Sunday, 19 June 2011

Preview: Marina Bay Sands

The majority of mankind's fantastic buildings and monuments have been built for worship. Stretching back thousands of years, churches, mosques, temples and tombs have been constructed for the worship of a variety of gods or the venerated deceased. For all that religion may be maligned by today's Dawkinsian posses or by twig-waving new-agers, there is no doubt that religious fervour has inspired a fantastic amount of the magnificent monuments that grace the earth.

But before the imams, monks and gurus get too smug about their architectural achievements, and start sarcastically asking atheists how many beautiful buildings have been raised in tribute of Darwin or the double helix, let us look at what the modern man now worships. Christ, Shiva, Mohamed and their pals may still have plenty of supporters, but they've kind of dropped out of the more fashionable circles. And while generations of followers once ploughed their resources into pleasing these otherworldly deities with world-class buildings, these days there is a new god in town: commerce.

The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore makes absolutely no pretence at anything otherwise. It is the most modern building on my list, and is resolutely built for profit. Costing a grand total of about $8 billion Singapore dollars - about £4 billion - the developers, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, were clearly hedging their bets that their reward would be not in heaven but in good old-fashioned earthly profit. And as all gamblers (claim to) know, don't bet against the bookmakers. Together with its fellow resort-casino, the Resorts World Sentosa, the only other casino permitted in Singapore, it was estimated to have made the equivalent of £2.5bn in profit last year, with this figured projected to keep rising, which would come close to outdoing the entire Las Vegas strip.

Regardless of the other attractions in this resort hotel, it is the casinos that fuel this massive profit, with gambling thought to be behind 85-90% of the Marina Bay Sands resort's overall takings. Singapore, a conservative island city-nation famous for banning chewing gum and over-exuberance, had up until recently banned gambling, but a re-think on strategy (i.e. no-one cares about principles when there's a billion pounds to be made) saw them allow two casino resort complexes to be built, just as long as they, you know, kind of pretended to be something else. Thus we have the Resorts World Sentosa masquerading as a family resort, with a child-friendly Universal Studio set and fun-rides, and Marina Bay Sands assuming the more mature role as a business and convention centre.

For me, personally, casinos don't have much appeal. I like playing poker occasionally, but have only actually been in a casino twice in my life. I happen, in fact, to have a 100% roulette record - 2/2 successful attempts at the number 18 - and have become a little afraid of playing again lest I lose this record. Therefore the casinos of Marina Bay Sands don't hold huge appeal for me, other than curiosity. However, although the profits of the resort are from what's on bottom - the casinos are all in buildings by the base of the three towers - the actual prestige of the Marina Bay Sands is from what's up top - the SkyPark.

This is clearly what elevates Marina Bay Sands from hotel-casino anonymity to a landmark that most predict will define the skyline of Singapore. Running across the top of the three buildings is, as the name suggests, a park. It is 340m long which is longer than Moscow's Red Square, and while just a fraction of perhaps the world's most famous park, Central Park, unlike its New York cousin it is in the sky, 191m high on top of three skyscrapers. Just as any good park should have, it has park-like greenery, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and most famously a 146m long swimming pool, called the infinity edge pool, which creates a visual effect of the water disappearing over the edge. The idea of this kind of pool isn't original - it's been known from the early 1600s in the Palace of Versailles - but the effect almost 200m high on top of a skyscraper looks somewhat spectacular, if not a tiny bit scary. The views across the city of Singapore, I'm sure it doesn't need to be said, are amazing. To my mind, the three buildings capped with this long park-in-the-sky look like gigantic cricket stumps, or even a massive glass Stonehenge, although the Israeli-Canadian-American architect Moshe Safdie claims the towers were inspired, fittingly, by decks of cards.

Marina Bay Sands has been added to my list for the very purest of reasons: about a year ago, I'd never even heard of it, but happened to catch a snapshot of it on TV and my immediate impression was "wow, that looks cool." I wondered why I'd never seen such a distinctive looking building before, quickly discovering it was because it was brand new. Being visually impressive is at the core of all Wonders, and this was very much the first impression made by Marina Bay Sands.

I'll be visiting Marina Bay Sands sometime in mid-to-late September, possibly being able to time it with the Singapore Grand Prix which happens to take place in the Marina Bay area. At the very least, I promise to play roulette and with number 18 at least once, perhaps offering a little prayer to any available gods while I do so.

Reviewed on 25th September 2011.


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