Friday, July 22, 2011


I'm in Singapore this week, visiting friends and en route to Indonesia. The last time I spent some time here was twenty years ago, except for a very brief visit in 2000. The difference in twenty years is remarkable. The city seems to have loosened up a great deal, the river front has been rejuvenated and is flanked by scores of outdoor restaurents that, in turn, are backed by pubs and clubs. The most clear difference is the enormous number of new buildings. The city boasts of high rises designed by the likes of I. M. Pei, Kenzo Tange and Norman Foster. The new Marina Bay Sands complex, with three fifty story towers that are topped by a gigantic concrete boat containing a beach and infinity pool (fifty floors above the ocean!!) - well, maybe some like it. It is remarkable, that's for sure. I've never seen a building like it.

The Marina Bay Sands - Three 50 floor towers capped by a concrete ship

And then there is the beautiful new theatre arts centre, the Esplanade, designed by Michael Wilford. It now gives to the mouth of the Singapore river an iconic building to rival Sydney Opera House (I guess that's the point.)

The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore

Yesterday we criss-crossed the city by foot, from Little India, though Arab street and the colonial quarter along the river front to Marina Bay. Along the way we stopped to see Norman Foster's new Supreme Court Building.  Its flying saucer roof provides the city with another iconic architectural feature, though it does blend with the dome of the old court house, which is presently being renovated and will become a museum. As we entered the lobby of the Foster building we were confronted with a barricade of x-ray machines and security guards. After being frisked and having had our bag checked, our camera was removed and we had to sign a form in order to deposit it in a locker. We had forgotten to bring IDs but luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, we weren't asked for any. When signing in a camera my friend had to note down her passport number, which she couldn't remember, so she just made one up. This is no doubt a crime, and in this capital and corporal punishment republic that could possibly be a flogging offense. The fact that she chose to break the law within the hallowed walls of the Singaporean Supreme Court seemed to me quite hilarious.

Norman Foster's Supreme Court, with its Flying Saucer

Once inside no one stopped us from going anywhere, so we took one escalator after another and went up and up until, on the eight floor, like in a science fiction movie, we ascended into the saucer and what confronted us was as unexpectedly brilliant as anything Hollywood could provide. The fast moving escalator spat us out onto a vast expanse of grey carpet that extended onward, undisturbed by furniture or any objects at all, towards a 180 degree semi-circle of glass panels that leaned outfrom the building some meters. Had I dared, I could have lain on the windows. The view, and above all, the ingenious framing of the view, was unforgettable. With my camera locked away downstairs I was forced to simply drink it in, and preserve it in memory. We could see the colonial buildings, like the old parliament building, now an art museum, below us, the meandering river Singapore, the new financial district and Marina Bay, with its three towered vulgarity, the cargo ships in the harbour beyond, one of the world's busiest, and in the far distance what I assume was Malaysia, though it might have been Indonesia. And further in the distance again, was that the equator that I could spot in the shimmering humidity? What most surprised me was two things: firstly the huge space that was set aside to take in the view, which had no utilitarian use at all - strange in this hardworking, materialist, capitalist city; secondly, that we had the best view in Singapore all to ourselves. Obviously it is the city's best kept secret, a secret well wrapped up within the solemn confines of the house of the law.

I highly recommend it. But don't run any risks- bring your passport number with you.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Welcome to Google - No Photos

Last night I met a friend at Google Zurich. It's the largest Google engineering centre outside of the USA.  She gave me a guided tour of the building. Okay, it's not like your everyday building. First there's the food. The dining hall was busy. Scores of googlers tucking into their organic evening dinner at 7:00 p.m..  Googlers can have full breakfast, lunch and dinner on site. And here's the best bit - it is all free of charge. No need to leave work at all.  A variety of cafes and relaxation spots, each with a different team, populate the building, and each serve delicious coffee, fresh fruit, cookies and brownies, and so on. Again, free of charge. You can have an entire social life within the building. The corridors are studded with a variety of cool features - like cable cars with couches and telephones, what looked to me like submarines with inviting bean bags. There's a fitness centre and a massage centre, a couple of snooker tables and a playroom with electric guitars. At every corner there's a cool box, with drinks, and ice cream - free of charge of course. If your bored, or you're lonely, or if the real world scares you, you could spend your life in the workplace, if the workplace is Google.

At the entrance to the building I saw the famous Google van.  The van with a camera on the roof, that prowls the streets taking random photos and uploading them on the web. Photos of your workplace, photos of your street, photos of your home and of you.  Google hopes to digitalise the entire heritage of humanity and then make it available to all, for free of course, just like the brownies and cool drinks that it give free of charge to its Googlers. Google wants to copy every book, copy every photo, photograph every building, every painting, every face, and make them available to all. Google wants to create a completely transparent world.

 I asked my friend last night if I could take a photograph. No, she told me, "We are not allowed to take any photos in the building". That's why this blog post has no photo. Google doesn't allow itself to be photographed.

Article first published as Visiting Google - No Photos on Technorati.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies

I spent a week recently doing research in Amsterdam, at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, formerly the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) on the beautiful Herengracht.  The institute is housed in a magnificent building, a stones throw from the book stores and book market on Spui, not far from the Anne Frank House.  I worked there, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. everyday, with just one break for lunch at a nearby cafe, of which there are more than plenty in the vicinity.
NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam

One of the things I came across when researching propaganda films is this short film from World War Two, made by the Dutch government in exile and the Canadian film board.  It is in English, its target audience being North Americans. Like much propaganda, in hindsight is strikes one as naive, almost simplistic.  The stereotypical images of pre-war Holland will certainly bring a smile to your face. The few seconds depicting the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940 were images I had never seen before.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mao Zedong and China in the 20th Century World

The International Institute of Asian Studies has just published my review of Rebecca Karl's biography of Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World in the summer edition of their quarterly The Newsletter.