Sunday, 25 September 2011

2. Wonder: The Marina Bay Sands

(For the Marina Bay Sands preview, please click here.)

The Marina Bay Sands was always one of my more leftfield choices for a candidate Wonder. Finished just last year, and with much of the surrounding site still in construction, it is brand new and flashy. Modern resort hotels are not what are usually associated with World Wonders, but the joy of Wonders is the sheer variety available, meaning I hope not to get fatigued by visiting the same kind of thing over and over. So while I have my fair share of temples, cathedrals and statues to visit, there are also such things as skyscrapers, dams, theme parks and, of course, hotels. Marina Bay Sands isn't the only hotel on the list - the allegedly "7-star" Burj Al Arab in Dubai also features.

The focus of my visit to Marina Bay Sands are the three 195-metre hotel skyscrapers, topped with the 340-metre SkyPark. To get an idea of dimensions, this is comparable to three London Gherkins with an Eiffel Tower laid on top. The SkyPark is dominated by a 146-metre long swimming pool, which gives the illusion of spilling over the edge, and there are also restaurants and a nightclub, if you fancy spending £6 for a beer and your annual wage on a meal. But the hotel and SkyPark are just a part of the overall complex, which is known as an Integrated Resort, for at the foot of the hotel is a huge shopping complex with designer shops, more restaurants and nightclubs, huge underground casinos, a rather groovy museum building, exhibition and convention centres, theatres, and loads and loads of ATMs so you can pour money out of your pockets as fast as the swimming pool pours over the edge.

It's a commercial enterprise and unashamedly so. A lot of money has been invested and a lot of money is expected to be returned - and quickly. The company behind this huge project is the Las Vegas Sands corporation, a US casino company with massive casino complexes in such gambling meccas as Las Vegas and Macau. This alone gives a pretty good hint as to the real drive behind the building of this "three Gherkins and an Eiffel."

Even our guide admitted a degree of surprise. Visiting the Marina Bay Gallery, a glass building about ten minutes walk from the hotel, we were offered a short walking tour by the promenade which separates the bay from the shopping centre. "Work, live and play" were the buzzwords he used a little too often, and there was no doubt the tour was promotional in motive; nonetheless, he didn't whitewash over the gambling aspect. During a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Museum earlier in the week, which documented the influx of Chinese immigrants into Singapore a century ago, much was made of "the Four Evils" that made early immigrant life so miserable. The Four Evils were opium smoking, prostitution, gambling and secret societies. In large part, the cleaning up of these evils, coupled with huge financial enterprise, is what made Singapore the clean, modern, safe and efficient city it is today. And yet they creep back. I can't speak for secret societies (they are a secret after all), and as they remind you on the incoming flight, drug possession is punishable by execution, but prostitution is legal, as no more vividly on display as in Singapore's notorious "Four Floors of Whores", a multi-level shopping centre full of prostitute pick-up bars that even has its own Wikipedia page, where you can choose the girl of your dreams from any number of foreign nationals working illegally on a tourist visa. Interestingly, pornography is banned. And then we have gambling. It was illegal for over 150 years in Singapore, and has been throughout Singapore's independence from 1965. The same vaguely-democratic ruling party has been in power even since independence, doing an impressive job in making Singapore an Asian financial powerhouse, and so its sudden decision to legalise gambling is a strange one, that seemingly goes against the values of the nation.

But money talks, and along with its fellow Integrated Resort, the "family-friendly" Resorts World Sentosa, the Marina Bay Sands has a hell of a lot of money behind it. It cost a staggering £4 billion to build, and will recoup these costs in a matter of years. One source - the Economist - claims that up to 90% of the profits are generated from gambling, and although I feel this might be a little exaggerated, there is little doubt that casinos and gambling are the backbone of the resort. Las Vegas Sands would not have invested £4 billion on just a hotel and some shops.

Our guide more or less agreed that huge amounts of money were the swaying factor in the reintroduction of legalised gambling into Singapore, but explained also that the gambling was primarily a tourist draw, and not meant for Singapore residents. It currently costs a Singaporean the equivalent of £50 to even enter the casino, and he informed us the government were seriously considering raising this amount, perhaps substantially. It is free for a tourist to enter. Additionally, according to our guide, if a Singaporean resident feels a family member is getting too free with his money in the casino, they can get him barred from future entry.

But my assessment of the Marina Bay Sands is not as a casino, or even as a hotel, it is as an overall spectacle. Function is not integral to a Wonder - form is. As a Wonder, Marina Bay Sands needs to be spectacular.

And it is - from a distance. Standing at the other side of Marina Bay, at the neo-classical Fullerton Hotel or standing by the symbol of Singapore, the "merlion" (half-lion half mermaid, i.e. fish) statue with water spouting from its mouth into the bay, the Marina Bay Sands dominates the skyline. With nothing either side, it is a gigantic glass Stonehenge, with the SkyPark resembling a long, thin boat nestled on top. It is impressive and distinctive by day, and almost magical at night. Glass skyscrapers are nearly always better by night, as their facade becomes spotted with individual lights switched on or off, and the Marina Bay Sands is not shy with its lighting. Powerful spotlights shoot vertically into the air, and other lights dance around. This may be reserved for the Grand Prix, and the wonderful chequered flag pattern on the underside of the SkyPark certainly is, but I wouldn't doubt the hotel usually makes use of its lighting to show off. At its foot are shopping centres, glass and glitzy but nothing spectacular, but the ArtScience museum positioned at the front-left (when viewed from the other side of the bay) is more interesting. Pure white, it is shaped like a lotus flower, a popular icon across Asia, but it also resembles a hand extending into the sky, with ten finger-like extensions. It is irregular, unusual, and fascinating to look at. Surrounded by the sleek glass designs of the shopping centre and hotel, it has a bit of verve and originality behind its design.

Up close too, the ArtScience museum is a pleasure to look at, and this is where the Marina Bay Sands hotel falls down a little. Because although impressive in scale and design, it is not a work of art. It could never be described as beautiful when viewed up close. The three hotels themselves are basically just fancy glass skyscrapers, and without the SkyPark would not get a second glance. I wouldn't be as harsh to call them generic, for they are well designed; from the side, they appear split (this gap is the atrium that connects the three towers into one large hotel atrium), and as they rise the splits meet and join - the design is supposed to resemble a deck of cards being shuffled, a pretty clear nod to the gambling intentions. But they are essentially just large glass buildings. The SkyPark is more interesting, and what makes the whole structure visually arresting - in fact, I'd go as far to say it gives the entire complex the prestige it has. There might be a glass Louis Vitton building in the bay, there may be wonderful restaurants and a lady's paradise in shopping, the nightclubs might be filled with modern Adonises and Helens of Troy, and the lure of the casino may be the technical money-spinner, but it is the SkyPark that captures the eye. Two hundred metres in the air, it looks improbable and incredible. When you look closely, you can see people standing on the cantilevered deck that seems to hang dangerously on the side, looking as though it should snap off.

It is the selling point, and deservedly so as I've not seen anything like it before. Burness made the good point, however, that it can only be a matter of years before other buildings start to copy the idea. If there were ten other buildings like it, would the Marina Bay Sands still stand out? Or like the Eiffel Tower, will it always outshadow its rivals?

As with the recently visited Sydney Opera House, the Marina Bay Sands is an actively living and breathing creation, rather than an old relic, and as such any visit required more than just a quick glance-and-photo from afar. Thus, for one night, Burness and I moved up in the world from the usual backpacking hostel and booked a room.

And it was rather nice.

Costing S$364.65, or about £180, our twin room was surprisingly affordable, and came with free water and lots of free toiletries, as well as a weight-sensitive minibar that would immediately trigger an addition to my bill should anything be moved. As it was paid for with my credit card, Burness was under strict instructions to go nowhere near it. Our view was from the rear of the hotel, of what is currently a construction site, but that will one day be what I think will be a strikingly beautiful park.

But the best thing? My room number.

Room 2820. For any who knows about my slight owl fascination, this was a lovely touch. How did they know?

Most of our day was spent in the SkyPark, enjoying the pool, which is only available to residents. Let me not understate it - the pool is great. It stretches almost half the length of the SkyPark, with plenty of loungers to rest on, and some light funky music playing in the background. It was busy, but not too busy, and had a very vibrant and excited feel. Everyone up there was enjoying it, taking photos and swimming to the edge, where from most angles the water appears to drop off the side of the building. The SkyPark is great, but the pool is the best part of it, and I happily spent hours there until dark, swimming leisurely, and enjoying the superb views it commands of the Singapore skyline. The Marina Bay Sands' "infinity pool" is the highlight of this entire candidate Wonder, and is the reason that whenever I mentioned to a Singaporean that I was staying there, they always remarked with excitement about the pool.

After the sun had set, a couple of £6 Tiger beers had been extorted from me and my body was wrinkled from water immersion, myself and Burness retired to room 2820 to drink some duty free vodka and cheap soft drinks, listening to techno and getting ourselves in the mood. For the night was still young and we had a club to attend.

The club was called Avalon, and had only opened days before. An angular glass building, in the bay, connected to the promenade by a short bridge, it was undoubtedly for the hip, modern beautiful of Singapore, and as such stated it had a "trendy and fashionable" dress code. Which gave myself and Burness a couple of hours of concern. Trendy and fashionable are not really in our wardrobes. My shoes have paint splotches and Burness didn't even have shoes, just trainers. We did what we could - and thank-you Marina Bay Sands for providing an iron in the room - and cobbled together shirt, trousers and shoes with paint scratched off for me, and my spare shirt for Burness, plus dark jeans and his brown trainers with black laces put in.

Did we get in? Of course - everyone else was wearing jeans and T-shirts anyway, the bunch of slackers.

At a jaw-dropping £40 entry free, and outrageous £10 for a bottle of Tiger, I had been persuaded to go by the wily Burness, who insisted that this was a vital part of the Marina Bay Sands experience for me. By the time all the Room 2820 vodkas were down me, I had acquiesced, and the line up was good. Due to the club recently opening, and the upcoming Grand Prix weekend, Avalon had gone to town and a number of big names had been booked, including the Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack. For us that night we had Simian Mobile Disco, Kele from Bloc Party, and Digitalism.

Loaded on vodka, and budgeting myself to just two vastly expensive Tigers, it turned out to a much more enjoyable night than I had expected. I had though it would be a bunch of posers standing about eating hors d'oeuvres and drinking cocktails with cherries, but instead it was a lively crowd who filled the dancefloor and were clearly enjoying the music. Simian Mobile Disco, who we just caught the end of, seemed disappointing, and Kele was fine until he sung, but Digitalism were excellent, with massive bass-heavy fuzz that made the floor quiver.

Burness and I also managed to sneak in to the VIP zone, but were happy to be thrown out by the bouncers when we realised there was no free booze there.

The club closed at 2am, and we had one final mission for the night: gamble. We took to the casino, ready to win big amidst what we expected to be a packed casino full of high rollers and high-heeled lovelies. It wasn't quite that. I suppose it was about 2.30am on a Wednesday, and we didn't explore the full extent of the casino, but it was very subdued, with numerous tables closed or empty. Compared to my casino experience in Sydney only days earlier, which was absolutely packed at every table and barely room to walk about it, the Marina Bay Sands casino was disappointingly quiet. The Star casino in Sydney had just opened, mind you, and it had been 10pm on a Saturday night, so the comparisons may be unfair. Anyway, Burness immediately doubled his S$50 on roulette, then proceeded to quickly lose it all, and I lost my S$30 over six different bets on the number 18. Number 18 has failed me lots recently. Then we quickly left before the Marina Bay Sands could suck away any more of our money.

That was one night in the Marina Bay Sands, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. We returned on Saturday again, not as residents, but to pay the S$20 admission fee to the SkyPark cantilever deck that hangs over one side. We had timed our visit so as to have a great vantage point over the Grand Prix street circuit, which takes place at the Marina Bay area. It was Grand Prix qualifying day and the observation deck offered a superb view to watch the Formula 1 cars roar by, and the roars were very, very audible even from hundreds of metres away. The cantilevered deck is soon to be the only available area for non-hotel residents to visit in the SkyPark, according to Sunday's Singapore Times. Currently, a section offering views of the pool was also available, but after various guests' complaints, this is being reduced to just the deck. Like from the pool, the views are excellent, and there is a novelty of standing on a space that instinctive logic says shouldn't be possible. If a little nervous, just hope that too many people don't start dancing: dancing could bring the whole thing down, apparently. It is because of resonant frequency: if too many people are dancing at a certain tempo, the accumulative effect could destabilise the deck, to potential disaster. Naturally, dampers have been put in, and I think there is practically zero chance of this happening, but I would still be careful of what DJs you watch there. Digitalism, for example, might be a little much.

Ultimately though, this is not a hotel review, it is all about its assessment of the Marina Bay Sands being a Wonder of the World. And so I have a few criteria it should fulfil.

Size: Impressively big. 195 metres is respectable for a single skyscraper, but for there to be three, and all topped with a 340-metre park is visually very impressive
Engineering: The SkyPark is an impressive feat of structural engineering -it involved lifting 700 tons of steel - more than main span of Brooklyn Bridge - as well as the massive overhanging ledge. The three hotel towers are not outstanding by themselves.
Artistry: It has a certain visual appeal, due in part to the unlikely look of the SkyPark, and it has an elegance from a distance, but it is not a work of art.
Age/Durability: Brand new at just a year old, it will last as long as it brings in money. It's hard to see it surviving over many hundreds of years, however.
Fame/Iconicity: Just new, and still establishing itself. For visitors to Singapore, it definitely has an appeal, but as yet it isn't an icon of city. I believe that with the right kind of publicity - say, a chase scene in the SkyPark in a Hollywood blockbuster - it could become more globally recognised, as it does stand out visually. Time will tell, and I wouldn't want to place any large bets on it.
Context: Across on the other side of Marina Bay from most of Singapore's skyscraping skyline, it stands out and dominates. But plans are afoot for further development next to it, with equally tall buildings just by its side. If this happens, it would definitely reduce its impact.
Originality: Mostly relatively standard, although well done, but the SkyPark impresses.
Photogenicity: Looks great at night, or face on, it takes a great photo. But like a girl caked with make-up, it needs the right conditions to look good, and at certain angles and close-up, it is a little more plain.

Girl with make-up
Girl without

As you may have guessed, I don't believe that the Marina Bay Sands is a Wonder. It is too new, too impermanent, and not attractive enough to be considered one of the greatest the world has to offer. Time may mature it, but it could also see if fading - it is very difficult to say. Nonetheless, I am very glad I have visited it, and think it has a deserved place in my list of candidate Wonders: it is an impressive building that improves with successive visits. I would also recommend anyone passing through Singapore to give it a visit, if only for one night, and if only to have a great afternoon in the rooftop pool, which is a wonderful experience. But if you intend on having a few drinks and not going bankrupt, definitely smuggle some duty free booze in with you.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Marina Bay Sands

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.