November 18, 2005

Singapore woos “starchitects” for casino project

By Sebastian Tong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore is wooing top architects
such as I.M. Pei and Daniel Libeskind to design an iconic
casino building on a par with Sydney's Opera House and Bilbao's
Guggenheim Museum.

The city-state, better known for its shopping malls and
rigorous urban planning, now wants a breathtaking skyline. It
has invited gaming companies to team up with leading
architects, or "starchitects," when they submit proposals for
two casino resorts that are expected to cost up to US$5

Across Asia, eye-catching designer buildings are as much a
statement of economic achievement as about creating
internationally recognizable marketing symbols, from Kuala
Lumpur's soaring Petronas Towers to Beijing's National Stadium,
shaped like a bird's nest and planned for the 2008 Olympics.

Singapore's most distinctive building so far is its
waterfront performing arts center, the Esplanade, whose spiky
domes have evoked comparisons to the prickly shell of the
tropical durian fruit or to bugs' eyes.

"It's about creating a brand or a logo -- a visual
shorthand for the city that can generate excitement and be used
in communications," said Rosalynn Tay, deputy managing director
of ad agency Leo Burnett Singapore.

I.M. Pei, who designed Hong Kong's Bank of China building,
and Daniel Libeskind, designer of the "Freedom Tower" at New
York's Ground Zero, have teamed up with gaming companies that
may bid for a casino in Singapore's downtown waterfront, the
first of two such projects in the country.

Even visionary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who in 1995
slammed Singapore as a city "stripped of the last vestiges of
authenticity and dignity" after it razed parts of Chinatown to
make way for new housing and offices, has been invited to speak
at a government-organized forum on design.

The government scrapped a ban on casinos earlier this year,
saying it expects the two resorts to create over 35,000 jobs
and boost growth in the $110 billion economy. Singapore, which
is 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C. with just 4.2 million
people, needs to develop its services sector as it loses
manufacturing jobs to lower-cost countries such as China and


Indeed, the city's two casinos are key to its aim of
tripling tourism revenues to S$30 billion by 2015. The focus on
the design of the downtown casino intensified at the start of
this month when the government fixed a S$1.2 billion price tag
for the 50-acre site.

A distinctive landmark could eventually bring tangible
economic benefits by generating tourism, said Leo Burnett's

The winning bid would "shape the image of the Singapore
skyline for many years to come," said Minister of National
Development Mah Bow Tan. He said a panel of international and
local design experts would advise the government before it
decides on the winning bid, to be announced in mid-2006.

The government wants the 12 competing groups -- which
include U.S. giants Harrah's Entertainment Inc. and Las Vegas
Sands Corp. -- to focus on the design of the complex, which may
house performance venues and museums.

"The capital freed up from land expenses ultimately
benefits Singapore as more can be invested in creating
world-class resorts to attract tourists from places like China
and India," said gaming analyst Jonathan Galaviz.

But critics say the roster of famous names hired for the
project is no guarantee of international recognition.

"I don't want to prejudge the outcome but it's a bad state
of affairs when we need a casino to change the skyline," said
architect William Lim.

Buildings designed by Norman Foster and I.M. Pei in
Singapore have so far failed to gain critical acclaim, Lim
said, reflecting Singapore's conservatism. Foster's firm
designed Singapore's new Supreme Court, topped by a two-story
disc which has been compared to a flying saucer or a revolving

"We could end up with an Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx lumped
together but we can expect at least some architectural
gymnastics," said Tay Kheng Soon, a Singapore architect.