Underbellies

I’ve always been fascinated by the underbellies of malls – hidden passageways, service ducts, rooftops, emergency stairwells. They are the unchartered, unexplored and neglected depths of human urbanity. If anything they are unpretentious in its utilitarian embrace of an industrial landscape.

The more ancient the mall, the more fun it gets.

So it was in this spirit that I, armed with a camera, had explored the ancient expanses of Golden Mile Tower and Golden Mile Complex last week, both of which are ageing malls tucked away in the outskirts of the city.

Golden Mile Complex was built in the 1970s with modern architecture ideals in mind – a utopian vertical city with integrated living, office spaces and entertainment. It was a physical personification of Le Corbusier’s philosophy: a machine of bare concrete and glass for the living, maximum efficiency and mid-century-modern utopia.

In many ways this metabolist movement has fallen into disrepair and decay. Far from a vertical city, it is a vertical slum. Both malls are now labelled as “dodgy” and “urban eye-sores”, inhabited by questionable tour agencies, massage parlours, Hinayana Buddhist parlours and Thai food stalls in a mess of colour and dimly-lit atriums. It feels like an alien landscape, divorced from the urbanity and swank of central Singapore with a swathe of disparate languages both printed and spoken as well as the quasi-legitimate businesses. Walking through the expanse of the mall feels like a trip through the noir eclecticism of the Blade Runner Los Angeles of year 2017, as if it’s a post-apocalypse Singapore, hijacked by acid rain and a migrant culture. It is a romanticised image but the reality is quite far from romantic.

Then again, there is an oppositional, if not also concomitant, tide of gentrification with the revamped retro Golden Theatre in Golden Mile Towers now occupied by an indie film outfit – The Projector with a co-op hipster cafe. (I attended one of the Singapore International Film Festival screenings there. Rather intriguing experience.)

A nice balance could be achieved between gentrification and conservation; and no way should this place be sanitised however dodgy it may be.

It has been a mightily immersive experience and I am starting to reconsider my love affair with modernist architecture.

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