It’s hard not to be awed by the audacity of Marina Bay, the project that has transformed downtown Singapore’s seafront over two generations. An exorbitantly ambitious piece of civil engineering, it entailed the creation of three massive expanses of reclaimed land and a barrage to seal off the basins of the Singapore and Kallang rivers from the sea. The result is a seaside freshwater reservoir with a crucial role in reducing Singapore’s dependence on Malaysian water supplies. The Marina Bay Sands casino resort dominates the area, with its museum and rooftop restaurants, and it is inevitably the focus of any visit to the bay, along with the extravagant new Gardens by the Bay next door. Close to the Padang, the Theatres on the Bay arts complex is worth a detour for its skyline views, with more of the same available from the oversized Ferris wheel that is the Singapore Flyer.
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The Marina Bay project
The Marina Bay project
Marina Bay can be viewed as yet another triumph, perhaps the most impressive, of Singapore’s long-term urban planning. Yet there is an alternative view, namely that the project has proceeded in a slightly haphazard manner. The original idea had been to create a new downtown area for the tiny island. To that end, Marina Centre became the first zone to be reclaimed from the sea, in the 1970s and 1980s. Its malls and hotels were already beginning to open in the early 1990s, and development there was crowned by the opening of Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay in 2002.
But back in 1987, Lee Kuan Yew, fed up with constant bickering over the pricing of water supplies that Malaysia was piping to Singapore via the Causeway, had floated another idea: what if land reclamation, combined with a dam, could create an enormous coastal reservoir? The scheme, together with smaller counterparts elsewhere, would reduce or end this potentially crippling dependency. Still, it wasn’t until seventeen years later that the government would invite companies to tender to build the Marina Barrage. One year after that came the announcement that casinos were going to be licensed in Singapore. With the successful launch of Marina Bay Sands, Marina South finally seemed to have found its raison d’être.
The last piece of the jigsaw was the sheer amount of green space built into the area, in the form of gardens, plus a golf course at Marina East. On the face of it, this offers a poor return on the huge amount of taxpayers’ money pumped into creating Marina Bay, unless you regard the greenery as an environmentally worthwhile gesture. The reality may, as is usually the case in Singapore, be one of pragmatism: the vision of a new downtown had to be radically scaled back because the reservoir’s arrival curtailed the density of the surrounding buildings – cleanliness of the waters being now the paramount issue.
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