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Critical Regionalism in Singapore's Modernist Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 4158 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Examine modernist architecture in Singapore through the framework of Critical Regionalism by Kenneth Frampton.


In today’s age of globalisation, the restoration of a culture’s heritage through architecture intends to revive local identities and promote a psychological sense of belonging. Kenneth Frampton’s Critical Regionalism was a critique towards architectural monotony and all hues of diversity wasted, resulting in buildings that would struggle to adapt to certain circumstances, such as the changing environmental conditions.

The spread of globalisation to Singapore has caused the vanishing of neighbourhood conventions. Since the 1970s, the government given more openings for outside planners to plan rather than neighbourhood designers. As a result, numerous buildings need a sense of having a place.

However, a contradiction emerge in Singapore’s local architectural scene: its image changed rapidly from a third-world country to an excellent advanced economy- yet the local’s traditions, clearly expressed in its architecture, is more or less still breathing. What are the political, social and economic forces that created the backdrop for such transformation?

This essay focuses on the response of Critical Regionalism through time and the ever-evolving context in Singapore. I will be looking at buildings regarded as a representation of Asian modernism, such as People’s Park Complex, Singapore Conference Hall and Golden Mile Complex- modifying these designs, influenced by overseas architectural ideas, to adapt to the local context.


In the early 20th century emerged the movement that responded to the accelerated industrialisation and social changes- focusing on rationality, logic and efficiency: Modernism. The term ‘rationalism’, associated with the Enlightenment, dates back to René Descartes who saw the world as a machine, functioning by mechanical laws. Architect Le Corbusier encourages this ‘machine aesthetic’ stating that a “house is a machine for living in” and glorified the “mass production spirit… The spirit of living in mass-production houses”.  Architects of that time responded to the disappointment of design assembly social needs and in reaction, came up with a contemporary sort of design, Modernism; accepting plan and innovation would change society and create the benchmarks of living for everyone.

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All shapes of building decoration stripped absent after seen as exorbitant and unsuccessful, taking off the building to its uncovered fundamentals- This can be known as the International Style: non-specific, widespread and built anyplace within the world regardless its setting. This new short-sighted aesthetic, characterised by clean lines, straightforward geometric shapes,  ribbon windows, level rooftops and adaptable open insides arrange- considered fitting for all countries and societies. However, the idea of creating a standard design for all alarmed the world as it threatened the character of a vibrant cultural society. The reaction towards the blandness caused a new style to emerge- Postmodernism. A development that celebrated adornment as fundamental to engineering and postmodern originators openly blended enhancing components from all periods and styles, making chaotic and unpredictable buildings. Nevertheless, individuals regularly started to name these insane chaotic postmodern buildings as tacky. Because of this, the third school of concept emerged- Critical Regionalism: a centre ground between these two extremes. While innovators utilize the worldwide fashion to form ‘place-less’ design, basic regionalists depend on the building’s plan and materials to show the culture and convention of its locale. Essentially, whereas the postmodernists’ much-admired ornamentation for aesthetics as it were; basic regionalists demanded measuring these elaborate embellishments in a significant way.

The theory outlined by Kenneth Frampton reinforced the ideals of modernity with a characteristic of the region and understanding the human nature where every society has their own culture, adapt to nature differently and consequently, have very diverse needs. The theory underpins the ideals of modernity with a character of the region; shielding us from Descartes and Le Corbusier’s notion, that humankind is a machine; treated as one and buildings should merely suit their function. This essay is about modernism, particularly Frampton’s theory of critical regionalism, and its history in responding to social changes with architecture, design, and technology. I am going to focus on the changes in architectural culture in Singapore by analysing three particular buildings: Singapore Conference hall & Trade Union House, People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex.

 Singapore conference hall and trade union house

The Singapore Conference Hall (formerly called the Trade Union House) is a multipurpose building, first to construct along the financial district of Shelton Way. It was an outcome of an alliance between organised labour and government of (then Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Party. Initially, it was a place for conferences and exhibitions during the 1960- 1970s and is now home to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra since 2001. The plan and development of the building at the time were before the freedom of Singapore from Malaysia; however, the completion date (September 1965) was after the freedom of Singapore.

The chosen building proposition was from an across the country open competition by the Singaporean Government in 1961. The Malayan Planners Co-Partnership’s easier present-day plan won the competition; the straightforwardness and clarity of the proposition separated it from more encased and hint conventional colonial structures. Be that as it may, due to the freedom of Singapore, Designers Group 3 had to require over. In spite of the Singapore Conference Corridor and Exchange Union House advancing into a landmark due to its political centrality, the plan esteem comes to past the advanced highlights and shows ‘regional-modernism’ with its neighbourhood planners, advanced highlights and neighbourhood touches.

Modernist elements are evident in the monument, such as a cantilevered roof and terraces. The hall has towering, layered concourse that restores public movement and a large area designed as a naturally ventilated space. The façade consists of two well-known materials, which creates a modernist taste to the building; concrete, a material inspired by Le Corbusier, and glass; the most basic façade element that offers both visibility as well as protection from the changing climate. Another element incorporated was Le Corbusier’s grid of columns that encouraged public movement, as the plan was more open and allowed light and natural ventilation.

On the other hand, the landmark adjusted components that considered Singapore’s tropical climate and given a keen bend of points of interest. These included a huge butterfly-shaped roof (two roof planes slanted to make a V-shape, which empowers the seepage of rainwater down the pipe within the centre) and sun-breakers that shield the insides from the sunrays, out of nearby hardwood.

Despite its modern exterior, in the details, one could observe a strong sensitivity to traditional Malayan craft. The interior design carried a local touch shown on the foyer walls of mengkuang mat patterns reflected in glass mosaic and details of Merbau wood, commonly used in local homes during the 1950s.

People’s Park Complex

The People’s Park Complex is thirty-one story building found on (what utilized to be) an open stop at the base of Pearl’s Hill and along one of the foremost thickly populated areas in Singapore, Eu Tong Sen Road, in Chinatown. Before the fire in 1956, Pearl’s Market (a popular marketplace) previously owned the site and the new Complex, completed in 1973, would go on to adopt many of the shops affected by the blaze. With its success, the complex was seen as a representation of Asian Modernism; being the largest retail complex in Singapore and highlights Singapore’s, to begin shopping middle atrium- a concept introduced by the Metabolist Development of Japan within the 1960s.

Its design highlights two particular zones. The primary is a six-storey retail and commercial platform that oblige over 300 shops, workplaces and eateries systematised along a normally ventilated open concourse. Over the platform is the second zone, a twenty-five story chunk square that covers 264 lofts for high-rise living, as well as wide pedestrian passages named “streets-in-the-air” and a roof deck that gives a space for shared civilities for community interaction and panorama.

The original façade consisted of exposed raw concrete that came from the influence of the Brutalist architectural style, which was a popular movement at that time.

Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of Architecture’ also influenced the aesthetics of the architecture. The exclusion of load-bearing walls in the structural system and instead utilised columns created an open floor plan that allows daylight into the building. The integration of social and private spaces took prompts from Le Corbusier’s ‘vertical plant city’ approach, where occupants possess their private space and open communal space for the inhabitants to mingle.

Although overseas architectural ideas heavily influenced the design of the building, there are aspects of modifications to adapt to the local context. For this case, the central city room found inside the shopping space comprises of two multi-storey interlocking atriums, known as the “city room”. This arranges induced from the architects’ need to allow inhabitants to live, work and play all underneath one roof, reflecting the dynamic works out of the street merchants inside the Chinatown of yesteryears and securing the shophouse soul of Pearl’s Market.

Golden Mile Complex

In 1965, developing nearby architects and organizers shaped the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR). Two key figures within the group, William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon, both interested over Le Corbusier’s Straight City, the Japanese Metabolist development and brutalism- all of which we get to see of the plan of the Golden Mile Complex. The bunch grasped idealistic creative energy of the “Asian City of Tomorrow”; they envisioned “dwellings that stretch upwards towards the sky and beneath them people humming with activity”. With the tall populace thickness of Asian cities, SPUR favoured higher vertical thickness, where residences are vertically stacked and protecting the street for the neighbourhood everyday exercises.

The Golden Mile Complex, built in 1973, symbolised the newly established People’s Action Party (PAP), promoting a new national identity and an apparently ‘openness’ to critiques. In truth, the slanting terrace typology was to decrease class separation and to progress breadth with reference to the political setting. What sets the inclining terrace isolated from a conventional balcony is the spatial association it makes. Once you see out an overhang, the covering roof produces the sense of a colossal window. In any case, when one walks out to the terrace, the lost roof grants one to feel the ‘openness’ up to the sky. In addition, the reality that each unit incorporates a terrace that can double as a private garden limits class isolation within the complex because only luxurious houses would have terraces. The design idea of the terrace is evident with the political discussion of an ‘openness to criticisms’ advancement.

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The Metabolist movement in Japan encourages energy flow and vibrant urban life. This concept appropriated the Golden Mile Complex design as the Golden Mile strip, located at the centre of Singapore, serves a diverse class of society. The integration of ethnic and social classes encourages creativity to grow and creates many opportunities for vibrant street life. The stretch of land is one mile long and situated between two parallel roads: Nicoll Highway and the Beach road.

For the southeast elevation, the plan of the ventured terracing diminishes commotion contamination coming from Nicoll Highway and outwardly diminishes the mass of the complex. On the other hand, the downside of typically the private units’ exposure to coordinate daylight. Sun presentation is not alluring as Singapore’s climate as of now comprises of an overpowering openness to daylight. Instead of presenting it, the focus was more towards giving adequate shading though securing adequate light.

A standard column framework underpins the building and the arrangement for each floor tracks the same parallel heading off the road and way of the Golden Mile. With the utilisation of a lean, slanting piece that creates a shade for the communal concourse over the platform, the chamber was able to attain common ventilation. As for material, the 1970s style transcends through its raw concrete, steel window frames, and simple bar handrails etc. – all of which have become familiar for most urban residents in Asia.


These three buildings: Singapore’s Conference Hall, People’ Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex all have elements that weave them together into what classed them as modern architecture. However, the regionalist side of them is surprisingly what sets them apart from one another.

Firstly, all the buildings composed of concrete and glass highlights the modern movement. Le Corbusier and the brutalist movement inspired these common modernist materials. The brutalist architectural movement (appearing strong and solid) specifically inspired the People’s Park Complex and the Golden Mile Complex. These two buildings, in particular, represent a chapter in Singapore’s post-independence architectural history. The architecture of Brutalist often expressed as a restructure in a form of office towers, residential blocks and shopping podiums.

On the other hand, behind their modern exterior is a traditional structure. All the buildings saw the need to combine and adopt idealistic and Western concepts such as using the grid of columns, again inspired by Le Corbusier, and imprudently introducing it in Singapore’s Southeast Asian urban concept. These architectural works illustrate the movement of the era, directing the emerging creative Singaporean architectural identity that contrasts to its colonial past and still managed to reserve some of the local’s traditions. For example, all three buildings abandoned load-bearing walls to create an open floor arrangement, which simultaneously allowed more sunlight to peek through and permitted natural ventilation to happen. In addition, Singapore’s Trade Union and the Golden Mile Complex designed a high-density, vertical, “self-contained city”, combining everything required for urban life. Both have podiums, buildings are zoned into public interactions that mimic the street shops. It gives a sense of preservation and gives it a fine blend of old and new with a historical significance. As for the Singapore Conference Hall, it evolved into a monument due to its political significance, the design value reaches past the modern features and displays ‘regional-modernism’ with its local architects, modern features and local touches.

All the buildings are widely recognised by experts as architecturally and historically significant. However, of the three examples, the building with the least regionalist aspect would be the Golden Mile Complex. This is because there are some design characteristics for the sake of the popular modern movement and not to Singapore’s tropical climate. For example, the design failed to shade the building from the country’s hot climate. The housing units’ exposure to direct sunlight is overwhelming for architecture in Singapore and giving enough shading while preserving enough light was one of the main intentions.


To conclude, the three buildings consistently appear how undetectable strengths (such as colonialism, communism etc.) associating and formed the built environment. Kenneth Frampton’s hypothesis of critical regionalism challenges the architects’ plan and wealthy in forming the hypothetical foundation; it strengths the building to have a place to it is encompassing and have a breath of freshness whereas they stand confident, telling the story of their setting and their locale. All three buildings permit local people to relate with them and sightseers to teach themselves approximately the city through them as they stand. Typically conceivable through the relevant materials and its plan that takes account the neighbourhood climatic needs, eventually describing an involvement only of that locale.

Conventional design in Singapore broadly comprises of vernacular Malay houses and nearby crossover shop houses, with an extent of places that reflect the ethnic differing qualities of the city-state as well as its colonial past. The design excessively affected by abroad building concepts took priority from the Japanese metabolism development, the brutalist movement as well as Le Corbusier’s building standards. Local architects at that point adjusted them to adjust the idea into the local setting within the 1960s. For example, problems such as population growth are resolved through mass public housing. Most of the buildings have the residential area built vertically with a similar floor plan, which is mass-production itself; however, the fact that it is stacked is a way to save space is beneficial for Singapore is growing population and limiting space.

I found the Singapore Conference Hall the most interesting as it went through the before and after of Singapore’s liberation from Malaysia. Seeing how Malayan crafts embedded and kept in the design even after the country’s independence interested me. It gives a sense of preservation as the Malayan design could easily have been replaced or taken out after Singapore’s independence, however, they chose to incorporate it instead, giving it a nice blend of old and new with a historical significance. One could say that this reason alone is the beauty of critical regionalism as it gives the building its own persona. In addition, the design has a more sensitive approach, not a careless one (shown through the international style and mass production).


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