written by Patricia Chia
Singapore’s suburbs are by and large the same: high-rise McMansions dotted with a measured provision of neighbourhood amenities, delicately dispersed places of worship, served by ample roads, bus routes, a train station, and sizeable shopping mall at the “heart” of the town. The self-contained satellite suburban towns of Singapore are easy to identify, but difficult to distinguish from one another; they share multiple common characteristics, rendering them interchangeable and at times indistinguishable.
How can we understand the urban and architectural condition of Singapore’s suburban sameness? The Suburban Mall, a cornerstone of the development of these decentralised towns, provides a lens through which to understand the state processes and urban conditions that resulted in sameness of Singapore’s suburbia, and in so doing, uncover the characteristics, outcomes and implications of suburban sameness.
Same Intended State Function
The first commonality suburban towns share is their genesis from the same state agenda to ease congestion from the city centre and cater for future island-wide development. The pressing need for a national urban growth strategy, strong state backing, and limitations of the small land area of the city-state, made it possible for this to be achieved within a single parti diagram.
The first iteration of this diagram emerged in Singapore’s first Concept Plan of 1971. The existing structure of centre and periphery was disrupted with an open lattice of expressways strung with high-density satellite towns. The vision was that if housing, employment and recreation were brought into the suburbs, congestion within the city centre would be eased significantly. By 1991, the abstract “ring” parti had been further developed into a “constellation” plan; radial and circumferential Mass Rapid Transit corridors were laid out in a fan-like urban structure, with a hierarchy of regional, sub-regional and fringe commercial centres identified at intersections. Emphasis was placed on commercial centres outside of the city centre, their sizes increasing with their distances from the city centre – a clear disordering of the centre-periphery model. The aspiration of these Regional Centres was to be the “commercial and cultural hub” of their region with an “identity of their own” – a compelling dream amenable to nation-wide buy-in.
Concept and Master Plans were aggressively brought to life, marked by the opening of the first major Suburban Mall in Yishun in 1992. A slew of malls followed, significantly increasing the stock of commercial centres outside of the city centre. Ironically, the intended uniqueness of each suburban town resulted in an architecture of sameness rather than differentiation. Commercial displaced cultural, as it proved difficult for multiple unique identities to be constructed within the same social, spatial and economic parti. The stock of Suburban Malls that has emerged over the last two decades serve as a body of both isolated and collective case studies for the examination of surburban sameness.
Same Urban Context
At the urban scale, Suburban Malls bear uncanny similarities with each other. Firstly, they are typically located at major transport nodes, specifically at Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations, often within walking distance of a bus interchange. This typified urban condition is the result of the direct translation of the Concept Plan parti diagram and planning intention for the node to be accessible to as large a population as possible. In Tampines Regional Centre, for example, Century Square, Tampines Mall and Tampines 1 flank the West and East of the Tampines MRT station. While in Jurong East, JEM, Westgate and JCube border both sides of the Jurong East MRT Station and Temporary Bus Interchange.
Secondly, Suburban Malls form the largest social centre of the suburban town, with the size of their land parcels being considerably larger than other neighbourhood amenities. Tampines Mall sits on a 12,600 sqm land parcel, while JEM sits on a 19,125 sqm one; both comparable in size to the mall parcels along Orchard Road,, signifying the intention for them to be suburban substitutes of the city centre. The mall is positioned as the “heart” which forms the focal point of activity and services for the resident population. It is typically surrounded by swaths of high-rise housing, other amenities such as sports, education and park facilities, and sometimes offices or industrial estates.
Programmatically, Suburban Malls are almost identical copies of each other. Walk through the basement floors of Lot One and Clementi Mall and you would be unlikely to remember one from the other. EAT., Gong Cha, Hockhua Herbal Tea, KFC, Old Chang Kee, NTUC Fairprice, NTUC Unity Healthcare, Pet Lovers Centre, StarHub, Subway and Watsons are just some of the tenants the two malls have in common on their basement floors alone. What is even more striking is that many of these shops can be found on the basement floors of malls in the city centre as well. The aspiration for each suburban centre to be a “mini-city” was implemented quite literally – many developers sought to bring the “Orchard Road shopping experience” to the suburbs, resulting in dozens of the same chain stores being replicated island wide. Even high-end brand names such as Estee Lauder’s Clinique chose to set up its first free-standing store in Asia in the atrium of Causeway Point in Woodlands rather than in Orchard Road.
Soon the “success formula” for Suburban Malls was popularised, to be applied to all malls as a sure-fire guarantee of their survival. Key tenants typically included a supermarket, department store, foodcourt, Cineplex, fast-food and other F&B outlet, thereby perpetuating the development of homogenised malls.
The archetypal conditions of land parcels being of standard sizes and formulaic contents of Suburban Malls, could only perpetuate a sameness in the architectural form of the malls. With revenue maximisation as a top priority on the agenda, there could only be one strategy – to maximise the development potential of the site by maximising its allowable buildable envelope.
Singapore’s first Suburban Mall – Northpoint (1992) in Yishun, is an archetype of this form. The building footprint is the result of the required building setback, taking on even the filleted curve of the junction between Yishun Avenue 2 and Yishun Central. This footprint was then extruded seven storeys resulting in an L-shaped box. The box is lifted up on a colonnade on the first storey as a generic gesture that allows for vehicular ingress and egress, drop off, and pedestrian walkway. Fenestrations or façade articulation are deemed superfluous, with elevation space on the façade given instead to large billboards and business signs. Other malls which follow this similar archetype include Tampines 1 (1995) and Causeway Point (1998) in Woodlands.
Variations of this form developed through the 90’s, though largely adhering to the principles of maximising retail and advertising space. In White Sands Mall (1997) in Pasir Ris, two semi-barrel vaults break the monotony of the flat roof, though the opaque box envelope remains true to the first archetype. In Lot One (1997) in Choa Chu Kang, the opaque box is broken up by isolated segments of glazing on the second storey and roof. However, the glazing remains opaque, with most being covered by advertisements, or rendered in highly reflective blue-tinted glass, thereby limiting any transparency between interior and exterior.
The late 2000s saw an interesting development of the Suburban Mall typology. Following URA’s efforts to rejuvenate Orchard Road through the incentivisation of façade articulation and porosity, contemporary Suburban Malls were observed to imitate the decorated and glazed facades of the city. The earlier syndrome of replicating the “Orchard Road Shopping experience” through programme had now advanced to architectural treatment. Costly facelifts in Orchard such as that of Paragon (2009) and Mandarin Gallery (2010) transformed mall frontages into completely transparent facades. Shortly after, Suburban Malls such as Clementi Mall (2011) and 112 Katong (2011) were observed to open up their frontages – a stark contrast from the earlier opaque box typology. 112’s façade fronting East Coast Road extending to the turning of the junction corner is treated completely in glass. Similar Suburban caricatures were observed after Wisma Atria completed its second facelift in 2012 that transformed its monolithic blue façade into a “jewellery box” of flamboyant triangulated planes and glazed shopfronts. JCube (2012) and Seletar Mall (2014) followed suit with similarly unresolved diagonals and porous treatment. In both projects the lifted box form is retained, with generous façade space given to business signs and advertisements.
Dangers of Sameness
With context, contents, form and façade so strikingly similar, the original vision of each suburban centre having a distinct identity of its own is flatly denied; the early promise of Tampines being a “tropical suburbia” like no other place in or around Singapore”  is laughable.
Many building forms are categorised as types precisely due to their common characteristics. For instance, shophouses are typically two- to three-storeys high, identifiable by their clay tile pitched roofs, five-foot-ways, narrow fronts, internal courtyards, and similar façade colours and ornamentation. But what makes the sameness of the Suburban Mall so dangerous is the conflict it poses against the intention of the centre to be an identifiable “heart” of each town – a social hub for the local population to gather, interact, and form collective social memories.
One example of how this sameness is detrimental to the community is the consistent consequential loss of the street. Crowds flood the store aisles, escalators, and basement corridors throughout the week, but seldom are people seen gathering outside of the mall or in the spaces around them. Furthermore, the maiming discharge of commuters from these major transport nodes render the street experience one of unsympathetic jostling, claustrophobia and speed. The close adjacency of Suburban Malls to transport infrastructure means that pedestrian entry into to these malls is typically taken directly and with great immediacy from the transport discharge point – be it at street level, the second storey, or underground.
The high level of interiority of Suburban Malls is further exacerbated by their lack of architectural response to the exterior urban context, blatantly represented through the mall directories mounted throughout the malls. The floor plans on the directories are simplified to lines and icons demarcating shops, circulation and toilets – essentially the only significant architectural elements of a mall. Any surrounding urban elements such as roads, or landmarks are typically completely white-out; all urbanity outside of box shell of the malls entirely ignored and deleted. The maze-like mall corridors and non-descript interiors call to mind the of disorienting curvilinear roads and cul-de-sacs, or “hopeless chicken scratches”, of America’s suburban towns. Residents of the area can only rely on chain stores such as “Uniqlo” or “H&M” as orientating devices, a deep perversion of historic towns, where streets are terminated with civic buildings.
Promises of Distinctiveness
With Suburban Malls planned at contextually identical sites, developed by the same handful of developers, managed and owned by the same Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and leased to the same chain stores, Suburban sameness is stuck in a spiral of mimicry, replication, and homogeneity. The dystopian vision of a 719.1 square kilometre city-state made up of cut-and-paste towns is surely a call to action for distinctiveness. So how then could we possibly break away from the sameness of Suburbia to allow for the emergence distinctive future? The potential for uniqueness lies in the disruption of the cycle through allowing for different models for ownership, development and growth to take place. From the planner’s perspective, the “heart” of the town need not be marked by shops, cinemas and restaurants within a single building footprint owned and managed by a single entity. From the resident’s perspective, more can be done to nurture, articulate and exert a collective neighbourhood identity through bottom-up counter-proposals to the top-down modus operandi. Only through iterations of such a dialogue can the cycle be broken.
Duany, A., Plater-Zyberk, E., & Speck, J. (2001). The Devil Is in the Details. In A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, & J. Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl And The Decline Of The American Dream (pp. 39-58). New York: North Point Press.
Goh, C. K. (1999, April 29). Keeping up with retail in the suburbs. The Business Times, p. 43.
Reutens, L. (1991, September 14). Tampines, a dream city come true. The Straits Times, p. 16.
Tan, S. Y. (1999, October 8). Clinique opens 1st Asian 'store' in Woodlands. The Business Times, p. 31.
The Straits Times. (2015, July 15). Who owns what. Retrieved from The Straits Times: http://www.straitstimes.com/sites/default/files/attachments/2015/07/15/st_20150715_map15_1513347.pdf
Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1991). City For Business. In URA, Living The Next Lap: Towards A Tropical City Of Excellence (pp. 18-21). Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2009, July 6). Urban Design (UD) Plans and Guidelines for Orchard Planning Area - (A) Revision to Urban Verandah Guidelines (B) Revision to Façade Articulation Guidelines. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/circulars/2009/jul/dc09-14
Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Concept Plan. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/concept-plan.aspx?p1=View-Concept-Plan&p2=Concept-Plan1971
Yap, E. (1995, September 30). Retail on trial in Tampines: changing the face of shopping in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 1.
Yap, E. (1995, August 22). Tampines Mall hooks in big-name family stores. The Straits Times, p. 3.
 Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Concept Plan. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/concept-plan.aspx?p1=View-Concept-Plan&p2=Concept-Plan1971  Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1991). City For Business. In URA, Living The Next Lap: Towards A Tropical City Of Excellence (pp. 18-21). Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.  Ibid.  ION Orchard sits on 18,000sqm of land.  The Straits Times. (2015, July 15). Who owns what. Retrieved from The Straits Times: http://www.straitstimes.com/sites/default/files/attachments/2015/07/15/st_20150715_map15_1513347.pdf  Yap, E. (1995, September 30). Retail on trial in Tampines: changing the face of shopping in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 1.  Tan, S. Y. (1999, October 8). Clinique opens 1st Asian 'store' in Woodlands. The Business Times, p. 31.  Ibid.  Goh, C. K. (1999, April 29). Keeping up with retail in the suburbs. The Business Times, p. 43.  Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2009, July 6). Urban Design (UD) Plans and Guidelines for Orchard Planning Area - (A) Revision to Urban Verandah Guidelines (B) Revision to Façade Articulation Guidelines. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/circulars/2009/jul/dc09-14  Reutens, L. (1991, September 14). Tampines, a dream city come true. The Straits Times, p. 16.  Duany, A., Plater-Zyberk, E., & Speck, J. (2001). The Devil Is in the Details. In A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, & J. Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl And The Decline Of The American Dream (pp. 39-58). New York: North Point Press.