Naima Morelli



Nature in Singapore

The garden city utopia was conceived well before Singapore would reclaim this title for itself. The term was first created in 1898 by utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard. The concept of having housing outside the city, providing to each house its own garden, was made possible by the brand new railroad, which made transportation possible. Again, it was a way to go home, away from the industrial pollution. This idea was successfully implemented in Anglo-Saxon countries. In the US especially, this sort of nuclear family solution came to correspond with the American dream.

As we mentioned earlier, suburbia proved problematic not only on a social level. There are also other problems involving a shortage of horizontal space, and most importantly, the transportation which made possible the idea of garden city must today be reduced for environmental reasons. Today’s transportation calls for a different conception of the garden city, a garden city that is mainly vertical, and that is what has been implemented by Singapore. In its modern idea of the Garden City, Singapore wants to show that nature and business can be integrated. The western division between leisure and work doesn’t have to be so sharp. Business life doesn’t have to necessarily happen away from nature, and be balanced by it. This corresponds, on a wider scale, to the dismantling of the idea of work-life balance, as if work and life would be two separate entities. What is valid for the individual is valid also for the wider community. It is true that there is a place to sleep, a place to work, a place to relax, but we must keep in mind that in our mind and life the boundaries are not so strict as walls.

Coming back to the idea of garden, we must keep in mind that postcolonial Singapore promoted an interweaving of built and grown environment blending nature with art and technological innovation for a more liveable social space. Researcher Emma Reisz [i] focuses on Singapore’s Botanical gardens to explain all the considerations around the function of the garden in the Lion City. She notes how the interweaving of built and grown environment, blend of nature and innovation, show Singapore’s concern with knowledge, science and livelihood of a city. Of course she doesn’t fail to highlight the economic reason why this happens: “Certainly Singapore Botanical Gardens, like Chinatown and the Raffles Hotel, survive partially as a historical theme park, where the selective packaging and marketing of the past emphasises the modernity of the present.”

In the first years of Singapore’s industrialisation, Lee Kwan Yew decided to wipe away all the signs of tropical nature, that was seen way too tighten to an idea of old colonial past. Modernity was not about palms, but rather about new skylines. It was then than a form of urbanism got rid of the jungle to create an urban jungle, so typical of Asian modern cities such as Hong Kong or Jakarta. He was basically contradicting the stereotypes, perpetrated by Sir Stamford Raffles, among others, was spending harsh words describing the natives of Singapore as lazy. Then at a given point he decided to step back. He understood that he didn’t want Singapore to be just like all other cities, but he wanted it to retain a particular “tropical” quality. The ultimate idea started by Lee Kwan Yew was one of a “tidy jungle”. He started replanting tropical plants that had been wiped out. There is a famous picture that is part of Ho Rui An’s work “Green Screen” that illustrates that. The interesting thing was that the plants selected were only the ones that will cohabit with the urban environment. Robert Zhao was telling me for example, when they found out a particular palm would fall down naturally after some years, they decided to take them all away, even if these were integral part of Singapore’s original environment. In the new conception of Lee Kuan Yew, tropical was no longer lazy, tropical was no longer exotic. Singapore would have shown the world what tropical modernity would look like. In this sense, Singapore was experimenting with new modes of life and a whole new conception of work and leisure, starting from their own background rather than subscribing hic et nunc to a colonial idea. It would be good if they would be able to do that with art criticism too. This idea of restoring the original environment is a clear mirror of Singapore looking at its past, and trying to reproduce it. Again, as it always happens, there are some missing parts and improvement in the process which makes the end result look nothing like the supposed original. It’s an exercise in honesty, that ends up becoming a mask. And that’s fine, as long as it creates something interesting. Singaporean writer Hidayah Amin said in an interview [ii] that: “If we don’t know where we come from and how we came to be here, how do we know where we are going and who we really are?” While economics is the generating factor in Singapore, this idea of the Garden City went beyond the simple tourist attraction for an economic revenue. With the Gardens by the bay and the Botanical Gardens, Singapore has created a projection of itself that goes beyond the physical space occupied by the garden. Unlike buildings, the garden is a living entity that continuously changes form, so it represents very well this idea of imaginary.

Relationship between humans and nature

There are two ways of looking at the relationship between humans and nature, and they both come down to our belief or disbelief in freewill. One perspective is deterministic. Our levels of civilisation and technology are all responses to a first ground zero which is nature, always underlying. It is all cause and effect. We human beings react to what our ancestors’ human beings have done to react against nature, which was possibly already reacting against human being’s impact on nature. In other words, there is a reason why we go there. And this is not outwardly, it is contained in nature itself. Technology and nature are not to be seen as opposites, if we look at it in terms of source. All the elements constituting an atomic bomb are found in the world, they are not from a divine source. Humans are just monkey who — thanks to Darwin’s law — became more intelligent that other human beings, so they could affect with the help of science the macro rules of nature, to alter micro-equilibrium. The way they used to alter what we call “nature” is not matter coming from another dimension. Is still within the characteristic of nature itself. But the farther the elements are transformed away from the source, the harder is for them to go back into the nature’s equilibrium. So even if an axe and an atomic bomb are constituted by the same particles presented in the world and by the same human mastery, the second has gone so far that you can’t possibly look at it from a source perspective anymore, but more in terms of effects. Effects that are unprecedented.

Science and technology though are capable of creating new equilibriums that nature wouldn’t have created if it was driven by a purpose. While not driven by a stated purpose, the same way us human like to do it, we of course know that nature has some laws. Merciless killing of the weaker as well as to get all its component to harmoniously work together are one of these. When we give life-saving medicines to one with chronic disease, or we create the aforementioned atomic bomb, we make love not for pleasure and not procreation, or we throw garbage into the sea. When we decide to became vegan or to start cultivating vegetables not native of our own country like, well, tomatoes for examples, we are all going against nature’s laws. And yet, we consider some of these things good and some others terrible.

The human moral code won’t ever align with nature, because we can’t resign with being simple functionaries of the species. Like the atomic bomb, nature made us intelligent, but we have evolved so far that even we can’t even conceive nature without our beliefs getting in the way. Unlike animals, we can’t ever be pure instinct anymore — we filter everything though our brain, making our perception of natural a “cultural” nature. We are no longer intelligent monkeys, but a new, different thing altogether. And that is because the human laws, a birth of the mind, have twisted rules that other species didn’t twist. Other species collaborate with the environment and fulfill their role within it, whereas the human has arrived at a point where can master nature. In this framework, nature is inherently neither good or bad, so are humans. Humans have only tried to survive, and every step they take to go up the entire Maslow’s pyramid has been done for a reason. What we consider “human”, therefore good, such use medicine to save the life of a sick person, is bad and contrary to the laws of nature.

The second way of looking at humanity is as if we had freedom of choice at every step of the way. This hypothesis works only if we consider our possibilities as infinite, or rather if we consider the fact that our brains and senses are faulty anyways, and can take into account only a few elements at times and in our reasoning they follow the principle of non-contradiction.

Of course we can’t go too far into the philosophical realm here, so we must take this simple reasoning sand speak primarily from a practical level, combining together both worldviews and seeing how artists have adopted them or mused around them. We must be aware there is a reason why we got here, but we must act as if we had freedom of choice. In that, some consider that to go back is impossible, so let’s go far out and conquer other planets, as some Elon Musk fan would say. Conversely, others look at nature growing though the cracks of dismantled buildings and think it is still possible to restore some kind of harmony. In architecture and urbanism, a middle ground between these two approaches seems to be a solution to many of modernity’s evils.

Control over nature

The urban and industrial societies made us more predictable and reliable, something we need as human beings if we want to function socially. Nature has its predictable laws, if you start knowing them. You can predict the season and an upcoming storm, maybe less so the attack of tiger. Humans could decide to keep their societies simple, shelter for danger and unpredictability and work with them, accepting violence as part of life. Many traditional societies, from Australia’s aboriginals to Native Americans to Indonesian did that.

Another way is to modify nature to deeply to make it so that human behaviour is not influenced by nature so much, and instead have humans decide what nature should do. Of course you can do that only up to a certain point. A hard rain is going to fall, and stronger viruses will grow, despite the use of vaccines.

The idea of control and safety is key when we think about nature. We can see that clearly in the way Singapore looks at nature. In its gardens, we see a continuous bouncing between the natural versus the artificial, the grown versus the built, the wild versus the controlled. Contrasting the idea of the Garden City, many Singaporean artists work with the idea of the forest. We see it also in architecture, with the hospital hosting a mini-forest inside. The untameable became tamed. So here is where the paradox lies. By making the life of the individual living in a first world country safer, we put life on the planet in danger.

The journalist, philosopher and activist Günther Anders said that humanity treating the world as something to throw away, is also treating itself as humanity as if it should be thrown away. In the first chapter, we saw how this happens with migrants, who according to capitalist diktats, in the best of cases are treated as mere resources. It all derives from the modern attitude towards nature, since the industrial revolution and then fuelled by a free market un-ethics, is to see it as productive. Taking productiveness as a benchmark, we can see how nature is productive in its own way. A lioness is certainly productive at her job of hunting the prey. They have a time to work and a time to rest. Their society is easier, their life is not necessarily easier in general, but they have plenty of time to nap. How did we lose that? And why? Should we believe Rousseau’s vision of the bon sauvage?

Network of nature

Nature is just like art. Nature is also the contrary of a spreadsheet: just like imagination, in its infinite depth. Having Singapore as an example, we know that everything in the way we conceive nature will change, just like the way we move our body has changed. Having breath, knowing how to climb a tree and running fast was a necessity back in the day. Today these things are no longer question of survival. We rely on treadmills or cyclettes or machines to keep us keep fit. Moving away from our body, or disconnecting the aesthetical aspect from the functional one inevitably shapes our idea of the body. We have gained a lot to not be subservient to the need of being fit all the time, but we also lose touch with a dimension of our humanity that will inevitably influence our mind too. We can do without, but if we have the chance to explore the body we should take that opportunity. The same with nature.

We must look critically at the changes in our conception of nature, and continually review what we are losing versus what we are gaining. And check with ourselves, our personal ethics, feelings and intuition if that is where we want to be heading. Then we must think that in the larger framework of our society. Art helps us to do that, both in a private and a public way. It can move an emotional response, but also spur intellectual curiosity. Exposing one’s self to art keeps us awake to the world, nature, our humanity and the ever present contradictions. And who knows? We might find ourselves being the last rebels in a beautiful, daylight dystopia.

[i] Postcolonial Urbanism

[ii] Interview with Stefano Romano