For forty years after Singapore was established as a trading hub by the British Empire, the Singapore River was the centre of all economic activity, developing rapidly around the port and thriving as trade areas. Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay were the three major hubs where the majority of this activity took place, and to this day still exist as major sites, albeit with a much different purpose. From the 1800s Clarke Quay served as a dock for the loading and unloading of cargoes for the godowns (warehouses) and commercial houses situated along the Singapore River. Labourers, Chinese migrants and working class families lived in the upper levels of the two or three storey shophouses along the rivers edge and utilised the bottom levels for shops and trading offices. Over time, trade and commercial projects moved away from the three-quay precinct to bigger, more accessible ports and by the 1970s river trade was almost non-existent. After years of polluting the water system and the increasing demand for clean water supplies in response to the booming population, the Singapore Government implemented a rehabilitation project of the Singapore River, transitioning its role as a working river to a recreational waterfront. In 1985 the Singapore Government drew up the Singapore River Concept Plan – driven by the need to diversify Singapore’s tourism appeal and the preservation of heritage areas, Clarke Quay was converted into a ‘festival village’. Shophouses and warehouses were restored (their facades and roofs remaining intact), new buildings were developed, a promenade created and nostalgic elements such as gaslights, wandering minstrels and goods sold out of rickshaws were offered to tourists. Whilst revitalising tourism for a short period of time, Clarke Quay did not benefit economically from the redevelopment due to its homogenised and artificial representation of Singapore’s history, its inaccessibility geographically and the lack of weather responsiveness (ie no rain shelters or intensive cooling). Thus in 2000, Clarke Quay was again redeveloped by British company Alsop, initiating a strategy that “allowed the old architecture of the place to breathe but set against a lexicon of striking interventions (that) would provide a new iconography for Clarke Quay and Singapore.”
Primarily the redevelopment of Clarke Quay was to increase visitor numbers, modernise the existing space and create a social hub for young professional Singaporeans, however Alsop also wanted to include a sophisticated micro-climate system, enhancing both the sustainability of the building and the comfort levels of visitors. The three major design criteria included pedestrian thermal comfort, air movement and natural light. Not wanting to enclose the complex completely, the designers implemented umbrella like structures over the walkways and roofs of the surrounding shophouses. Comprised of ETFE (Ethyl Tetra Fluro Ethylene) canopies, the ‘Angel Sky’ structure protects against the heat and rain by reflecting solar radiation, minimising heat gain and blocking raindrops whilst also allows for natural light. In conjunction with a large number of trees that provide additional shading, a number of whale-tail slow speed fans (named for their shape) generate gentle breezes at street level, moderating the humid temperature and permitting visitors to eat outdoors. A similar concept to ‘Angel Sky’ is used on the external side of the complex – titled ‘lily pad’ dining platforms, they protrude over the rivers edge and are covered by distinctive sun and rain umbrellas known as ‘Bluebells’. Both concepts exemplify the importance that is placed on thermal comfort in such a structure, for many visitors it being the key factor in whether to visit or not. Water as a form of cooling is also utilised at Clarke Quay, with fountains inserted to provide evaporative cooling and the hosing down of paving slabs to prolong cooling effects and increase thermal mass absorption. The combined effect of these elements has reduced the ambient temperature of Clarke Quay by four degrees, and has enabled the majority of the outdoor spaces to maintain 28 degrees and eliminate the use of air-conditioning. In response to such an accomplishment, in addition to the new MRT service to Clarke Quay, visitor attendance increased to 1million people a month in 2012. As one Singaporean resident declared, ‘the reason why I like the Cannery (Clarke Quay) is because all Singaporeans dream of air conditioned streets and that’s the closest thing we can get…’.
Whilst the redevelopment of Clarke Quay has reignited the waterfront, implemented energy efficient designs and conserved historically significant shophouses and godowns, the authenticity of the site has been compromised. It raises the question of ‘does comfort take precedence over heritage significance’? T.C. Chang and S. Huang on their research on the development of Singapore’s waterfront found that most tourists found Clarke Quay to be ‘Disney Like’, globally ubiquitous and completely lacking of a Singapore identity, whilst locals commented that the waterfront didn’t need historical commemoration and is far more accessible and appealing as an all weather, global entertainment hub. Thus, it would appear that for Singaporean locals, thermal comfort and modern design overshadow heritage architecture and its representation of Singaporean historical identity, whereas tourists are prepared to be hot and sweaty if it means experiencing the ‘real’ culture of Singapore. In response to such findings, the challenge has been set to find a balance between comfort and authenticity, conservation and modernism, and energy efficiency and maintenance of historical identity. Clarke Quay goes someway to achieving this in terms of maintaining conserved architecture and providing sustainable comfort to visitors, especially in comparison to modern box air conditioned skyscrapers, however in some ways it has destroyed the individual local features of the site and replaced it with ‘pseudo places’, unrelated to the history and culture of the population. Awarded for its energy efficient cooling designs, Clarke Quay exemplifies how comfort is not only an issue relating to sustainability, air conditioning use or climate change, it can also impact socially and culturally on a minor or major scale - potentially evolving into just as an important factor when developing, re-adapting or conserving buildings and sites of some historical or cultural significance.