New Urban Precincts VI – one-north, Singapore

When it comes to large-scale new precinct planning and development, leave it to the Singaporeans to get the job done. I’ve been in Singapore almost two weeks now and I thought I’d get on with the NUP series. While I initially wanted to profile Marina Bay, that particular new urban precinct is still largely W.I.P.  And so I thought I’d look at another on that’s been in existence for some time and much much closer to home. Literally. I mean, I used to live here.

one-north is a 200 hectare business park and live-work-play-learn precinct developed by the Singapore government to house a mix of high-value-added service industries, including biomedical and pharmaceuticals, media and infocomm technology, design and creative industries, and tertiary / post-tertiary education and training.  Strategically situated beside the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Science Park, it probably has one of the highest concentrations of Very Brainy People from all over the world, which made for a very lively and cosmopolitan mix of friends and neighbours when I lived there more than two years ago.

Map of one-north (www.one-north.sg) – I hadn’t realised this before but the cluster was actually masterplanned by Zaha Hadid Architects, which explains the very fluid, organic feel to how the multiple sector-specific sub-clusters adhere together into a super-cluster. While it was launched in 2001, it is only half-completed now, and is slated to be completed in a decade’s time. This post provides a brief glimpse into the complexity inherent within this very small space, and the zeal with which Singaporeans go about their precinct-planning.

A)  The Polises – Industry-specific Business Parks

The most well-known – or infamous, rather – aspects of one-north, are the “Polises” – the sector-specific business parks.  “Polis” literally means city in Greek, and is often translated as “city-state”, which probably explains why the Singaporean authorities have applied this term so liberally to the industry-specific business parks in the precinct.  (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis)

Biopolis – This was what started it all. Phase I of Biopolis was the first component of one-north to be developed – the first cog in the wheel. It is dedicated to biomedical companies and biomedical research, and probably has the island’s greatest concentration of PhD researchers. The folks who cloned Dolly the Sheep famously relocated their research here (briefly anyway) due to Singapore’s comparatively lax laws on human stem cell research.  Phase I was so successful that Phase II is currently being constructed.

Building Names – All the buildings in Biopolis (as well as in Fusionopolis) have oh-so-earnest scientific names like “Synapse,” “Genome,” “Symbiosis,” “Ambios,” “Chronos” and so on. While the naming policy must have been decided upon – in typical Singaporean fashion – with great seriousness and solemnity, surely someone up there must realize how silly it all is. This building, “Matrix,” is in Biopolis, overlooking the site for Phase II.

Fusionopolis – These stark, futuristic towers constitute the second “Polis” to see the light of day. As the name suggests, this one caters to just about anything and everything. It houses the Singapore Government’s Media Development Authority and its Agency for Science, Technology and Research, amongst other media, IT and scientific research companies. It also houses luxury serviced apartments, a gym with a stunning roof-top pool and even a rather out-of-place performance space in the globular structure that sits between the three towers. This was where I went to work out regularly when I lived in one-north.

Fusionopolis Phase II & Solaris – Across the street is the upcoming Phase II development for Fusionopolis. Looming in the distance like a space-aged cruise ship is Solaris – the cluster for engineering, information and communications technology, media and most notably (which explains its name) clean-tech research.  The landscape here is what I would call post-post-apocalyptic – i.e. decades after the end of the apocalypse, we are finally getting our act together and picking up the pieces.  Suffused within all the developments is a sense that a sheer determination to get things done is behind all of this. It’s a bit scary.

Pixel – This facility is catered to specialist schools that support the information and communications technology and digital media industries (i.e. animation, gaming, mobile apps, etc). Just so you can’t possibly mistake it for anything else, it’s named “Pixel.”

Mediapolis – The final “Polis” in the precinct, for now. It is meant to house…well, media companies, offices, film and recording studios and soundstages – everything and anything in support of film, music, digital production, digital R & D, broadcasting, education, IP and rights management. Everything, that is, to impress the intrepid wanderer as he takes in this view of nothingness and attempts to envision a “Living Laboratory” where the world’s media professionals may “live-work-play-learn.”  I moved out just as the military camp that used to sit here was demolished to make way for this new business park. Again, it all smacks of sheer and ruthless determination.

B)   Education and Talent Development “Hub”

one-north is also slated to be the cluster for high-value-added training and educational services.  Situated right beside the National University of Singapore and a handful of good Elementary and High Schools in the vicinity (like Anglo-Chinese Junior College, Fairfield Methodist Secondary School, Singapore Polytechnic, etc), the precinct itself also currently contains prestigious educational institutions, and is slated to house an entire Leadership Training and HR Services Cluster.

INSEAD – The Singapore campus of the prestigious French business school, one of the first tenants in one-north, is located right beside Fusionopolis, accounting for the droves of young, starry-eyed foreign business-school types that patronise the food court and supermarket in the latter building’s basement. INSEAD’ partnership with Singapore has been wildly successful and so its likely to remain in one-north for some time to come.

Tanglin Trust School – Further down the road sits the Elementary and High School equivalent to INSEAD (of sorts). This is a very expensive, very exclusive private international school where very privileged children of wealthy expatriates are sent to get an international education. The grounds are extensive, including a running track and football field (not shown) for the very white young persons. In the distance, one sees Fusionopolis and Solaris.

Nepal Hill – This cluster of merely 16 colonial-era bungalows for military officers in the British Army is “set to anchor Singapore as a global hub for leadership training and talent development.” It will house “business schools, corporate universities and professional service companies in the talent development space.” Already, big names like Unilever and the Human Capital Leadership Institute have signed up to be in the idyllic cluster just across from Fusionopolis. I shudder with eager anticipation.

NTU Alumni Club – With the National University of Singapore pretty much flanking one-north, Singapore’s second university, the Nanyang Technological University probably felt like it needed to also get in on the act. Its Alumni Club thus occupies a prime spot on a small knoll, presiding over all of one-north like a grand old dame, and ensuring that it keeps a firm overview of and sends out its members to partake in the intellectualising and networking that takes place between the Very Brainy People in the precinct.

Ministry of Education, Singapore – As if to further emphasize the point that one-north is Singapore’s answer to a global education and talent development hub, the MOE Building (to the right) also sits within the precinct, at the edge of Biopolis, where it can observe and evaluate, and make policies that impact Singapore’s educational landscape. One of the first building to go up in the precinct, it has watched everything around it shift and morph through the years.

C)  Commercial, Residential and Lifestyle Exchange

one-north wouldn’t be complete without a commercial, residential and lifestyle cluster. Where would the people go to entertain themselves otherwise.  Enter Vista Exchange – “the corporate and business support cluster in one-north” which “will house high-rise offices, a business hotel, retail-cum-entertainment centres and quality residential developments.” Vista Exchange is also the transport hub for one-north, making for a highly multi-tasking, multi-disciplinary, multi-everything sort of high-achieving and value-maximized space, naturally.

The Rochester – It doesn’t look like anything much right now but be forewarned that this will house a new mall, hotel and luxury condominium development. Looking very much like the non-place – i.e. with very little relationship to the history and natural environment of its immediate vicinity – it was planned to be, the huge complex aims to bring hordes of new consumers to the precinct. Because a new mall-cum-hotel-cum-luxury-condo complex is just exactly what Singapore needs to make it more unique.

The Metropolis – Another luxury condominium development in Vista Exchange, right beside the MOE Building, and with a rather apt but loaded name. Did the developers not know that Metropolis also describes an urban dystopia of the future where wealthy intellectuals rule from vast tower complexes, oppressing workers who live in the dark depths below?

Rochester Park – A cluster of heritage black-and-white colonial bungalows, refurbished to house high-end restaurants, bars and spas. One of the earliest heritage clusters to be refurbished in one-north, it’s extremely popular with the expatriate and yuppie set, being a place to see and be seen.  I have personally been to not a few of the establishments in this park and can attest to their popularity. 20 more bungalows in the area are slated for development into serviced villas, F & B outlets or other lifestyle use.

The Civic, Cultural and Retail Complex – In case we forget that one-north is meant to be a fully-functioning and holistic precinct: Ta-dah!! This Civic, Cultural and Retail Complex, as yet un-named, is its crowning glory, housing a huge 5000-seater performance venue alongside other smaller performance spaces and retail spaces. Interestingly, the entire complex will be paid for jointly by the Singapore-Government-linked property giant CapitaLand and a church-linked company, Rock Productions, with the large performance space being regularly used for massive church services. The $660m building is designed by Artec Consultants, the same folks that designed the stunning Esplanade Theatres.  Only goes to show what a consummate marriage between Church and State can achieve.

(For more details and an artist mock-up of the development, see: http://1north.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/660-million-lifestyle-hub-to-go-up-at-buona-vista-5000-seat-theatre-shops-part-of-rock-productions-capitaland-project/)

one-north Park – Across from Vista Exchange is one-north Park, basically a green spine that glues together the various polises and industry clusters. Scattered along the park are outdoor sculptures that are in keeping with the style of the precinct. If anything, it makes for a pleasant stroll, if you even notice that its there.

one-north Residences – One of the older luxury condo developments in one-north, built to cater to professionals that work at Biopolis and Fusionopolis. Not really in Vista Exchange, and as such slightly lacking in retail and other amenities to spur consumption. That said, it is the kind of quiet and understated type of development that I could envision living in, particularly since it is situated in a stunning location surrounded by forest.

D)  Arts, Heritage and Creative Quarter – Wessex Estate

In stark contrast to the towers of steel and glass, Wessex Estate sits in its own anachronistic little patch of countryside at the edge of one-north. Once, it housed military barracks and yet another cluster of bungalows built for British Army Officials. Up till a year or so ago, it was designated an arts and creative industries cluster, offering live-work loft spaces for artists and creative industries professionals that loved the quiet and tranquil surroundings. These days, priority for residency in the estate has also been extended to the engineers and scientists that work in one-north.

I lived here for two years, two years ago, alongside a thriving community of artists, gallerists, designers, theatre professionals and other creative types. The entire precinct felt like it hadn’t changed since the early 1900s and it is truly one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen in Singapore.  It’s a pity that Wessex Estate is almost certain to be slated for further development. Though I keep my fingers crossed that the authorities would keep things as they are for just a while longer. It’s so achingly beautiful.

The Path to Wessex Estate from Fusionopolis – the approach to Wessex Estate is suffused with drama. You walk through 10 minutes of towering trees and wayside jungle, turn a corner (in the distance here) and suddenly you see them – the bungalows and barracks tucked here and there in the greenery. 

Typical Bungalows in Wessex Estate – These are scattered all over the estate, and house local and expatriate families who desire a more laid-back style of living in hyper-modern Singapore. The streets are named after places from the English countryside – Wilton, Weymouth, Westbourne, Woking.  Highly evocative.

Almost Rural Landscape – Alongside the bungalows were almost 30 three-storey military barracks, converted into residential apartments and live-work lofts. They sat in a beautiful, verdant expanse of greenery.  Many of them are situated on small knolls over-looking views such as this one above.

KTM Railway – The Estate is steeped in heritage. Snaking alongside it is the former KTM Railway line, now decommissioned. While I was still living there, I would hear the trains’ foghorns as they brought passengers and cargo into Singapore.  The KTM Railway line also separates Wessex Estate from Commonwealth Public Housing Estate – a whole different universe. A well-trodden informal path leads from one estate to the other, across the Railway track. The photo above shows children crossing over to the other side.

View up the KTM Railway Line – Passing through a permeable barrier of foliage, one emerges in this in-between space separating Wessex from Commonwealth. The KTM railway used to trundle along here, down railway tracks that have since been removed, leaving a Green Corridor that bisects Singapore. The fate of the Green Corridor is also uncertain, with the Authorities wishing to “develop” large tracts of it in to retail and lifestyle spaces, naturally.

Live-Work Lofts – This is a close-up of one of the former military barrack buildings, now converted into 6 live-work lofts.  Each of the buildings are named after a battle the English fought and won: Arabia, Tangier, Montreal, Pegu, Plassey, Aden, Waterloo. Again, highly evocative.

Live-Work Lofts – Another example of a live-work-loft, this one contained an art gallery, photographers’ studios, a cooking school and print studio.

Tangier – This was the building I stayed in. My apartment was the top-most one to the right. My neighbours included a web strategist, media studio, fashion designer, film- professor, architect, columnist and interior decorator. They were local, European and Japanese.

Centre Stage – The building just behind mine. The entire building had been converted into a drama and arts school for kids (mostly expatriate). The School sits directly across the street from Tanglin Trust School, from which, naturally, it draws most of its young clients.

Art Walk@Wessex – An ad that provides a sense of the number of art studios clustered in the area.  Since I left, quite a few art / design studios have also moved on. In its heyday, there were more than 20 participating units in the Art Walk.

Colbar – An institution in its own right. Formerly the canteen for military officials in the colonial period, it was slated for demolition to make way for a new highway. Residents in Wessex Estate lobbied and the entire bar was taken apart brick by brick and moved to its present location. It is still hugely popular with the residents of Wessex Estate, and with other Singaporean residents that come from elsewhere to partake of the casual, no-nonsense air of a military canteen that it still retains.

Conclusion – Revisiting this precinct again two years after I left it, the hairs on my arm stood on end as the full extent of the Singapore Government’s plan began to take shape.  While it is undoubtedly amazing and absolutely laudable that the Government is able to plan and build on such a scale so quickly, so neatly and so efficiently, I can’t help feeling that everything seems just a little too too neat, too stark and too fiercely and scarily efficient.

The feeling one gets with all the sharp angles and shiny towers is that there is little space for error – this is a project that MUST SUCCEED because so much resources and willpower have been thrown into making it so.  This is ironic, given that the precinct is dedicated to research and development and innovation-centred industries (digital media, clean tech, ICT, tertiary education, etc) for which experimentation, creativity and failure must come into play.

With all the developments happening so quickly, things will get very soul-less very fast. The solution, as I see it, is to leave some parts of the precinct as they are – Wessex Estate for example, should be left as little developed as possible, to “place” the precinct – give it a little bit more of a human touch and link it more closely with the unique history of its immediate vicinity. It’s a pity that Nepal Hill and Rochester Hill are already slated for further development. Leaving them as residential clusters would have allowed a little more breathing space for the Very Brainy People amidst all the hermetically sealed towers closely-stacked against one another.

But I suppose, as the pragmatic Singaporean officials would say: in land-strapped Singapore, one does what one must to maximise the value of the land. It’s just too bad value is always defined in monetary terms first.

For more details on one-north, see the Singapore Government’s Official Website for it: http://www.jtc.gov.sg/RealEstateSolutions/one-north/Pages/default.aspx.

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About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Landmarks & History, Singapore, Sociology & Urban Studies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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