Co-Written by Ronald Lim and Teo Yee Chin, All images courtesy of DP Architects
Standing prominently next to the Tampines Regional Centre is Our Tampines Hub (OTH) - a massive mixed-use lifestyle and public service complex of unparalleled scale designed by DP Architects and completed in 2017. Helmed by People's Association, in collaboration with Sport Singapore and National Library Board amonst other agencies, this facility is one of many recent XL-scaled mixed-use urban complexes that are emerging in Singapore.
Other complexes in this family of super-large civic buildings include Kampung Admiralty and Heartbeat@Bedok. Offering a centralised urban and architectural experience, these projects integrate programmes that used to inhabit lone buildings like the recreation centre, government office, or even the hawker centre. Offering respite from Singapore’s intense climate, their “city rooms” interiorise many public realm activities commonly associated with outdoor urban settings and streetscapes.
Many Things in One
As a public sector driven “whole of government” initiative, OTH is a one-stop-shop of civic, recreational, institutional and public service functions appended with a retail basement. This facility integrates such a staggering range of amenities that we need to rely on a list to communicate its major programs:
· Public Service Centre – integrated service front for 7 government agencies
· Hawker Centre – 43 stalls
· Regional Library – 180,000 square feet
· Football Stadium / Town Square – 5000 seats
· Festive Plaza – public event space
· Indoor Sports Hall – 1800 seats
· Community Auditorium – size of 20 indoor badminton courts
· Court Arena – 4 tennis courts, 2 futsal courts, 1 hockey court
· Swimming Complex – separate competitive and leisure pools
· Elevated jogging track
· Health and Wellness Cluster – Family Medical Centre & Community Health Centre, Sports Clinic, Wellness Centre.
· Senior Care Centre
· Kids Playground
· Rooftop and Community Gardens
· Retail F&B basement, including supermarket
And this encyclopaedic list is not exhaustive. OTH’s programmatic range engenders a sense of wonderment at what is possible in this candy store of amenities. Who would have thought to pair a Public Library with a Football Stadium, or to place a Hawker Centre (with its hustle-and-bustle and stimulating aromas) below a Medical Centre or Indoor Sports Hall? The confluence of these multifarious amenities under one roof – almost against common intuition – yields such unexpected synergies as to create a stunning urban machine that brims with life.
Perhaps more so in Singapore than anywhere else, public architecture exists as a physical culmination of a specific policy agenda – one that is continually reviewed and updated. One needs only examine recent showcase projects like Skyville@Dawson or National Heart Centre Singapore to recognise this nexus of public policy and design. In a similar vein, OTH would be impossible without this underlying software – an ambitious state agenda to re-imagine public service, including some tolerance for “creative destruction” in the habits of bureaucracy. Its raison d’etre is to provide a seamless, collaborative “whole-of-government” experience, breaking down "silos" amongst agencies in the process.
Historically, the urban experiment of mixing and integrating uses – including public amenities – into a one-stop complex has gone on since the 1990s. For example, the Marine Parade Community Club (built in 1999) was one of the first multi-program public projects, pairing a public library with a community centre. Other iterations of this experiment include locating community uses inside shopping malls or adjacent synergistic uses in the public library (e.g. Central Library) or research complex (e.g. Fusionopolis at One North).
In weaving diverse programmes together, OTH shows that a positive outcome is possible when the right intentions exist beyond lip service. The project’s conceivers were sincere in wanting a coordinated, synergistic response to stakeholder needs in granular details. Even formulating the intricate brief was a painstaking and time-consuming process. For one year, the project team solicited feedback and shepherded consensus decisions across 12 different stakeholders – a herculean undertaking. The project architects deserve credit for successfully managing this complicated – even unwieldy – process to a successful outcome.
In essence, the complex is organised around a main pedestrian passage called the Festive Walk on the north of the site. This passageway completes the urban continuum from Tampines Central Park to the Tampines Regional Centre, inviting pedestrians to traverse this space in both directions. This space is broad and generous – a 5-storey naturally ventilated and daylit passage fed by activity generating uses like the hawker centre, Public Service Centre and Festive Plaza event space. Secured entrances also feed into the Town Square from this space.
The Town Square, primarily a football field and stadium, doubles as a space for community events. Spatially, it is also a communal courtyard to adjacent programmes like the library – feeding daylight and an awareness of adjacent unrelated events in this enormous complex. In particular, the library wraps the field on its south and east over four floors.
Above the fourth storey, the Festive Walk’s lively atmosphere diminishes as large quieter sporting programs like the running track and ball courts assert their presence. Here, the plan spreads itself organically beyond the confines of the linear atrium.
The sheer variety of different programs begs the question of how to legibly organise the building in architectural and experiential terms. Interestingly, the Festive Walk experience – where most visitors begin and end their OTH visit – is an adaptation from the shopping complex familiar to many locals. Within this space, one recognises such common tropes like the atrium, the escalator, the glass shopfront, and even the carpark and retail pairing in the basement. Whether to a retail shop or a public amenity, the access is remediated through this common Festive Walk space – resulting in a blurring of the lines between public and private. In fact, one may even interpret OTH as a shopping podium that retails public amenities for easy consumption.
Consumerism has permeated our lives to the extent that public agencies feel compelled to offer something bigger and flashier to attract the masses, jazzed up with retail and F&B. Ultimately, these community facilities compete for human attention with other leisure and entertainment options – including other malls. In that sense, it would be interesting to compare footfall at the adjacent malls before and after the opening of OTH – to see if OTH successfully beat them at their game.
With due fairness to OTH, this building is more than a mall. The Festive Walk may read like a shopping atrium, but its urban performance is something better. This is possibly the Singaporean equivalent to Walter Benjamin’s Parisian arcades – a liminal urban space that is neither interior nor exterior and full of human life, connecting to the city beyond.
The overlay of large spaces and how people move in and around them adds a dimension of complexity to the building. Spatially, the swimming pool, rock wall, jogging track and stadium all create moments of surprise that break the predictable “atrium-and-aisle” format. This is possibly the most productive aspect of the programmatic experiment.
In a building as immense and large as OTH, wayfinding promises to be a challenge. With so many horizontal and vertical spatial layers, formal differentiation of the components may well create visual chaos. As agreed with various stakeholders, it was decided that a singular expression would serve the building best – alongside a generic wayfinding navigation system and simple large textual signs. In this large building, the user is often obliged to rely on digital directories that are at times counter-intuitive and cumbersome. In subtle ways, the type of wayfinding used reveals the limits of programmatic diversity in a building.
Facade / Form
The building form – when viewed from the exterior – expresses itself as a dynamic inter-twining of horizontal programmatic strips. While there is an expression of continuity and flow and the striations maintain a sense of scale, the facade could go further to announce itself as a building of public character. But one wonders, was this new breed of civic edifice even meant to look like one?
Equal parts glazing and aluminium cladding, the building’s appearance retains a kinship with the commercial mall. Perhaps, like the interior mentioned earlier, this is not entirely unintentional. Porosity on all sides however, keep it a public building in operation. According to the architects, ground accessibility was the key focus, with 85% of the ground dedicated for publicly accessible facilities for larger inclusivity.
Important Questions in Conclusion
In a building with twelve stakeholders, the larger issue of the singular versus the collective emerges. If it is impossible to articulate everything, which part do we privilege? Does diminished articulation of the individual part necessarily imply an agreement to co-exist and collaborate? Does a generic visual same-ness necessarily unify? These are questions that need to be carefully considered not just in big buildings, but in the future development of our cityscape.
Even as we ponder the above questions, the public has voted with its feet, coming here in large numbers even on a mundane weekday afternoon. That this stunning urban machine can draw such crowds and brim with life is perhaps a sign that it has nailed a secret urban formula. This result must be gratifying to the project architects, who made the right urban moves and addressed the brief with a multi-programme facility that works effectively.
 See article by Peter Ho, former Head of Civil Service, in The Straits Times, "The Black Elephant Challenge for Governments", 7 April 2017