Written by Calvin Chua
Duo, a joint partnership between the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore and Malaysia and designed by Buro Ole Scheeren (Buro-OS) with DP Architects, is conceived as a mixed-use development on a site adjacent to Kampong Glam and Bugis Junction that fronts both Parkview Square and the Gateway.
Comprising offices, hotel, residences and retail spaces, DUO appears to be a typical real estate development, one that intensifies land use and maximises real estate gains. However, the design ambition of Buro-OS suggests otherwise. The mission, as described by Scheeren, seeks to reverse the isolation of individual towers by carving the building volumes to generate civic spaces.
This is typical Ole Scheeren, starting from his days in OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture), where the bigness of the architecture is ‘humanised’ through the strategic injection of public spaces. The public viewing loop in the CCTV Tower in Beijing, the introduction of streets along the parking podium in Angkasa Raya in Kuala Lumpur and the cascading terrace podium in the Mahanakhon in Bangkok are a few examples.
But is DUO really a “civic nucleus symbiotically inscribed within the city” or is it an isolated tower disguised as an urban connector through amenities at the podium level?
For years, the DUO site was isolated and disconnected from the rest of the city. Conceived as part of a linear urban development belt for the length of Beach Road, and despite the Golden Mile Complex setting the megastructure foundations for this continuous urban room, this urban connection dream never materialised. What resulted was the opposite, a piecemeal collection of disconnected towers designed by foreign star architects of respective generations – The Concourse by Paul Rudolph and The Gateway by IM Pei.
The area is landlocked in a sea of major road infrastructure. In particular, the plot that DUO sits on is surrounded by major six-lane vehicular roads – Rochor Road, Ophir Road, North Bridge Road and Beach Road – that connect to expressways. Before DUO, the site is a no man’s land Pedestrians typically walk from Bugis Junction towards Kampong Glam, skipping Parkview Square all together.
In that respect, DUO is not another mixed-use development. It is a project that attempts to resuscitate this part of the city through its connections to the MRT Downtown Line and retail programs.
DUO does not feel like an isolated podium tower building. Instead, one is drawn into the circulation flow on various levels of the podium. In a simple move, DUO’s podium encloses Parkview Square in a horseshoe configuration. Such a move completes the site and generates a natural circulation path that connects visitors from the Downtown Line to the adjacent plots – Kampong Glam and The Gateway – in a centripetal manner.
The importance given to connectivity and circulation can be felt through the emphasis allocated to the vehicular and pedestrian pathways. The drop-off points for the office, hotel, and residences are distributed in a sequential manner on an elevated driveway.
Elevating the drop-off route releases congestion on the ground and gives the ground back to pedestrians. Also, it establishes a plinth-like condition that frames a courtyard located in the heart of the urban block. The plinth establishes a comfortable visual relationship between Parkview Square and the landscaped park on the ground for visitors waiting at the drop-off area.
In addition, a staircase almost the width of a single-lane road (the width suggesting equal importance placed between pedestrians and vehicles) connects the ground level junction on the south side to the upper-level drop-off. It will serve as a major circulation path when the building is fully occupied,
Given the project’s strong emphasis on urban circulation, it seems a little strange for Scheeren and his team to describe the resultant ground condition as an ‘urban poche’. The idea of the ‘poche’ belongs to a discourse that celebrates the contextual sensitivity of fine urban grain of the traditional European city. DUO is massive and although the ground is described as a permeable landscape with walkways punctured through the various retail volumes, one feels the street as a circulation path more than a site of serendipitous encounters.
This is where Scheeren’s ‘sensitivity’ towards the Asian urban context and his formative years at OMA play important roles. Buildings like DUO reveal the paradigm of ‘Bigness’, a condition first verbalised by Rem Koolhaas, where buildings beyond a certain size stop becoming contextual in the classical sense and starts to respond instead to the complex urban forces.
“Bigness no longer needs the city, it is the city”. In that vein, DUO embraces infrastructural connections, and attempts to connect visitors to the building and the neighbouring plots. More importantly, by suppressing the banal characteristics of the rectangular plot, it subtly stages a ‘culture of congestion’ through the curved movements of the building volumes and circulation paths where the theatricality is not just in the building form but also accentuated by the movement of people and vehicles.
This narrative of ‘congestion’ is both functional and representational; traits evident in some OMA projects Scheeren directed in Asia which I believe, to some extent, shaped his design strategy for an Asian urban context. The Leeum Museum in Seoul represents ‘congestion’ through the undulating ramps while the Taipei Performing Arts Centre exacerbates ‘congestion’ by creating circulation routes within an urban site that is already very active. Essentially, these projects reveal an embrace of the urban condition while surrendering to the urban complexities of the site.
The building volumes have been generated through a subtractive process. Subtracting the imagined massive volumes with a series of diagrammatic circles, a dynamic concave form is generated while allowing the towers to maintain their slender rectangular profile. The treatment of the façade is also strategic, where the multiplication of hexagonal fins accentuates the curvature of the tower while the narrow vertical fins reinforces the verticality. In tribute to its neighbouring buildings, a view corridor was established between the postmodern-Gothamesque Parkview Square and the angular Gateway.
However, the pursuit of pure geometrical massing results in apartment layouts that may be less than ideal. The curvature of the façade results in an east-west orientation for most of the living spaces and questionable internal circulation in some of the units. The office tower features floor plates defined by a generic typical plan around a central core.
DUO belongs to an increasing number of mixed-use developments in Singapore with well-connected access to public transportation nodes. Though the typical podium-tower typology is used, DUO is different from others.
DUO is as much a transitional space as it is a destination and its success can be measured by its connection to neighbouring urban blocks. With a site amputated from the rest of the city by motorways, one can either enforce specific physical connections to adjacent blocks or simply provide a framework to encourage connections to take place. Ole Scheeren chose the latter through the introduction of dynamic circulation routes and generation of active spaces on the ground. Through the building geometry and circulation pathways, the ambition of this project lies in it being an urban connector to stitch disparate parts of the city together.