If only the sky were the limit — Jason Pomeroy
MAY 24 — Having studied in Cambridge, the UK and having spent the majority of my childhood growing up in London, Singapore was far removed from the low-rise environment that I was used to.
Granted that I had spent the previous 15 years of my working life living out of a suitcase in Amsterdam, Brussels and Bahrain, but even these cities could hardly compare to the high-rise nature of Singapore. Nevertheless, the idea of high-rise living, working and playing, and the notion of a vertical urbanism was something that I was all too familiar with academically and I relished the challenge to apply the very like in practice.
Vertical urbanism is the concept of employing the “kit of parts” that makes the city work (for instance, the streets, the squares, the transport infrastructure, the landmarks and focal points, the green open recreational spaces, the diverse mix of buildings’ uses to sustain one’s everyday life), and applying vertically over the multiple layers of a high-rise/density city whilst integrating the very same with its horizontal cousin.
Singapore is no stranger to this, and its post-colonial redevelopment saw the eradication of much of the centrally located low-rise colonial shophouses in order to make way for a “city of towers” for international institutions and the outlying villages cleared to make way for public housing.
FROM THE GROUND TO THE SKY
With this came the removal of many of the social spaces that afforded the individual a means of social interaction. While the hotel lobby and the retail mall provided an opportunity for transient, international groups of expatriates and tourists to escape the tropical climate via its air-conditioned confines, the open space of the void decks beneath the public housing blocks became the localised opportunity for social interaction for the re-located Singaporean.
The incorporation of the efficient Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) system has created a greater cross-cultural interaction through a freedom of movement through the island. The urban vocabulary of the street and square as well as the ground-scraping/subterranean social-spaces of the mall, the void deck and MRT system are now being increasingly lifted to loftier heights in order to cater for physical and social growth and to address the depletion of social space through heightened densification.
The Singapore government’s advocacy of above ground-level social spaces within tall buildings allows us to see the traditional void deck being vertically extrapolated to form intermediary and/or rooftop social spaces through legislation and consequent guidelines in the form of skycourts and skygardens respectively.
GARDENS ON HIGH
Indeed, these skyward open social spaces, which are often densely foliated, have helped define Singapore as a Garden City.
The Marina Bay Sands Skypark and the many other examples of skycourts and skygardens demonstrate Singapore’s commitment to creating a vertical Garden City and a willingness to implement planning policy guidelines for onward physical realisation.
Socially, the incorporation of such alternative social spaces in the sky is meant to complement the existing ground and subterranean open space network of street, square, void deck and the more alternative social spaces of the integrated retail mall and MRT concourse.
With increasing densification and the continued move skywards, the rooftop garden should also allow open spaces to be used by its occupants of high-density environments and negate the need to go to the street level to engage in recreational activities.
It also provides the opportunity for the visitor or local to be actors in their public interaction with others and to be spectators of a rapidly changing skyline.
RESTRICTED ACCESS A PROBLEM
However, the premise of creating sustainable designs within a new vertical urbanism isn’t without scrutiny.
A fundamental component of sustainability is the social element which, alongside the economic and environmental parameters, forms what academic Mark Mawhinney refers to as a balance theory of sustainable consciousness. The social efficiency of these alternative open spaces in the sky has yet to be fully tested to see whether they will be successful in the future.
For instance, the Marina Bay Sands Skypark may prove successful given the succession of tourists that pass through each day, but there are stringent restrictions on the use of the space — above and beyond the already restricted “public” spaces on the ground, which are increasingly privatised spaces controlled by corporations and thus not truly “public”.
In this case, it could be argued that the freedom of passage, and the ability to use skycourts and skygardens, as one feels free to socialise in the street and square has yet to be fully embraced.
Hopefully, the government will continue to find legislative mechanisms to make these spaces more habitable. After all, if anyone has the tenacity and single-mindedness to create a world-class city-state in such a short period of time and lead by example in creating a vertical Garden City, surely this would be Singapore? — Today
* Professor Jason Pomeroy is an award-winning architect and academic, and founding principal of Pomeroy Studio, a design studio of international architects, urbanists, designers and theorists. This is an extract from an article that appeared in the Singapore International Foundation’s book aimed at bridging communities, “Singapore Insights from the Inside”.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.