WoHa has gone on to become one of the leading architectural practices in the region.

People often ask me what I consider my greatest achievement in Singapore. I think they expect me to pick a favourite artwork or even say the art programme as a whole. It is, after all, Singapore's largest public art programme and continues to this day to commission the very best of artists to create site-specific artworks in the stations.

But the reality is actually how I prevented something from getting built.

The entrance to Chinatown station in Pagoda Street on the North East Line was originally conceived to be a pagoda-inspired design that had numerous constraints due to the history of flooding in the area and the need to protect the integrity of the station Civil Defence shelter. Neither a good entrance nor a good design, it would have been a crime to build the proposed structure in such a beautiful street.

Working with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), we came up with a plan to replace the entrance building with a high glass canopy that incorporates an automatic flood barrier - a patented unique invention specifically designed for this location. The design would not have been realised without that special quality of Singapore - the ability of different government agencies to get together and solve problems. In this situation, the Singapore Civil Defence Force worked hard to resolve the fire safety requirements, the Urban Redevelopment Authority understood the vision of the high-level roof, and STB - well, they put up the money!

I write this now from Hong Kong, my home since 2013, where I am the chief architect of MTR. It is a privilege to work for another great metro in another great city. We have already commissioned new artworks and it is exciting to see the new stations take shape.

During my last visit to Singapore, I met up with Delia Prvacki at a gallery opening of her new work. At one point in the evening, Delia pulled me aside and said to me, "I want to tell you, Andrew, that everything you see in this exhibition is developed from the Dhoby Ghaut station artwork."

I was touched and it made me think how lucky I have been that my small role in the LTA has helped shape the artistic journey of such a talented artist and still continues to play such a vibrant role in the artistic development of the city.

Thank you, Singapore.

The writer is a former principal design manager of Land Transport Authority.

This article was first published on June 13, 2015.
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