In this blog article, I recounted a recent visit to the URA centre, how it unfolded the tale of the Singapore River, as told by the paintings there.
URA is a statutory board that oversees the use of the land, what to build, what to demolish, and what to stay. In Singapore, this may sound like a practical business. The land here is pretty scarce, it is not surprising if the consideration is pretty much based on the necessities at the time and what brings the most economical benefit above all else.
As we gathered there at the lobby of the URA Centre, we were welcomed by a conservation management officer who struck immediately as an architecture-trained person, for the fact that he talked well about the artworks with the fine sensitivities of an art curator (and the fact that he was dressed quite architect-y :p). He explained that ministries and stat boards collected artworks which document and reflect the change of life in Singapore over the years. So it is no wonder and so fitting that the artworks at URA revolve around buildings and landmarks.
The triptych (three-panel painting) of Singapore River above the reception desk at the lobby stood out with its bloody red paint. And that, the guide of the day explained, was the very reason the painting was put there – to catch attention. Hopefully people will stay there a few seconds longer to ponder, and then decide to read the description and reflect on its significance. The redness symbolizes the forgotten cost of building a country, the tears, sweat and blood of the people whose voices were often not seen and heard. It is indeed an unconventional and interesting choice for an entrance painting.
There was another triptych hung somewhere on another level of the building which shows a less ‘upsetting’ scene of the river. I admire this one for a different reason. At one glance, the brushstrokes may appear unfinished and rough, but the next moment you realize that they are forceful strokes with a thoughtful colour palette that brings out the play of the bright afternoon sunlight on the river bank, making you want to squint your eyes for real . Read the description below for the interesting meaning of the three panels.
As we went upstairs, we also saw a series of maps of Singapore from as early as 200 years ago. A map is considered as an objective piece of document, as it points out the geographical phenomena of a place. However what is put and what is omitted are decided by the authority that makes the map, which in turn is influenced by the necessities of the time and the expectations of the city. A lot of maps back then put Singapore River as the centre of the maps, being the hub of the trade at that time. That was how we started the discussion topic on how artists’ choices influence what the future generation sees as important and beautiful.
Three water colour paintings by Lim Tze Peng: The Corner of Clarke Quay, Singapore River (Near Riverwalk and Galleria) and Amoy Street show the romantic spots in Singapore that were frequently painted by artists at that time. The guide noted that there is a preference to draw Singapore as it was in the past, and not so much the modern buildings. Are the modern buildings so unattractive to draw? Is modernity not something worth documenting (now that we have handy and advanced photography)? Also, if artists’ influence on people’s perception is so great, must there be more paintings on relatively more bland public housing to make people more affectionate of it? As we nodded away and reflected on these questions, I could not help but to think of groups like Urban Sketchers who go around drawing Singapore… so their role now is like that of the artists in the past: the custodian of memories of the future generation. However, to what extent it will be the same, is still a subject of an interesting discourse.
There were many other prolific paintings being shown to us. This particular oil painting below is interesting as there is more than what meet the eyes. The dark foreground looking out out to the bright background of Singapore, airy, clean and safe represents the artist (and the country’s) aspiration and positivity for a brighter Singapore. I also like how the painter cleverly inserted the year of the painting (1982) as the name in the boat.
The tour was aptly sealed with us doing a panoramic city sketching on the highest floor of the building (from which we could view the city around us). Geared with the newfound insights from the paintings we did earlier, we observed the buildings with a deeper understanding.
The URA Center is located at the Maxwell Road just across the Maxwell Food Centre. The last time I went there I remember there was a very long queue outside a chicken rice stall by the name of ‘Tian Tian Chicken Rice) who got even more famous after the chef won the cooking contest against Gordon Ramsay. I decided to try it after my tour as the queue was not that bad on that day. It tasted quite good, fragrant rice and tender meat… though it is more expensive – 5 dollars per plate, as compared to 3 dollars per plate from another chicken rice stall next to it (but then also, my untrained tongue would have not been able to tell the difference between them :p).