Updated: Jul 4, 2022
Julia Tong is a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture student at the National University of Singapore. Julia originally wrote this piece for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture.” At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning. This pictorial essay captures Julia’s perspective on the Marina Coastal Expressway in Singapore.
Green: such a prevalent and omnipresent colour in our day-to-day lives. We find it underneath our soles, out the window, or even on our plates. How difficult is it for us to avoid and run away from every presence of green? I picked the Marina Coastal Expressway as the landscape of my choice because it is by far the most covert landscape I have ever walked into in Singapore.
Is it a landscape? Well, that is debatable and seldom called forth within the paradigm of landscape as greenery but, in my view, I see it as a beautiful place. I have captured its beauty through my camera lens as well. In The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner 1990-2010, James Corner writes “[a] paradigm represents only one way of looking at things and often constructs such a compelling world that it becomes almost impossible to see the worlds of others” (p. 83). With this opportunity to step outside the paradigm, I picked an expressway instead of a cushy green park.
Picking the Expressway may have been a colour-blind move because of the lack of greenery, but imagine being somebody who has yet to see more than a kilometre square grass patch.
We cannot say for sure that there is no landscape in these environments, landscape is simply in another form. In continuing the discussion on paradigms, Corner writes “Form lingers, replacing content” (p. 85) and this potentially leads to a context of unfulfilling landscapes, which to an extent I observe is dominating today’s public landscapes.
However, nature is not simply about its biophilic properties as Figure 5 shows. Nature is adaptive, a shapeshifter that we can even call the stone that is crushed to become concrete a natural element as well.
The Undisturbed Corner
What makes the Marina Coastal Expressway such an ideal spot for photography? Personally, I find that the ability to create amazing visuals depends on what gimmicks you can pull while not being undermined by the limitations of the site. It is putting the mind over matter, and that is the de facto trait of the Expressway. Furthermore, as a tranquil space, it is lawless enough where there is a variation of behaviour (for example, dangerous photography trips, shelter for the homeless, and covert gatherings) can occur even though the plain infrastructure barely delivers anything for the public’s recreational use. The Expressway exudes a sense of danger, thrill and mystery only to those who can courageously overcome its invisible barrier.
It comes in 3 layers: the top services is for viewing the expressway, the middle tunnel is no-man’s land and the bottom viaduct is a hidden yet brutal columnar showroom. In totality, it is a productive, infrastructural, and empty piece of landscape with the only visible set of greenery being Phyllanthus myrtifolius placed as a divide on the open expressway.
During the design analysis stage of a design studio, my classmates and I use exploded-axonometric diagrams to present content in a vertical view. I find this analogous to the literal way the expressway behaves, yet users and non-users alike may not see it this way. The image of the Expressway in Figure 7 expresses how infrastructure are complex landscapes built to exercise some of the harshest treatment created by people. In this case, the Expressway supports and deals with thousands of speeding cars scraping their wheels against the asphalt surface. The attitude of how humans react against infrastructure is a sensible process; we need it for our betterment.
To Justify the Unseen
Breaking down the word infrastructure, “infra” means “below, or beyond a defined limit.” The term was originally applied to things that were out of sight, often below ground, such as tunnels, culverts, and services that could be buried. Because of the effort required to construct infrastructures, there is often no option left to beautify it. In “Infrastructure as Landscape,” Gary Strang exclaims that “[d]designers have most often been charged with hiding, screening and cosmetically mitigating infrastructure, in order to maintain the image of the untouched natural surroundings” (p. 11), fixating on what can be only seen by the public eye. Strang further argues that designers “are rarely asked to consider infrastructure as an opportunity, as a fundamental component of urban and regional form.”
I do agree with Strang’s idea that people do not value such unconventional landscapes, although I believe eventually, landscape architects would have the capacity to engage with the infrastructure as landscape in the near future. To change the meaning of infrastructural space depends on changing the mindsets of the people in charge of overlooking such landscapes and allowing people to normalise the use of such sites. The ability to redefine these no-man’s landscapes can progressively be a plan for integrating the green and the grey, thus revealing how landscapes are not defined by a single colour.
Recognising the Entity as a Landscape
Interestingly, the majority of the Marina Coastal Expressway is constructed on reclaimed land. It is uncommon for man-made structures to be built upon another artificial structure. In Susan Herrington’s Landscape Theory in Design, fake according to landscape architect Claude Cormier is “to deceive, to look indistinguishable from something it is not” (p. 128-129). In my own opinion, the Expressway is an honest landscape that does not seek to deceive by carrying a facade of its properties: it is form and function as one. The columnar showroom of the viaduct clearly signifies the tectonic capabilities of steel-reinforced concrete. From the bottom to the top, every single part has been exclusively calculated by engineers. For this reason, I perceive the Expressway as authentic. As boorish as the Expressway can be, it proficiently functions as a daily passage for vehicles whilst accompanying a small user group on the other levels. The structure signals reliability and integrity, seemingly resistant to weathering over time.
Nevertheless, is it right to hide infrastructures away from the public? It is part of the environment after all. The Expressway is a piece of technology that runs a collateral system in productivity: it does not sever connections, it creates connections. To add on, as reasoned by Robert Thayer in the book Gray World, Green Heart, the concealment of infrastructure could have a detrimental effect on the environment as we are keeping “the illusion that you as an individual are neither part of nor responsible for that infrastructure and its consequences” (p.74). In appreciating the utility of the Marina Coastal Expressway, we can better understand the reasons behind constructing such infrastructure, and thus broaden our understanding of the comprehensive system of a city like Singapore. The fact that beautified ones such as the well-known Marina Barrage goes unconcealed, the same treatment should be similarly applied to other infrastructural landscapes which also play a role in our daily lives.
As infrastructures are designed to perform, we can find the concept of infrastructure in Herrington’s reference (p. 238) to Corner's piece “Terra Fluxus” in the book The Landscape Urbanism Reader, where four key themes define landscape urbanism:
“the conception of landscape as processes over time instead of static forms”
“staging of surfaces, with surface alluding to urban infrastructure, which “create an environment that is not so much an object that has been ‘designed’ as it is an ecology of various systems and elements that set in motion a diverse network of interaction” (Corner, p. 31)”
“operational or working methods for representing “urban geographies that function across a range of scales and implicate a host of players” (p. 31)”
“the imaginary” which refers to the failure of the imagination to extend new relationships and possibilities in 20th century planning
Understanding these four themes allows me to recognise that we need not necessarily require a pretty planting scheme to denote an urbanised landscape like the Marina Coastal Expressway. What seems like a concrete dystopia is actually a part of urban design, seen as a public space not only for transportation but placemaking as well. Hence, the Expressway carries an important ideal of what people expect a landscape architecture project to be: useful.
It is presently a matter of time and unified awareness until we realise that the presence of infrastructures has long existed and occupied a visible fraction of our world. Should we uphold the belief that hardscapes are of no matter? These structured entities that lie on the open surface of the earth, devoid of green, are unpleasant to the eye, yet ironically famous brands that are gleaming green in colour are not always eco-friendly in character. The true colour palette for landscapes is not green; it is green, grey, brown and blue mashed together, representing the expanding potential of the natural environment in order for us to flourish in the 21st century.
Closing this essay and reflecting on the lessons learnt, we know it is possible to fix the existence of the ugly things we humans have built that are deemed impossible. Though I am not yet one to influence changes in landscapes, we as individuals can behave on our own to experience and depict the spatial consciousness on the ground. It may feel daunting and uncomfortable to walk into such spaces, but if you are willing to act upon it, content may soon replace the form that is left.
By Julia Tong
Student, Bachelor of Landscape Architecture, National University of Singapore