It has been three months since my last visit to Singapore but I still remember vividly the new things I learned with regard to the city-state’s urban heritage. I was there as a delegate to Holcim’s Regional Awards for Sustainable Construction, a two-day affair held at the Ritz Carlton, Millenia and it was a very memorable experience. As the first prize winner of Holcim Philippine’s nationwide essay contest (college category) on sustainable construction in 2010, I was entitled to join the Philippine contingent to the said gathering.
Our group was led by Ms. Socorro “Beng” Prado, Senior Vice President of Holcim Philippines for Corporate Communications, and along with her was Ms. Jillian Cortes, my virtual tita during the trip, and Don Carreon, both amiable and hardworking members of Holcim’s Corporate Communications department. Along with us were Anjo Alimario and Ms. Chelo Banal- Formoso, first prize and third prize winners of the media practitioners’ category of Holcim’s essay contest, respectively. Finally, our entourage also included members of the local media.
The awarding ceremony for projects and plans for sustainable structures was held on our first evening. In a formal gala, we were introduced to the different projects architects, urban planners, real estate professionals as well as students and researchers offered in achieving a more sustainable construction industry. It was really a joy for me to listen and see the different plans creatively being thought off by different persons from our region. But the night of good food and excellent discourse was saddening because I remembered our country, the Philippines and the many urban plagues that are killing our cities. Unlike the project entries being sent by countries like China and India into the Holcim contest which all have a social-responsibility aspect to them, the entries from the Philippines, a third world country, fail to mention or integrate into their plans techniques and even goals that would help poor communities or individuals. Sadly, the entries from the Philippines do not fare well because unlike those from other countries, they lack the insight and vision of creating and initiating sustainable structures for the holistic benefit of communities. Rather than focusing on the social-aspect of sustainable construction, Philippine land developers appear to focus simply on the maximization of space, natural light and whatnot.
The following day, the participants were all treated to a field trip of a choice of three destinations that feature Singapore’s vigorous campaign to protect and enhance its undeniably world-class urban heritage.
Our group chose to ride in the Blue Bus, the bus which took us to the Singapore government’s HDB Building Research Institute, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA Centre) and the Marina Barrage.
Our first stop was the HDB Building Research Institute at Woodlands, Singapore. The building is the main hub of research for the government’s public housing enterprise. Being a small city-state, Singapore takes housing very seriously especially since space is limited. Since there is minimal space, the tendency is for builders and developers to create structures vertically…and sustainably! At the research center, any visitor would be edified at the current excellent policies and projects implemented by the Singaporean government for its public (take note, public!) housing as well as the upcoming, imaginative schemes being planned for the next 20-30 years! Imagine, they’re planning things that would last for decades! It was so inspiring but also sobering – their small state is so organized and so bent in providing for their people the best (and ecologically-friendly) homes and public structures and spaces that they could think of. In contrast, here in our ecologically-diverse country with a colorful heritage of aesthetics and history, we lack the momentum and passion because of the debilitating effects of self-serving politicians, and an inflated bureaucracy.
At the research center, I saw prototype apartments with samples of space-saving, energy-efficient effects such as LED lighting, vertical garden trays, toilet bowls with faucets and other paraphernalia and construction methods, which although at first seemed ridiculous, were really efficient and sustainable. The center also featured a pressurized elevator that didn’t employ the use of wires and a solar-powered, movable, leveled parking area.
Our second stop was across town, in downtown Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
I greatly enjoyed this stop because the said government agency’s task of constantly planning for the city’s urban heritage and development was truly interesting and inspiring. Again, the plans narrated to us were meant for the next 30-40 years, and as such, sustainable plans were demanded. But what I also liked was the constant effort to integrate Singapore’s history and heritage in developing the ultra-chic city-state. Colonial shop-houses, the natural landscape of Singapore and Feng Shui are always taken into consideration despite the cosmopolitan character of the city.
Although reclaiming land is a course of action Singapore resorts to, the representative from the URA claimed that it couldn’t always be that way since they also consider the ocean as an asset to their booming port and loading industry. Thus, there is always a demand for the city’s planners to creatively adapt and reuse buildings and land for various purposes.
Finally, for lunch, the group headed to the Marina Barrage, an expansive and ambitious project that aims to be the first reservoir of Singapore to be located in the heart of the city. It is is Singapore’s 15th reservoir, a tidal barrier, and no doubt a unique destination because of its dual purpose as a dam and commercial area. Its aesthetics and function are impressive, a tangible toast to Singapore’s ultrachic and also, responsible treatment of its city. In fact, it highlights Singapore’s thrust in preserving and enhancing its heritage but never compromising its cosmopolitan flavor.
For example, we didn’t only go there to look at the dam; we also had a scrumptious Hainanese lunch there. Our lunch, by the way, consisted of some scrumptious traditional Hainan dishes such as a cold cuts platter, abalone with water spinach, and steamed guppy among others. Likewise, many locals go there to unwind, jog and spend afternoons sharing stories in the expansive complex and taking photographs of the expansive, and busy bay of Singapore.
On my last day in Singapore, I was able to freely roam the city state and bask in its undeniably proud urban heritage. But what made the trip more interesting was the fact that I knew, after the field trip, that Singapore’s progress is meant to be sustainable and respectful of the city-state’s heritage. People in Singapore as well as in other advanced countries, do not feel ashamed about their heritage, and even if they’re wearing their finest suits and carrying their designer labels, eating in hawker centers or sampling street foods is a joy for them, perhaps even a source of pride. As I saw throughout my stay, cuisine also plays a huge role in Singapore’s urban cultural heritage. It is easy for them to switch from eating in an ultra chi-chi restaurant in a hotel to getting their fix of laksa in a hawker center. These hawker centers, mind you, are almost spotlessly clean, something our carinderias and even dampas lack.
Nothing is more endearing and more charming to a place than its beautiful heritage structures, and with Singapore’s abundant and not to mention, creatively integrated buildings, Singapore doesn’t compromise its British colonial heritage structures as it vigorously and responsibly pursues its edginess.
This form of variety adds a lush hue to the vibrant colors that make up Singapore. This is because a city filled with buildings made of harsh, cube-like structures made entirely of glass or cement do not exhibit the warmth and flamboyance, if not, the art, that heritage structures posses. This our planners and businessmen, academicians and architects must learn here in our dying Metro Manila.