The spatial development and infrastructure systems master’s at ETH Zürich is partly defined by a semester long project, called the interdisciplinary project (IPA). Usually, the semester was spent in groups of five students, planning for a Swiss town or commune. This year, 29 students and about 10 professors and assistants assembled Monday morning in the CREATE Tower of the National University of Singapore, home to the Future Cities Laboratory, to kick off their IPA. These are a couple of moments which shaped my time in Singapore:
"I feel like I'm in a movie" my friend said to me, walking through the doors of The Fuller-ton Bay Hotel. "It's just like 'Crazy Rich Asians,' isn't it?" I smiled back. We were impostors among the finely dressed women in ball gowns and suave men in tuxedos, whom we watched socializing underneath a brilliant crystal chandelier in the lobby of the hotel. It did feel like a movie, as we walked through the lavish lobby, rode a massive elevator up to the rooftop where we passed by the deep swimming pool. Afraid we'd be caught in our act, we exchanged anxious smiles with the deferential hostess as she made polite conversation in perfect English, showing us to an empty table. We ordered drinks we didn't quite recognize and settled into conversation before we were interrupted by the light show from the hotel across the bay. We couldn't miss the opportunity to capture the moment and asked a waiter to snap some pictures of us along the railing of the rooftop (us dressed in our backpacking-finest.) It was a world we'd read and heard about, but not a place we expected to find ourselves on a Wednesday night. We returned to our table and exchanged nervous looks once again an hour later as our waitress asked if we wanted a second round; these prices were high even for Zurich standards. "When will we be in this situation ever again?" reasoned our more spirited group member. I nodded my agreement. "I'll have the same."
The next day our group of five sat in a mostly deserted hawker center (an open-air food court) for lunch. Having passed through seeming endless rows of food stalls full of enticing dishes, none of which we recognized, we drifted to one run by an elderly Malay couple. They had just started preparing food in their cramped kitchen (little more than a boiling pot) and met us with eager smiles and nodding heads, while we pointed at signs of food plastered to their stall to get our point across. We sat at a nearby table, a design we'd gotten used to from any number of hawker centers spread around the island, becoming aware that we stood out amongst the few well-tanned, well-aged locals drifting through the center. The couple brought our bowls to us one by one, and by the last they were waiting expectantly until we realized we hadn't paid yet. 2.50 S$. We treated ourselves to a smoothie, bringing my total to 4.50 S$. We enjoyed our meals, still somewhat awkwardly handling plastic chopsticks, knowing fully well that in a few days we'd be back home where a similar meal would cost 10 times as much.
Our 2 weeks in Singapore were marked by such contradictions and situations of juxtaposition hard to wrap our minds around. I still don't know how to describe the city, other than as truly fascinating. We'd had the privilege of getting to know Singapore intimately, in the context of a planning project where we were forced to absorb as much information, both formal and informal, about the island in a short time. We would attentively listen to power point presentations delivered by government employees of a planning agency, and later share tea with and hear childhood stories from the agency's director as he bellowed his enthusiastic laugh in response to some of our questions. Ever thirsty for information about life in the city-state, we constantly tried to grasp at what it means to make a life in Singapore. The world itself looked familiar, with global architecture and clean mass transportation; yet it felt different. As with the transition from the grand Fullerton hotel to the unassuming hawker center, it was difficult to find a place to belong to. And it left us wondering who we were planning for.
It was an incredible experience, one we are all thankful for, and a time that brought many of us closer together. Between the endless hours spent in our designated conference rooms defining what our task should be and the late evenings enjoying dinners and the culture Singapore has to offer, our expedition of planners found ample opportunity to leave our comfort zones and enjoy each other's company. It was an experience that will enrich our future and widen our perspectives.
About the author
David Zani is a third semester Master’s student at ETH Zurich studying Spatial Development and Infrastructure Systems. His Bachelor is in Civil Engineering from The University of Texas in Austin.