S'pore skyline should reflect our hopes and dreams
SINGAPORE - Squinting at Marina Bay Sands with its three assertive towers, I cannot decide whether it is giving the finger (well, fingers) to older, threatened Singapore buildings, or whether we have stacked our own awesome Stonehenge to stand for our moneyed civilisation years after the flesh-and-blood part of us has turned to dust.
Lots of news stories about demolishing older structures of Singapore seem to read this way: Someone would say it has to make way for something better, chuck it - it is underused and it is an eyesore. Then someone else would say it has a lot of history and memories, love it - it has a few good years left.
The torn-down Queenstown cinema, the disappearing retro mosaic playgrounds, the old Woodlands Town Centre due to be redeveloped - our island is an emotional minefield waiting for the pressure and heavy tread of urban renewal to trigger an argument.
My arms and hands are stretched taut between wanting to hang on to lovely old things and wanting to reach out for the shiny and new. There is a constant tension between the old and the new in our built-up little country.
If we lived in a dream landscape with an infinite amount of space like in the science-fiction movie Inception, I would want to conserve the buildings like we do in the Asian Civilisations Museum with some ancient building structures. A life-size freeze-frame of the way we once lived.
Very old buildings are special. Not everything is plumb straight. Besides the hand-hammered and hewn elements, everywhere are signs of hard stone and wood yielding to the soft flesh of the human foot and hand after many, many years of use.
We usually have to take a plane out of the country to get that sense of being architecturally cocooned by the past. Inside darkened centuries-old temples and churches, we ooh, aah and wonder if they prayed for or cursed the same things as we do today.
I felt rather pleased that last month all I needed to take was a bus to cocoon myself in a 77-year-old house in Wilkie Terrace in the Mount Sophia/Selegie area.
The house was built in 1935 by the Chias and three generations of at least 100 family members called it home.
But that concrete cocoon will be transforming into a condo and the family was saying goodbye to it with a community arts project.
I walked through the bungalow, up the concrete spiral staircase in the backyard and looked up as the sunlight faded from the sky. I saw old-school Bakelite switches and wondered when they will be turned off for the last time.
As I left the house, I thought about how this is a country that makes you account for every thing that you want to keep around. You cannot leave an old thing just sitting there.
Use it, shrink-wrap-memorialise it, monetise-stick-a-cool-cafe-in-it... or lose it.
But would most Singaporeans want to live in and fix up older dwellings to keep them alive?
Most of us want to buff and shine our own flats, and buy new, gleaming stuff to line our new, gleaming homes with their new, gleaming fittings. Is it a contradiction that we want all that but could someone else please conserve the old dirty bits we think we love -an emotion that gets especially strong when the apparent objects of our affection are about to be taken away?
As for the death-grip some of us have on all things old, consider how it is possible to over-sentimentalise things from the past. Perhaps our minds have been trendily Instagrammed into viewing everything through a retro filter. And that we are artificially pining for a past that we never had.
Are we also too busy or lazy to come up with something new? If we overdo the conservation process and keep on referring to the past, we fall into an endless loop of retro references and riffs; a veritable Mobius strip of throwback Thursdays.
We need contemporary buildings to tell stories of what we care about today. This may well be a rich moment in time to build ambitious structures - the ones that we will later fight to preserve.
If it is money that we are obsessed about now, we should express that obsession in buildings which have that sleek flash-and-cash sheen.
If it is trees that we want to hug now, let the outlines of our high-rise buildings grow fuzzy with vegetation and dangling jungly lianas.
And if it is indeed the retro look that we are into, then let's conserve the old structures. Just because. I like the idea of keeping that tension between the old and new for it will grow us an urban landscape with a cool mix of buildings.
So, the Marina Bay Sands towers I was squinting at - are we expressing our rude wealth or are they a dazzling monument to something bigger? The Singapore skyline should look like our hopes and dreams made concrete.