The Rehabilitation of Ground Zero and the New Downtown: An Essay on the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre and the development of the New Downtown in Marina Bay

23 08 2007

In an earlier post I’ve mentioned the diametric differences between Singapore and New York, City of Cities. Not that I’m particularly enamoured with NY—its shortcomings are well-known, and in instances almost debilitating for the residents—but it serves as an apt comparison. Written for a past module on urban design, it thought I’d share it, rather than horde it to myself.

The catastrophic destruction of the World Trade Centre has left Lower Manhattan with an urban scenario that has not been seen in many years. Famously chaotic, the lazier faire development of New York City had been an urban planning nightmare. There is more in the way of zoning as opposed to specific and strategic planning of the urbanscape, and as Rem Koolhaas puts it there is a Culture of Congestion[1] in the Big Apple. Yet, in the wake of the massive destruction at Ground Zero, a worldwide design competition was held and the resulting urban proposals for the site were astounding. With all the big names from the international architecture fraternity somehow involved in offering schemes for improving the urban condition of Lower Manhattan, it is little wonder that the New York State is undertaking its largest urban renewal project in decades[2]. A memorial, a new transit station, 7 blocks of skyscrapers and a new tower that will more than double the original land area[3] in terms of commercial usage.

Yet, urban renewal at this scale is no stranger to a city like Singapore, where the Urban Renewal Authority is granted a heavy hand in acquiring property and doling out land leases[4]. Entire precincts are erased in the name of urban renewal and the modernisation of the city, and of what little are left, stringent regulations govern their usage. But before this statement is judged as an overtly harsh critique of what essentially is the urban reality in Singapore, it can be tempered with parallels being drawn with New York. While New York grew under the strength of its commerce, Singapore grew under the strength of its government. In both cities, very little of history remains, and like Singapore, places where there are regulations pertaining to historical buildings like those along Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, the rules are just as stringent as in Singapore. With the development of the New Downtown at the Marina Bay in Singapore, a new and unique opportunity is presented for us to examine the urban design and planning of the entire district, and whether it takes a different approach as the utopian Modernism that has very much exemplified the current Central Business District. Will it take a post-urbanist or zeitgeistic stance and try to introduce the notion of bayside city living as touted in URA’s mantra of Live, Work, Play?

 

You need only to stand for a moment in Austin Tobin Plaza to become immediately and keenly aware of how [architect Minoru] Yamasaki’s abstract sculptural ethos achieved a kind of chilling perfection in his World Trade Centre design. Here you find yourself in the presence of two monumental structures whose formal relationship gives us no indication of their purpose or intent. You know they are office buildings, yet their design makes it nearly impossible to imagine that they are full of people. It is at this point that – even without invoking the optical trick of standing at a towers’ corner and looking upward – you realise the trade towers disappear as sites of human habitation and reassert their power at the level of aesthetic relationship. And it is through recognising this process that you may become uncomfortably aware of a kindred spirit linking the apparent realms of skyscraper terrorist and skyscraper builder.[5]

It seems appropriate to begin this essay with a quote from Eric Darton that asserts the World Trade Centre of Manhattan as the Janus Face of Architectural Terrorism[6]. As much as the World Trade Centre served as an icon of capitalist America and an omnipresent image burned into the retina of all New Yorkers, it was tolerated and not loved. Replacing iconic Radio Row, with a nearly criminal compensation of only $16,000[7] to the landowners when the Port Authority took over the land, the World Trade Centre muscled its way into the New York residents’ consciousness. Yet in its very existence it embodied the way in which New York grew: uncontrolled and barely regulated, the New York of the last 200 or so years was a symbol of capitalist urban expansion, with the wrecking ball sparing no building that yielded lesser property returns than the land it sits on held potential for. And yet, funded by government money and owned by the Port Authority, the birth of the World Trade Centre somehow seemed almost hypocritical to the zeitgeist of capitalist America, a contradiction that carries onwards to this day when different factions of those responsible for the reconstruction efforts of Ground Zero continue squabbling 5 years after the collapse of the Twin Towers[8].

As sudden and unexpected was the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the New Downtown development was as deliberately and carefully master-planned a reality, meant to increase the economic viability of Singapore and provide relief to the congested commercial district in the Shenton area. Embodying the URA mantra of Live, Work, Play, the New Downtown is to include luxury condominiums, waterfront aquatic sports centres and manicured botanical gardens set amidst fantastical architecture and infrastructure[9]. One can note the seemingly coincidental moniker of New Downtown draws comparison with that of Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Centre is located, which is known colloquially as Downtown as well. Whether Lower Manhattan was in the minds of the planners when they conceptualised the Marina Bay Development is anyone’s guess, but the notion of Central-Park styled apartments does raise some suspicion. Whatever the case may be, the parallels to that of Lower Manhattan can be readily drawn, beginning with the fact that both begin on a site that is largely clean-slated. Of course, a direct comparison might at first seem unbalanced, given the fact that the New Downtown development is many times that of the Ground Zero reconstruction, but when considered in terms of the expected sociological impact, the two developments are fairly comparable.

e–f

The urban realities of New York has been extensively documented, chiefly of which Koolhaas’ Delirious New York comes to mind, with his determination that the reason why New York is such an urban wonder is the juxtaposition of a multitude of different elements[10] creating a thriving vibrant urbanscape. In recent years, Peter Eisenman dismisses this view as “Rem Koolhaas’ urban theories of junk space… [are] not only cynical but nihilistic”[11], most recently at a discussion held at the University of Michigan. He instead proposes a new model of looking at this urban phenomenon, a form of so-called Post Urbanism, not New Urbanist nor Modernist, but rather as accepting that modernism has failed in other cities in the world and the reason why New York, specifically Lower Manhattan is so successful is the fact that the urban landscape embodies the zeitgeist of New York as a high-rise conurbanation based on a largely 17th century city plan. But the World Trade Centre destroyed this city grid, and because a large part of its access is from underground, the vibrant pedestrian traffic that existed at Radio Row went the way of the dodo as well. Ironically, in pandering to the public’s desire to preserve the footprint of the collapsed towers as a monument, the resulting masterplan by Libeskind did little to alleviate that problem.

The New Urbanism movement sought to reform all aspects of the urban environment and make it more habitable. In applying it to the World Trade Centre site, one can immediately see the failure of the site in conforming to the Charter of New Urbanism[12]. The original plaza was not pedestrian-friendly, there was a lack of direct ground-level access, the site did not conform to the city grid… The list could go on. Yet in its defence the World Trade Centre was a symbol of Manhattan, for its time the world’s tallest buildings. For as much as the buildings were loathed by urban designers it captured the spirit of capitalist America, and Libeskind’s new masterplan of the World Trade site captured that spirit; a series of 7 mixed-used commercial buildings and a tall skyscraper in its midst, the masterplan captured the spirit of the original site, while improving it with inclusion of a memorial park and cultural facilities. In defying the New Urbanist approach, which would have called for repopulating the site with residential units in the surrounding blocks and realigning it to the city grid, Libeskind sought to capture the spirit of the original site, while improving it with urban additions.

Yet even though the opportunity of a nearly tabula rasa site was presented, the public and the planning authority sought to return to the original design and layout as a kind of tribute, a kind of memory to a place that once existed. The irony of that was that New York has often been derided as a place where as usual in New York, everything is torn down before you had time to care for it[13].

Would the same have held true for a city like Singapore, where systematic urban renewal removes nearly any building that seemingly stands in the way of progress or good economic sense? Amidst public outcry, the park at Orchard Turn was removed, and now a mixed-use complex commanding one of the highest real estate prices in the city is currently under construction. Would the planning authority have stood down if the price of the land been lower? The complete removal of whatever visual relief within the shopping belt (the other being the recent sale of the Somerset carparks) creates this dense urban jungle that is not unlike New York in certain ways. In creating the New Downtown, URA seemingly looked to Mid-Manhattan and Boston as a model of a 24-hour city, with residential units interspersed within the district to create a population that would sustain and supplement the commercial developments within the area. In examining the urban developments of the New Downtown, we must first look at the failure of the Lower Manhattan, which in its essence is very much like our Orchard Road and Shenton Way districts.

In the early 1960s escalating land prices and the booming economy brought property prices within the Lower Manhattan district to dizzy highs, and commercial offices displaced residential developments, as the tenants could not afford to pay the high rents. Residential blocks were razed to the ground to make way for commercial skyscrapers, and Lower Manhattan ceased to become a 24-hour city as the residential population disappeared. Mid-Manhattan rose to become the new commercial centre as the old Downtown became some sort of B-grade accompaniment to the gleaming Mid-Manhattan reality of high commerce[14]. While to a certain degree that reality remained till today, the construction of the World Trade Centre brought a number of high profile companies back into the Downtown, and property prices once again rose to compete with the prime lots in Mid-Manhattan.

When the towers were felled, an opportunity to create a new centre in the Downtown presented itself, and the Lower Manhattan development authority sought to create a new commercial district within the old site, with a densification of the office floor area and campaigns to attract high-profile companies to occupy the site. With the campaign being driven by nationalistic pride to re-instil the site as a showpiece of capitalist success, the financial firm Goldman Sachs agreed to relocate their headquarters from Wall Street to the new development[15] and that spurred other tenants to purchase office space within that district. With the completion of the new development, it is hoped that Lower Manhattan would once again become the darling of all things capitalist.

A parallel can be drawn with the development of the New Downtown and the Shenton Way district. The recent proposal to build a financial complex designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox looks poised to compete with the developments in Shenton Way as well as the Suntec Convention complex[16]. As much as there was denial that it would pose direct competition as it catered to different markets, it wouldn’t be too naïve to imagine that the new financial hub will have a certain degree of influence on Shenton Way. Would it achieve the same aim as the new World Trade development and shift the centre of commerce to the New Downtown? The question itself is a complex one, as the New Downtown is an entirely new type of urban typology that is not seen in Singapore. In its aim to create a city that never sleeps, the New Downtown is the mantelpiece of this vision, an amalgam of luxury living and high commerce, like a Monaco mashed with, what else, a New York.

Whether it would work remains to be seen, but the notion is worth a closer inspection. A district of luxury residential developments, daytime commerce and recreational facilities seems on paper a highly viable model for a new format of city living. A most likely expatriate and upwardly mobile resident population, with economic power to pay for the expensive services that would be available in the area, as well as enough economic stability to patronise the golf courses and water sports facilities provided seem well poised to provide vitality to the district. With cultural provisions as well as 2 gardens by the bay and a huge aquatic sports centre, as well as close proximity to the Integrated Resort, the New Downtown seem to have the right balance to sustain it.

It seems well neigh to serve as a new urban playground for the nouveau riche, the well-off social elite of professionals and businessmen, as well as executives in the creative industry. Indeed, it seems that finally a culture of city living, where the populace hangs around the city to wine and dine, has finally arrived in Singapore. Finally Singapore has become a city that never sleeps, like a New York Times Square or London Soho. Yet when one examines this model closely, we notice disturbing fissures in its seemingly gleaming façade. What does it do for the average Singaporean who lacks the financial capabilities to justify spending nights out in such an area, the average Singaporean who forms the main bulk of the daytime traffic in the current Central Business District of Shenton Way? It is a resounding nothing, because the model serves only to create a kind of social stratification and elitist culture that far supersedes the social division that already exists within the populace of district 9 & 10 and your average Singaporean.

In creating an urban model that superficially recreates the environ of the Big Apple, URA strives to reinvent the notion of living in a global city-state, where the gleaming financial hubs do not go to sleep after 6, where the streets of the city does not grow quiet as the working population return to their sub-urban hinterland to retire for the night. And thus there is the urban proposal of a Singapore post-2001, a cityscape where people Live, Work, Play, where their lives are intimately intertwined with the very zeitgeist of city living, a post-urbanist landscape of high-rise residences interspersed within commercial skyscrapers. So in essence this model strives to reproduce what the Lower Manhattan might manifest come circa 2011 when the Freedom Tower and the surrounding developments are completed. And what a city it would be, finally a Tokyo or New York, right in the heart of Southeast Asia, a model for all to follow.

Yet upon close observation, the truth is further than it might first seem. In Manhattan, there is no suburbia so to speak. There are no urban hinterlands for the average New Yorker to retreat to after a day at work. Their lives are tightly intertwined with the city, where they literally live, work and play within the confines of their city of residence. Ground Zero and the surround precincts are devoid of populace on pure economic grounds, where land prices are too high to justify residential apartments. Instead, in the case of the New Downtown, such a resident population is artificially introduced through the inclusion of high-living amenities. And the demography of that population is not even that of the average Singaporean. He is not the proverbial man-on-the-street, who leads an entirely average existence, working to pay the bills. He is instead a financial high-roller or a upwardly mobile professional, a bourgeois in a land of nouveau riche, well informed in the finer side of living. Compare that to the average New Yorker, whose collective psyche shaped the designs for the Zero Ground reconstruction. The New York resident is not unlike the HDB heartlander, one who works to put food on the table, someone who works to fulfil his dreams of comfortably living in an apartment very much like the New Downtown residences, but less ostentatious, less bourgeois. And what recreation he needs, he gets when he steps out of his house onto the streets, where he can entertain himself or his friends just around the street corner.

An artificially introduced population to fulfil the mantra of Live, Work, and Play does not absolve the planning authority of any responsibility to turn the average Singaporean into a savvy urbanite. The HDB estates still remain a suburbia of public housing, of mundane living conditions where the resident has nowhere to go but to the shopping centre or the neighbourhood park. It has become but a cheap imitation of the American suburbia of strip malls sans opportunities for communal interaction and recreation. The average Singaporean has little say on the decision of the planning of the New Downtown, and as much as in typology it replicates American cities it fails in reproducing the cohesive consciousness that willed many of the American cities into being.

The inherent differences in an American city as compared to Singapore is glaringly obvious, and in the wake of the September 11 attacks it will become even more so. The American suburbia was a reaction against possible attacks against a major metropolis, and the exodus of populace in Lower Manhattan was as much a result of burgeoning property prices as it was about the terrorist attacks in 1993 and earlier[17]. In an age where residential population is moving away from urban concentrations of high profile, the Singapore model is trying to create highly visible urban landscapes with a sizable resident population. Is that a prudent step, one might ask in the light of the wave of global terrorist attacks?

Is the economic effort being pumped into creating the artificial environment that is the New Downtown justifiable? Does it better the life of the citizen? It surely does not conform to standard urban models; it is neither New Urbanists, with its dense concentrations of high-rise condominiums and commercial buildings, nor is it Modernist, with vague demarcations of residential and commercial boundaries. In that case, is it Post-Urbanist, like the Ground Zero reconstruction? While Libeskind’s proposal serves to rehabilitate a city of traumatised residents, and to address a would that would take years to heal, there is little in which the New Downtown can achieve in way of that, because it is built on reclaimed land, and is detached from the average Singaporean. It is not a symbol of national pride, neither is it a new model of living that would have direct effect on the typical local. It is merely a model for the city of the future, and yet, this model somehow seems to have little relation with the people it is supposed to benefit.

While as much as New York, specifically the Lower Manhattan district, has numerous shortfalls, and the disaster of September 11 offers it a unique opportunity to amend the shortfalls, the decision to rehabilitate and reconstruct the site was undertaken by consensus. It might not the most ideologically ideal situation, where it does not serve to reintroduce an absent population back into the district, but New York still remains New York, and the new development will serve to foster a tighter knit bond within the residents. In contrast, the New Downtown is the manifestation of a promise made to create a 21st century living into the Singaporean landscape, but instead of tackling a problem in-situ, the decision was made to develop a model which has little if any context and collateral benefit. Shenton Way will continue to be deserted; the common man will still be living in a suburban environment detached from his work. Instead of revitalising the city, the New Downtown may only serve to take attention away from the genuine problems that need to be solved.

 

Bibliography:

Koolhaas, R. (1994). Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press.

Koolhaas, R. & Mau, B. (1998). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.

Lim, W. (2002). Building Dreams . Singapore: Mediacorp TV12.

Sorkin, M. & Zukin, S. (Eds.). (2002). After the World Trade Centre. New York: Routledge.

Ockman, J. (Eds.) (2002). Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention. New York: Prestel.

Coaffee, J. (2003). Terrorism, Risk and the City: the Making of a Contemporary Urban Landscape. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Strickland, R. (Eds.). (2004). Post Urbanism & ReUrbanism: Peter Eisenman vs. Barbara Littenberg & Steven Peterson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2004). Imagining Ground Zero: Official & Unofficial Proposals for the World Trade Centre Site. New York: Rizzoli International.

Vale, L.J. & Campanella T.J. (Eds.) (2005). The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover Form Disaster. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, Y.C. (2005). Singapore 1:1 City: A Gallery of Architecture and Urban Design. Singapore: Urban Renewal Authority.

Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2006). Architectural Records [periodical], Issues June 2005 to September 2006. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fung, J.C. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore Architect [periodical], August/September 2006 Issue: Fun With(out) History. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Architects.

Teo, J. (2006). The Straits Times, 6th October 2006: Singapore’s Financial Hub Takes Shape. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings.

 


[1] Koolhaas, R. (1994). Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press.

[2] Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2004). Imagining Ground Zero: Official & Unofficial Proposals for the World Trade Centre Site. New York: Rizzoli International.

[3] 16 acres of land with 200,000 sqf. of space devoted to performing arts, and a further 250,000 sqf. devoted to the transportation hub by Santiago Calatrava. Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2006). Architectural Records [periodical], Issues June 2005 to September 2006. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[4] Koolhaas, R. & Mau, B. (1998). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.

 

[5] Darton, E. (1999). Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Centre. New York: Basic Books, 118-9.

[6] Sorkin, M. & Zukin, S. (Eds.). (2002). After the World Trade Centre. New York: Routledge.

[7] Darton, E. (1999). Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Centre. New York: Basic Books.

[8] The disagreements are well documented, and routinely appear in the Architectural Records feature on the reconstruction efforts as well as its critique columns. Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2006). Architectural Records [periodical], Issues June 2005 to September 2006. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[9] To quote from the URA website, “More homes will be built in the city. There are currently 30,000 housing units in the city. In future, four times as many people can live in the city. Those who prefer the downtown buzz can look forward to having 90,000 more units to choose from, mostly in the New Downtown at Marina South. The average plot ratio for housing in the New Downtown can be increased to between 6.0 and 7.0. In this way, the proportion of population living in the city will be increased from the current 3% to 7%, thus providing more housing opportunities for all in the city. This will build up a critical mass of population in the Central Area and add more buzz to the city. Those who choose to live here will be close to their place of work, thus making it convenient to travel to work. Care will be taken to ensure that the quality of the environment will not be compromised. In the future, Central Park-style apartments, which are a new type of high-density housing, will be available.” URA. (28/10/2006). Concept Plan 2001. URA website: http://www.ura.gov.sg/conceptplan2001/housing.html

[10] “…Simultaneous existence of different programs on a single site.” Koolhaas, R. (1994). Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press.

[11] Strickland, R. (Eds.). (2004). Post Urbanism & ReUrbanism: Peter Eisenman vs. Barbara Littenberg & Steven Peterson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

[12] http://www.newurbanism.org/charter.html

[13] Merrill, J. (1962). Water Street. New York: Athenum.

[14] Sorkin, M. & Zukin, S. (Eds.). (2002). After the World Trade Centre. New York: Routledge.

[15] Ivy, R.A. (Eds.). (2006). Architectural Records [periodical], Issues June 2005 to September 2006. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[16] “The release of the site for sale – it was originally slated for the first half of 2003 – was delayed twice amid developers’ fears that the huge site would cannibalise demand for space in the Central Business District.” The Straits Times, 6th October 2006.

[17] Coaffee, J. (2003). Terrorism, Risk and the City: the Making of a Contemporary Urban Landscape. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

 

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4 responses

25 08 2007
kx

nice. =)
Urban-socio-political commentaries that questions the meaning of urban decisions are so refreshing to read. =)

25 08 2007
engkiat

Wow you read the whole thing??
Well, maybe I’ll write something about the sad state of pearl bank apartments one of these days. its a major pity if it, and golden mile, should go. Systematic erasure of our architectural history and social heritage… I’m not sure that’s the urban reality I want…

13 09 2007
PressPosts / User / Mozkabi / Submitted

http://pressposts.com/Photography/Rehabilitation-Ground-Zero–New-Downtown-Essay-on-reconstruction–World-Trade-Centre–development–New-Downtown-in-Marina-Bay/

Submited post on PressPosts.com – “The Rehabilitation of Ground Zero and the New Downtown: An Essay on the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre and the development of the New Downtown in Marina Bay”

23 02 2013

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