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Building utopia: Stirling and Wilford’s Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore

The greatness of Stirling and Wildford’s last job together lies not in its grand gestures but in the way a huge programme has been transformed into a network of places linked in urban conversation

Originally published in AR June 1996, this piece was republished online in June 2016

Singapore is perhaps the nearest place there has ever been to Thomas More’s Utopia: pure and prosperous, a place where hard work and decency are enforced with severity. Part of the city-state’s success lies in providing excellent education. Stirling & Wilford’s contribution to Singapore’s polytechnic programme humanises what could have been a monstrous bureaucratic institution, by giving it dramatic figure and a network of gentle, particular places.

Temasek is just one of the four polytechnics in the Government of Singapore’s programme to educate the cohorts of managers, technologists and designers that it has decided are necessary to ensure the prosperity of the island state in the twentyfirst century. With no obvious resources of land, raw materials or fuels, the island state has to rely on the skills and brain power of its three-million population to provide goods and services that the rest of the world wants to buy. The Government’s almost Confucian policy of enlightened market management has proved so effective since the state became independent of Malaysia in 1965 that the average income is one of the highest in Asia, higher than in many European countries.1 But investment in infrastructure and in education must continue at ever-increasing pace if the multi-racial society and the economy are not to falter.

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The great horseshoe terminates one of the main avenues of the New Town. It is the administrative and formal hub of the polytechnic, raised honorifically above the main road

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The great window in the horseshoe relieves potentual claustrophobia and opens views over the edge of formal garden

Temasek Polytechnic will cater for 11 500 students, have about 1,000 academic staff and some 500 support employees. The accommodation for all these had to be built in one go: a huge undertaking that has virtually created an instant academic town some few kilometres to the east of Singapore City. The site must have been a tangle of untamed tropical rain forest a hundred years ago, but now that is almost impossible to imagine. lt lies a little to the north of the main motorway from the City to Changi airport.

Immediately to the east is the Tampines New Town, a product of one of the government’s earlier infrastructural projects in which much of the population of the old city was transposed from picturesque but insanitary slums to high-rise slabs which offer late twentieth-century internal decencies, and a measure of orderly open space with some well-used public amenities. To the south of the site is the Bedok Reservoir, and beyond that the rolling grassy hills and picturesquely disposed clumps of trees of what appears to be an eighteenth-century landscape park. In this direction, only the tropical heat and humidity (and the towers of another New Town) remind you that Capability Brown was not at work.

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Applied science school in foreground, horseshoe, then articulated ranks of labs and lecture theatres

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A long lens compresses central events. In the foreground is witch’s-hat-topped porter’s lodge, behind to the right, the glass pyramid that lights the foyer of the auditorium and theatre below

The centre of the polytechnic terminates a main north-south axis of the New Town across the local main road, Tampines Avenue One. A gigantic six storey horseshoe of building raised a further storey-height from road level terminates the view from the New Town and forms the focus of the institution. Yet the curve is not quite an ending. lt is pierced with a huge hole: a window that from road level shows the sky, but which gradually reveals the idyllic landscape to the south as you mount the ramp to the place enclosed by the horseshoe.

This plaza is the administrative centre of the organisation and provides a social focus, being surrounded by an arcade which shelters visitors to banks, shops, and exhibition galleries from tropical sun and showers. In a sense, the arcade is a modern extrapolation of that wonderful south-east Asian device, the five-foot way,4 into the late twentieth century. Above the arcade are the offices of the central administration, into which the library tower locks on the south side.

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Administration building and library: down axonometric

The horseshoe acts as the hub of the whole organisation. From it the spokes of the four schools: technology, business, design and applied science whizz out into the parkland. Technology and applied science form the long main front of the complex towards Tampines Avenue One. Their great length is broken down on the north s,ide by short projecting wings which have laboratories stacked over eight lecture theatres on the lower two floors. Between these orthogonal projections are clusters of special labs rotated at 45 degrees to the main axis to form stubby towers. Both these and the projecting wings are heavily carved into with strong notes of colour on the revealed inner faces: a device that gives human scale to the otherwise daunting length. (In the end, the long front wings will not be as dominant as they now seem, for the car parks that run between them and Tampines Avenue One will be shaded by large leafy trees.)

‘A strange, very slight whiff of old China in its eaves and curves, draws the whole disparate complex together’

The strategy of keeping the outer skin or carapace of the complex very pale lilac and allowing the inner parts exposed by dissections to glow with rich colour is one of the most fundamental place-making disciplines in the complex and refers to the Singapore tradition of using bright colours on buildings. The single-banked concourses that run along each school-spoke are both the main circulation arteries and channels in which casual social interaction is encouraged. They are covered, yet open at the sides to encourage cooling and through breezes. Individual schools are denoted by the colour of the ceilings, but the colours of the stout round columns that form a magisterial order as they march along the middle of the long plans are absolutely magical. it’s simply paint cadmium yellow, a vibrant but unstrident orange, scarlet a lovely dusky pale blue, a strange soft slightly purple brown, deep almost Prussian blue, aquamarine. Each colour has great particular intensity, and the columns seen in enfilade flicker away with a piper’s enticement. What could have been rather grey and rational academic pedestrian streets (though they could never have been quite that because of the views over the parkland and garden) have been given senses of place and procession by applied colour. How daring and naughty. The often vibrant colours of early Modernism have been lost in black and white photography, oxidised paints and the doctrine of truth to materials. We have to look back to the nineteenth century to see similar joy in applying colour, and perhaps even to the almost mythical magnificence of Greek paint to recall similar confidence in its use on such a scale. Undoubtedly, the colours will degrade over time as they are eroded by weather, light and students (though, in Singapore, the latter will perhaps not be as destructive as elsewhere). But the magic can always be restored easily, provided that the management keeps its nerve and commitment.

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Drama at the junction of library tower and the great curving window in the horseshoe

To the south of the two main frontal arms, smaller limbs containing classrooms project into the landscape. They are angled to maximise views over the lake and park. Three of them swell out on the ground floor to form school cafeterias in which the extraordinary variety of Singapore food is offered to students who eat among gardens under opensided curved canopies that are made of the green copper which covers all the roofs of the whole complex, and with a strange, very slight whiff of old China in its eaves and curves, draws the whole disparate complex together.

‘The strategy of making separate events in a landscape is continued outside the main complex’

There are two other spokes, of which the business school that points south-east from the hub is a re-working of the forms and organisation of the two main wings. The design school, which radiates to the southwest is different, with a central concourse between craft workshops to the east and double-height studios on the west. These are undoubtedly the most dramatic everyday teaching places in the.whole polytechnic. And the least disciplined: after so many standardised classrooms and lecture theatres, it is a relief to meet such places, full of change and determined differences of use made by the students.

We should go back to the horseshoe for a moment. Once you have been down one of the school-spokes, its ordering function becomes more clear. Each of the schools begins with a node (entrance, head, secretariat) that locks into the curve. The garden contained within the hub is very ordered (and its geometry spreads out into a wedge of formal garden that projects out from the Great Window). Within the enclosed garden are various events, for instance the circular porte-cochere for dignitaries who have been driven up the ramp, and the glass pyramid over the foyer to the auditorium and theatre below.

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School of Business and library: up axonometric

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Events in the plaza: behind the circular porte-cochere can be glimpsed the angles of a Stuttgart glazed porch that fronts the yellow brick arcade round the centre space

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One of the cafeterias at the ends of classroom blocks. It offers gentle transitions between garden and institution, individual, group and the general institution

The strategy of making separate events in a landscape is continued outside the main complex. To the south-east is the sports group; the central axis of the horseshoe helps define the edge of the student centre and central canteen, and to the west is the faculty club with its swimming pools and child care facilities. Furthest to the west are the three round towers of staff housing- the only residential accommodation on the site.

All the scattered parts of the complex can be reached under cover: an essential measure in a latitude where fierce tropical storms are experienced almost every day. Going to the end of the path that leads from the base of the horseshoe to the student centre, you turn round and see the mighty complex displayed, the mass of the design school, and beyond it, the ranks of the teaching limbs of the school of applied science on their coloured pilotis. Closer at hand is the Constructivist drama of the library tower crashing into the horseshoe, and the huge window in the horseshoe framed by its two flying floors.

These are memorable architectural events and give the new-born institution unforgettable presence. But the moments that remain most clearly in the memory are smaller and more tender: the lyrical flights of colour in the concourses, the internal bridges in the design school, the cafeterias among the luxuriant tropical vegetation. The greatness of James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s last job together lies not in its grand gestures but in the way a huge programme has been transformed into a network of places linked in urbane conversation.

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Banked lecture theatres on the north side are exposed through a carved-away skin of block

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Main auditorium under plaza

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In the tropics, pilotis can really work. For once, the strategy of opening the lower floors to the landscape has a real point, for it provides areas for quiet strolling and reading protected from tropical storms