SLOW LAND | Revealing the intangibles of Singapore’s Land Creation
MArch, Lee Kuan Yew Gold medal
National University of Singapore (NUS)
Sep. 16, 2019
Singapore is synonymous with Land Reclamation. Its territorial expansion through landfill has altered its geographical boundary to such great extent that it is hardly recognisable within a few decades. Landfills have displaced, made inaccessible, inevitably erasing our collective memories of the coastline. The thesis wishes to examine these conditions through speculations using an alternative means of land creation. On the premise of a hypothetical, slow land formation process using Biorock technology, a new strip of land is constructed by the accumulation of minerals dissolved in seawater. When the new land consists of platforms rather than landfill and when its anchorage to the seabed takes such a long time to be established, five scenarios were imagined to take advantage of these conditions. These propositions aim to surface the overlooked and the intangibles that surround coastal land creation in Singapore.
LAND + TERRITORY | BLURRING VS INDICATIVE
How many of us have drawn the shape of Singapore as kids? Slowly, we are losing that ability to recognise the shape of our country. With this new technique, where the extent of reclamation is no longer inhibited by the depth of the seabed but by the sovereign boundaries and the sea routes, one can consider the limits of expansion as definitive and that land grows inwards rather than out.
LAND + ECOLOGY | ERASURE VS CULTIVATION
A typical image of typical land reclamation can be described as sand being dumped over a plot of Sea. It is highly disruptive, whatever that existed prior to that has to make way. These include reefs and mangroves. However, can we imagine an edge that grows? Reefs and Mangroves are rehabilitated, as the land is growing.
LAND + SEA | DISPLACEMENT VS DEPENDENCE
Besides removing ecology, seawater is being removed. Land has traditionally been associated with a horizontal separation with the Sea. But islands do need water. A desalination plant is developed to produce water for the islands. But beyond utility, it aims to go further and celebrate this new relationship with water.
LAND + PEOPLE | MARGINALISATION VS EMPOWERMENT
In creating land, we have marginalised others. In the past, it was the islanders, and today it can be seen through our construction workers. They come from afar, to create land for us, and then be pigeonholed in less than desirable environments. Why not have a waterfront dormitory that houses the workers and the farmers. Nevertheless, they are even closer to their workplace!
THEME 5: LAND + IDENTITY | OBLIVION VS IDENTIFY
The southernmost factory is rethought as a museum park. It’s depth in section, allows the revealing of structure. And this reveals what this new land is: An expanse of biorock coated frames. A crane, is rethought, as a vertical series of insular spaces that educate people on how the land is formed. And as one makes way to the top, an expanse of the vastness of this novel land caps the experience of identifying. One should indeed know how their land is made.
What prompted the project?
The conditions of a potential resort island that has been in limbo for years. The southern islands of Singapore were slated to achieve such status for more than a few decades with land reclamation being an extensive instrument in that process. But for all the development that the mainland was experiencing, it was for me ironic that the multi-million endeavour did not succeed. Furthermore, there were studies on the potential of the extended portions of the island being flooded, exposing the limitations of our land expansion. Therefore, the interesting circumstances of the islands began my interest in the subject of land, and specifically to better understand the conditions and consequences of reclamation.
Another aspect that gave direction to my project was the work of Charles Lim. His work on reclamation inspired me to translate an engineering-driven subject matter into one that has a more spatial and visual interest. Through his artistic approaches, I was prompted to take on the project to draw out observations and narratives, rather than providing an empirical solution!
What informed Singapore as site?
Singapore is synonymous with reclamation. She is famous for not only being a tiny island but also for having an enormous appetite for growth. The pool of issues that came along with this national agenda was particularly interesting, and I felt that it was a good foundation for my project to develop upon. Based on the subject matter, Singapore became the best choice.
That being said, I’m Singaporean. And as I began the project I started to realise how much I was unaware of my country’s ‘islandness’ and it’s coastlines. Living on an island should come with an understanding of the landscape unique to being surrounded by sea. Furthermore, it daunted upon me that this could be a condition shared by many who reside here, and possibly point to the deficiencies of how we have expanded! Therefore, this project takes on a personal agenda to better understand my home.
How do you approach and relate to the term 'anthropocene'?
We are custodians of our land. As much as we would appreciate the benefits of nature, we ought to nurture the land we have been given. Through Slowland, it focuses in a chapter on how our endeavours to expand in Singapore have led to the erasure of our coastlines. Issues of diminishing biodiversity in terms of corals and mangrove systems are unfortunate. Beyond that, is the diminishing relationship between us and these beautiful landscapes. For me, a natural coastal experience still remains available, but it is questionable for generations in the future. Therefore the chapter speculates on how land growing could aid the growth of ecology.
Nevertheless, nature always seems to grasp the upper hand. As much as we might strive to push out the sea, it was interesting to see how the sea was able to claim back what was originally theirs. During the research phase, the site was projected to experience significant flooding, and subsequent mappings showed that whatever land remained looked extremely similar to the original island!
What are for you the greatest problematics with this new fabricated landscape?
It’s feasibility. The project is based on a hypothetical technique of growing biorock which is still highly primitive for building construction purposes. When alternative methods of construction are available with so much efficiency and stability, it is unlikely that such an idea will be developed. It would be an engineering feat if the platforms do become reality. Nevertheless, that would defeat the purpose of this thesis, whereby the techniques of fabricating the land merely serve as a vehicle for the project.
Another problem would be territory. My tutor and I reflected upon the question: what if we could expand as far as we wanted. The sea currently plays the role of a natural deterrence between various countries, which makes its absence controversial politically. Boundaries exist as invisible lines on the sea and are left out of reach of the public, but circumstances would be different with a land boundary. Therefore I believe such capabilities to expand does have a fair share of potential conflicts.
What role do and should we as architects play within the shaping of this new landscape?
For now, I believe architects can contribute by illustrating the opportunities of living on the sea. If we can depict the way people could occupy and experience landscapes differently by utilising the sea, and open up new possibilities that were once unattainable with solid earth, then we would have gone one step further in this conversation.
How do you see the role of the architect and of architecture changing and responding to the threat of the changing climate?
I would assume the architect would need to place greater effort and awareness in ensuring his/her designs would be less of a burden for the earth. Beyond designing, it is also equally important that we are able to convince the clients to adopt the same attitudes! But it is great to see that in recent months the potential our profession has to impact the climate has been intentionally addressed.
What is for you the architects most important tool?
The ability and imagination to represent and create wonderful spaces. I believe that is something unique to our profession. Initially, this project went down a more scientific route, only for myself to realise that there are many other professions who would do better than my pseudo-science. That is when I realised that maybe we ought to hone what we are really meant to do, and if we do solve problems belonging to other domains through our ideas, even better!
John Sng is currently an aspiring architect at Architects 61, based in Singapore. Previously, he has worked at various offices including BIG and REX. His thesis ‘Slowland’ was developed as a MArch project at the National University of Singapore where he recently graduated with the Lee Kuan Yew Gold medal. Beyond architecture, he enjoys sketching, painting portraits and pottery!