Architect who designed MBS & Jewel Changi once proposed HDB designs that weren't used

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership| February 16, 10:17 AM

Beating the Odds Together, edited by Mattia Tomba, is a collection of essays which commemorates the 50 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Israel.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from an essay contributed by Moshe Safdie, titled "The Story of Israeli Architecture in Singapore", where he detailed his various contributions to iconic architecture in Singapore. 

Safdie is an architect, urban planner, educator, theorist and author. A citizen of Israel, Canada and the United States, Mr Safdie designed two Singaporean icons: Marina Bay Sands and Jewel Changi Airport.

Beating the Odds Together is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy here.


By Moshe Safdie

Came to Singapore for the first time to develop condominiums

My first visit to Singapore was originally planned for October 1973. Singapore was then eight years old, and I was invited by Israel’s attaché, Brigadier-General Ephrain Poran, who suggested I meet with the Minister for National Development.

Singapore, he said, had planned a major housing programme for its population, and the minister might be interested in the experimental modular housing concepts we had evolved for Habitat 67 six years earlier. This trip did not to come to pass; it was interrupted by the Six Day War.

In 1976, Mr Robin Low, a Singaporean businessman, shipbuilder and real estate developer, visited my office in Montreal, Canada. He had heard about the prefabrication methods of Habitat and thought, given the slump in the shipping business, to divert his shipyard in Singapore to producing residential modules.

I flew with him to Singapore for my first visit. Two sites were identified —one downtown at the head of Orchard Road in Ardmore and the other in Tampines, not far from the Changi Airport.

With great excitement, we embarked on developing proposals for both. The Tampines site would be built with prefabricated modules, a sprawling site accommodating some thousands of units. It would be an opportunity to apply industrial housing techniques to middle-income housing.

The Ardmore site evolved into two luxury residential towers. The towers were realised in 1985 and were very successful real estate ventures, until 2006, when they were demolished to make way for two much taller towers, enabled by the changed zoning for the site.

In the 1980s, I returned to Singapore many times. We were commissioned to design a project for Crane Hill Road, triplet towers interconnected into a singular complex, now known as The Edge on Cairnhill.

Involved with judging the [email protected] project

My involvement with Singapore expanded over the years. I was invited by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to develop an alternative plan for Simpang New Town. The mandate was to develop new concepts and new ideas that the HDB might consider beyond their practice at the time.

At that time, I was based in Harvard, so I would involve some of my Singaporean students in the exercise, working out of my Boston office. Our innovation was to propose diverse typologies, unlike the single typology complexes of the HDB.

Low-, mid- and high-rise typologies would be combined to achieve an environment which would feel less dense than a single typology complex. When the model arrived in Singapore, there was doubt that our proposal offered the same density as the HDB scheme.

The plans were carefully measured to confirm indeed that what appeared to be a lesser density had met the requirements of HDB development. As it turned out, the concept was too much of a divergence from HDB’s practices at that time and it was not realised.

Several years later, participated as a member of the jury for the international architectural design competition for the Duxton Hill HDB housing complex to be built in downtown Singapore. The competition was established to explore new housing concepts.

Indeed, the first, second and third choices were all innovative, each in their own way. I served on the jury with several Singaporean colleagues, as well as with Mr Fumihiko Maki, the eminent Japanese architect.

The now completed [email protected] project ushered the HDB into a new era of more adventurous and experimental designs.

Invited to submit proposals for Marina Bay Sands & Jewel Changi

Over the years, I became aware of the many forms of co-operation and collaboration between Singapore and Israel. It always occurred to me how both Israel and Singapore emerged out of British systems: Singapore as a colony in 1965, and Israel as a British mandate in 1948. Both inherited the British bureaucracy and its civil administration systems.

As an Israeli, I often envied Singapore’s innovation in adapting the British system to its own need. Certainly in the area of my own discipline — city planning, urban design and architecture — Singapore has led the world in embracing a policy of affirmative intervention of individual developments towards achieving a more cohesive and workable city.

Similarly, its innovations in traffic control, and its years-ahead approach to providing infrastructure, as it was anticipated rather than after the fact, leave Israelis envious, and, I would even say, in awe.

In 2007, we were invited by Las Vegas Sands (LVS) Chairman Sheldon Adelson to join LVS in preparing a proposal for the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort project.

This was an international competition, drawing some of the greatest talents in development and architecture worldwide. Impressively, the government did not ask the developers to compete on the price of the land.

Rather, it fixed the land cost and stated that the winning project would be selected based on the quality of programme and design — meaning, the project that makes the greatest contribution to Singapore would be selected.

We were delighted to learn, five months later, that LVS, together with us and our design, had been selected by the government.

It seemed that many years of working in Singapore, and our intimate knowledge of the country and the objectives of its administration contributed to our ability to come up with a scheme that resonated with the government’s objectives. None of us was aware at the time that Marina Bay Sands would become an iconic symbol of Singapore.

While we were all aware that many of the design elements would be architecturally spectacular, the magic that etches a building in the public psyche is something you can hope for but not anticipate.

When we joined hands with CapitaLand to submit a proposal to Changi Airport for a new centre that would unify all the Changi terminals, we wondered how we would come up with an encore, a complex that would, once again, ignite the public psyche and resonate with Singapore’s dreams and aspirations.

The Jewel, as it has come to be known, was conceived to provide a programmatic list of retail and airport facilities, together with “an attraction”. This attraction should be one that would appeal to residents of Singapore as well as travellers, but what form it was to take was yet to be determined.

Knowing the commitment of Singapore as a Garden City, or a City in a Garden as Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew had put it, that vision could be celebrated by creating a magical garden, one filled with various attractions for the young and old, but which, at the same time, could be an uplifting place of calmness and serenity.

Once again, our proposal was selected and CapitaLand entered into a joint venture with Changi Airport. Jewel held its initial opening in June 2019. The hundreds of thousands who visited it during its first week of opening demonstrated the enthusiasm and excitement Singaporeans manifested towards this new complex.

The Valley Garden, with its waterfall nourished by the Republic’s abundant rainfall, has become yet another iconic symbol of Singapore.

Similarities between Singapore and Israel

In recent decades, we continued working with CapitaLand on many projects in Singapore and in China. As such, in the many years of my interaction with Singaporeans in the business community, as well as public officials, I always found that my Israeli roots opened doors.

Many were familiar with Israel; they had visited either during military service or under other assignments. Many now travel there as tourists.

As for Israelis, Singapore has become a destination, and I would even say is regarded by many as a country to be envied for its extraordinary achievements, given its similarity in scale and size to Israel.

Israel’s emphases on education and the development of high-tech industries resonate with Singapore’s ambitions. Many co-operative efforts are now underway.

We have enjoyed having an office in Singapore for the past 15 years. While I personally hold Israeli, as well as Canadian and United States citizenships, I often feel that I have a fourth one in Singapore. That is certainly true in terms of engagement and a feeling of belonging to this city-state where I have spent so much time in the past 40 years.

Top image from Unsplash.