Singapore’s City Rooms
Singaporean modernism realised something never fully embraced in urban-renewal-era America: that megastructures can provide treasured public space.
This essay was originally published by Docomomo Singapore. Docomomo is an international non-profit dedicated to Modern Movement architecture. You can learn more about the Singapore chapter of this organization here.
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Acclaimed American urbanist William H. Whyte would have likely criticised some of the declarations made by Pritzker Prize winning architect Fumihiko Maki. Maki’s notion of a “city room” —a place he envisioned as a kind of interiorised public space for events — is one such instance. Writing in 1964, he said “The architect does not concern himself with the way [city rooms] will be used.”  What precisely is a city room exactly? Maki did not elaborate much, but a pamphlet he published while leading a design studio at Harvard included a small illustration of the idea. Maki also wrote that such a thing would create “unspecified spaces that stimulate spontaneous events.”  The illustration does indeed appear to show some kind of fantastical spectacle: at least two seemingly space-bound rockets stand in the foreground of a bustling, canopy-enclosed urban space that also bears witness to large crowds pouring in from the sidewalks. (Evidently in Boston as in Singapore, the 60’s were full of sensational imaginations.) Anyhow, given that the term “city room” has a recurring presence in scholarly and non-scholarly contexts, perhaps it is time to clarify the definition for current times.  For the purposes of this article, a city room will be defined as a large, enclosed urban space that contains a network of pedestrian circulation and hosts a variety of planned and unplanned events and daily functions.
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But for a moment let us return to Whyte, who was an avid observer of public behaviour in urban environments. It is clear from his writing that he believed the quality of social life was of paramount concern when designing and planning public spaces. It is unsurprising then that when he observed many 1960’s era urban renewal projects in the U.S., he ultimately concluded such developments were “a wretched model for the future of the city.”  But it is unfortunate that Whyte did not have an opportunity to visit Singapore before he published this conclusion in his seminal 1980 work, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. That is because in the late 60’s and 70’s, Singaporean architects and developers were experimenting with megastructures in ways that should be understood in contrast with the general approach taken in the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fascinating type of urban space known as the city room, theorised by Maki but manifested in material form by Singapore’s early entrepreneurs of the built environment.
To understand Singaporean city rooms from this perspective, it is useful to clarify the context in which Whyte made his scathing critique. Notably, the man’s position on megastructures was not so much about their size or even relentless emphasis on consumption as a raison d’être. To the contrary, in other sections of his analysis he goes as far as to describe food and retail as “important for liveliness.”  His critique then was in the spatial characteristics of the placeless and interiorised public realm, which he felt was disorienting and disconnected from the urban street life traditionally associated with American downtowns. He lamented that such spaces were frequently located far from city centres which made vehicular ownership a prerequisite to access. This naturally limited visitors to shoppers of a certain means and class. Whyte was concerned by this, and was much more pleased by places that were used by “a very wide mix of people.” 
That Whyte was disappointed with the way megastructures usually handled public space is perhaps unsurprising given the American context at the time. Reyner Banham’s Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past proved to be an intellectual tour de force on the eponymous subject and was published four years before Whyte’s observations. Born in England, Banham spent significant time in the U.S. and moved there permanently in 1976. That the cover of the reprint of Megastructure features American architect Paul Rudolph’s miles-long Manhattan Expressway project is indicative of Banham’s intimate relationship with the country’s leading discourse around the built environment at the time. Notably, Maki is referenced numerous times in the book and Banham reprints his characteristically provocative definition of a megastructure: “a large frame containing all the functions of a city, mostly housed in transient short-term containers.”  But to the extent that Banham subscribed to that definition, one is left to conclude that he did not regard public space as a very important urban function as it did not receive a great deal of attention in the book’s essays.
Against the laissez-faire approach taken by Burnham (and for that matter, Maki), Singapore saw a different approach to the role of public space in large building projects that characterised its urban development in the 1960’s and 70’s. As regular readers of Docomomo Singapore know well, bold experiments with Modern mixed-use buildings sprang up in the embryonic nation at this time. This would continue through the 80’s, albeit with less flamboyant designs that presumably drew upon initial lessons learnt and conformed to an increasingly top-down planning apparatus.  In these decades, city rooms became uniquely embedded in Singaporean civic life. 
Unprecedented economic development driven by significant inflows of foreign investment led to an upwardly mobile, consumer middle-class. Guided by an omnipotent planning authority, this led to such outcomes as air conditioned atriums and newly-consolidated large-scale development parcels. All of this came together to make the secret sauce that enabled explosive growth of mixed-use, podium-tower buildings. By sheer virtue of their size, these buildings became natural containers for city rooms. Multi-storey podiums invariably enclosed a massive volume of space, so big that industry publications at the time recommended against developers packing them completely full of rentable stalls. In a country where the planning authority has an uncommon amount of power, it is interesting that the private sector appears to have concluded this on its own. A paper at a 1972 seminar on real estate explains, for example, that (emphasis mine):
In the interior of shopping centres, the tendency is for developers to sell or rent out every available square inch of space, thereby not giving the shopping centre the required shopping environment and uniqueness of design…lessons learnt in other countries are now gradually being brought to light in Singapore and we are able to see new shopping centres which make available various unique design features including provision of three or more storeyed ceiling heights as a major activity hall to draw people. 
This appeared to be a guiding principle for developers for many years to come. And it can still be seen today in projects like People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex, Lucky Plaza, and dozens of other strata-title  malls and their corresponding city rooms.
Buildings like those generally followed the relatively straightforward mixed-use formula of a podium/city room based around retail shops with residential or sometimes offices occupying the tower section. But that is not to say that all city rooms fit into buildings with this mixed-use recipe. Architecturally, many of the ingredients of a city room can actually be traced back to another building that lovers of tropical modernism will recognise: the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, initially completed in 1965. This building is known for its restrained modernist design language, multi-storey interlocking atriums, and inverted-pyramid-style section that provided natural ventilation and copious shading. But importantly, the various exhibition halls and event spaces were all arranged around a space now known as the concourse that can be understood as a prototypical city room. Later city rooms that came to be more associated with spaces of consumption nevertheless owe some conceptual lineage to this important civic landmark.
People’s Park Complex is a prime example. And it is no coincidence that architect William S.W. Lim played an important role in designing both projects.  Built as a shopping centre topped with a residential tower, the complex would feature a complex city room formed by four interlocking atriums. Despite its consistent use of relatively straightforward orthogonal geometry, the overall spatial effect remains somewhat dazzling to the casual visitor even today, especially when Chinese New Year decorations are hung from the balustrades and ceiling. The succession of atriums are also periodically pierced with escalators, shopping cart conveyors, and a handful of hanging bridges that animate the city room. Partly due to the fact that it was one of the few large indoor spaces in the nation at the time of its completion, the city room at People’s Park Complex would play a key role in hosting various nation building and community events. Eunice Seng has documented such cases well in her magnificent article on the building.  Examples include various health and wellness campaigns, a road and pedestrian safety exhibition, and an explanatory exhibit about the nation’s switch to the metric system in 1972.
Inasmuch as shopping was inextricably linked to these more civic oriented events, it is notable that Lim himself appears to have consciously sought to create a space that actively challenged the hegemony of consumption culture. In a 2013 essay in Public Space in Urban Asia, he wrote (emphasis mine):
Professional planning practises in the post-World War II period governing the design of malls in Singapore had enabled a sustainable provision of non-commercial areas such as the ‘City Rooms’ in People’s Park Complex. [14,15]
Today, civic events and public exhibitions are more likely to be hosted in more “expected” places, such as the Central Public Library. Such is one reason that buildings like People’s Park Complex are of interest not only to scholars of modernist heritage but to members of the Singaporean public who hold the building’s early years in their memory.
With this in mind, a brief return to the comparison between Singapore and the U.S. is in order. Admittedly, the latter had a relatively large and diverse supply of building stock in the 70’s and so did not have such pressing pragmatic concerns as where to host a presentation on the metric system. In Singapore’s early pragmatist approach to identifying locations for events, perhaps a better comparison in the U.S. context could be made to 19th century New England barns that ended up becoming churches, town halls, and marketplaces. At least in terms of their “public” spaces, urban renewal projects in the American context were not so programmatically diverse or civic minded. Such a conclusion leads one to the interesting notion that this makes organisations like Docomomo especially relevant in post-WWII nations, despite the fact that the organisation originated in a western context (the Netherlands).
Back to Singapore. Continuing under the “strata-title”, or individual sub-owner model of property development, malls and their corresponding city rooms proliferated around Singapore’s downtown and beyond. Some, like Golden Mile Complex, have received a great deal of media and scholarly attention. Others like Queensway Shopping Centre, Sim Lim Square, and Beauty World Centre were the focus of a mini-documentary series by Channel News Asia called Our Last Strata Malls. Still others are the subject of independent historical accounts and nostalgic memories on blog websites such as remembersingapore.org and stateofbuildings.sg.
Most of the city rooms in these ageing strata-title malls still exist today as paragons of living heritage. And while they may not be used for large civic gatherings as frequently anymore, the passing years have led to an interesting phenomenon by which various immigrant ethnic groups have “adopted” some of the malls. Presumably seeking out physical spaces associated with businesses that cater to their tastes and traditions, these immigrant communities are now a staple of the social life of many city rooms, especially on Sundays.  Other scholars like Ying-kit Chan have investigated this in greater detail. 
Subsequent shopping malls in the 90’s and 00’s were not, as the saying goes in the U.S., built like they used to. In these later years, Singapore moved toward ever larger development parcels that may have produced larger atriums but that were more disconnected from their contextual surroundings. It is notable that, unlike most strata-title malls, many developments in this era increasingly retreated from engagement with the street and sidewalk. Marina Square, for example, was designed with its shopping mall one storey above street level, which was in turn dominated by traffic infrastructure and mechanical vents. (With this in mind it is perhaps fitting for the thesis of this essay that Marina Square was designed by American architect and developer John Portman.)  Even more centrally located developments like Ngee Ann City were set back from the sidewalk with a vast expanse of pavement. The result is a scorching hot plaza generally uninhabitable in daylight hours. More recent megaprojects like Marina Bay Sands (MBS) certainly have their own take on city room design. MBS has its merits, but its general disconnectedness does lead one to appreciate the certain Jane Jacobsean charm of the older malls that confront city streets directly. City rooms, it would seem, work best within a system rather than in isolation. All of this to say that Docomomo Singapore’s focus on 40-60 year old buildings inherently recognises that some of their endearing qualities are not necessarily reproduced in newer developments.
All of this suggests another important realisation. Initially, the formation of these spaces was in the domain of developers and architects. But under the strata-title framework, the identity of city rooms quickly came to be defined by the events they hosted, the businesses they incubated, and of course the thousands of patrons who visited.  But with the recently designated conservation status of Golden Mile Complex preceding its sale to a new owner, this appears to be coming full circle. It will once again fall into the hands of the developer and the architect to lead the process by which the complex’s city room is (re)imagined. This will happen with the added complexity of yet-to-be-seen conservation guidelines and open questions about what will happen to the Thai community that has become significantly intertwined with the structure. For their part, practitioners in the United States interested in revisiting the impact of their country’s legacy of urban renewal would be wise to follow closely this peculiar case study in the preservation of living heritage.  As is now clear, previous developments that would later be deemed failures in the U.S. were evidently not without noteworthy precedents in other contexts.
© 2022 James Carrico
The original quote refers to “city corridors and city rooms”. For the purposes of this article, city corridors will not be discussed. See Maki, Fumihiko. 1970. The Theory of Group Form, 41.
The term has appeared in interesting places in the contemporary scene. Guocoland Group invites visitors to visit a city room at one of their new developments in downtown Singapore, referring to it as “the highlight of the park”, a “sprawling event space amidst lush greenery”. See https://www.guocotower.com/park/. Or, rent one of “The City Rooms” for $750 - $1,500 at http://www.thecityrooms.com.sg/
Whyte, William Hollingsworth. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation, 89.
It is curious to note that in the opening speech to a 2011 conference entitled “Non-West Modernist Past,” conference director William S.W. Lim explained that he used the term “non-West” to refer to all countries outside North America, Western Europe, and Japan. That Japan is not considered “non-west” is perhaps less surprising given Fumihiko Maki’s outsize presence in western architecture schools. Still, other writings by Lim adopt Maki’s term “city room” in describing his architecture. In this sense, perhaps Lim does owe some of the intellectual underpinnings of his early work to “western” thinkers. Maki, Fumihiko. 1964. Investigations in Collective Form. St. Louis: School of Architecture, Washington University, 8 quoted in Banham, Reyner. 1976. Megastructure : Urban Futures of the Recent Past. London: Thames and Hudson, 77.
Kah-Wee Lee concluded that in this period of time, design regulations in Singapore went from “experimental” in the 60’s to “comprehensive, precise, and technical” in the 80’s. See Lee, Kah-Wee. 2010. “Regulating Design in Singapore: A Survey of the Government Land Sales (GLS) Programme.” Environment and Planning 28 (1): 145–64. https://doi.org/10.1068/c08132.
This is not to say that the evolution of city rooms stopped in the 80’s, but that is a subject for another paper. Consider, for example Jewel at Changi or Our Tampines Hub as neo-futurist examples that also fit within the working definition outlined earlier.
Chow, Kok Fong. 1974. Real Estate Development in Singapore. Singapore: Building and Estate Management Society, University of Singapore, 4.
The strata-title model can be roughly described as analogous to the condominium model in the U.S., where each unit is individually owned. Singapore is somewhat unique in that this model applies to retail as well, in contrast to the “managed” mall type whereby a single owner leases stalls to tenants, presumably with some strategy about overall coherence (and predictable rent increases). Certainly in the U.S., no examples of shopping malls composed of individually owned shops come to mind and in that sense the model is quite interesting to a foreign observer.
Albeit with different partners. Originally built to house the National Trades Union, the building now known as the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House was designed by Malayan Architects Co-Partnership which was led by Lim Chong Keat but also included William Lim and Chan Voon Fee. People’s Park Complex was designed by Design Partnership, led by William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon, and Koh Seow Chuan.
Seng, Eunice. 2019. “People’s Park Complex: The State, The Developer, The Architect, and the Conditioned Public” in Southeast Asia's Modern Architecture, ed, Jiat-Hwee Chang and Imran bin Tajudeen. Singapore: NUS Press. 248-249.
Lim, William S.W. 2013. Public Space in Urban Asia. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 21.
In the same article, Lim laments that since the 70’s, some city rooms have subsequently become “densely occupied with rentable stalls”. His own People’s Park Complex bore witness to this phenomenon to some degree. The renovation of the atrium space I.M. Pei’s Raffles City is another, more extreme, example.
In many parts of Asia, Sunday is the day typically taken off by domestic and construction workers.
Ying-kit Chan. 2020. “The Golden Mile Complex: The Idea of Little Thailand in Singapore.” Österreichische Zeitschrift Für Südostasienwissenschaften 13 (1): 103–21.v
One wonders if Portman would have described his spectacular atriums as city rooms. The initial feeling of this author is that his spaces are a little too much “room” and not enough “city”.
In one of Joe Rogan’s podcasts, Joe is speaking with Macaulay Culkin about the relationship between art and the artist. Culkin makes the point that once an artist puts something out in the world, it no longer belongs to them. Such an idea seems to strike resonance in the case of buildings that acquire additional meaning after their initial completion.
“#1153 - Macaulay Culkin”. Produced by Jamie Vernon. The Joe Rogan Experience, April, 2018. Podcast.
Laudably, various places in the U.S. have gone to great lengths in finding creative ways to retrofit and renovate otherwise lacklustre urban-renewal-era places. The reimagining of Boston City Hall’s vast brick plaza is one such example. For a fascinating in-depth study on brutalist megaprojects in Boston, see also Pasnik, Mark, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley. 2015. Heroic : Concrete Architecture and the New Boston. New York, NY: The Monacelli Press.
© 2022 James Carrico