How can we interpret the world through the casino? For many scholars, the casino serves as a poignant metaphor for a world unhinged from regulatory control and driven instead by greed and caprice (“casino capitalism”). In such a world, as in a casino, value becomes fictitious, a figment of speculation that has little basis in the material world. Or, the casino encapsulates the unholy conjugation of popular culture, architectural design and consumerism (“postmodernism”, “simulacra”, “spectacle”). Confronted with a gaudy parade of Egyptian pyramids, musical fountains and Venetian gondolas, the intellectual responds with “downcast eyes” (Jay, 1993). It is quite easy to allow these theories to do the interpretation for us, since they do explain a lot of things in a theoretically sophisticated manner. It is especially convenient to take these theories to interpret what is happening in Asia. Partly this is because many of these casinos are physically replicated across the globe. As mere copies, the same concepts and interpretative frameworks would appear to suffice. Partly it is because it has only been two decades since the centre of the casino industry shifted to Asia, and scholars are still disentangling themselves from the vast theoretical apparatuses built on Western experience.
Part of the excitement of research, thus, is to constantly move between the field, the concept and the theory, to allow each to speak to one another, interpreting and challenging the frames of interpretation at the same time. While I ask, “what is this a case of”, I also have to ask “How does this case exceed my ability to understand it?” When I allow theory to guide me to focus on certain aspects of buildings, I also have to keep an eye out for things that pass under my attention, things that don’t appear significant and relevant until, suddenly, they do.
I thought I should write about the sky-park at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), an architectural element that appears more and more quizzical the more I looked at them. The sky-park, of course, is the most prominent feature of MBS. It sits on top of the three hotel towers and terminates them with a horizontal flourish. Without it, MBS would be less than distinctive. The fact that we are witnessing other architectural projects copying the sky-park is testament to its icon-granting quality (see Raffles City Chongqing and INSPIRE Athens). Yet, the sky-park is more than just an architectural statement. It captures what sets MBS apart from the typical casino-resort – neither a fantastic simulation nor a hermetic interiorized object, the sky-park transforms MBS into an elevated public stage. From this vantage point, the spectacle that is MBS is replaced by the spectacle of its urban context – a sweeping panoramic view of the city of Singapore stretching from the glittering Central Business District and the busy sea traffic in the foreground to the ubiquitous blocks of public housing in the horizon. To be precise, this inversion of spectacle is not unprecedented for casino-resorts – at Paris Las Vegas, visitors can go up the faux Eiffel Tower to enjoy a view of the city, and let us not forget that in the 1950s, hotels in Las Vegas marketed themselves to thrill-seekers who wanted to watch atomic bomb detonations in the Nevadan desert from a safe distance. But one difference is significant – at MBS, the dividends of the touristic gaze are distributed to both the vendor of the architectural stage and the scriptor of the urban scene. In Singapore, the scriptor of the urban scene is the state, for the sky-park also functions as a pedagogical instrument to reproduce a specific state-sanctioned narrative of development, identity and history. The bifocal nature of the touristic gaze in turn produces certain strange encounters on the sky-park – and it is these strange encounters that prompted me to rethink some of the interpretative frames scholars tend to bring to bear on casino-resorts.
An Absurd Inversion of Value
My first visit to the sky-park was in 2010. MBS had just held its official launch – the casino and hotel were in operation, while some of the non-gaming facilities (such as the much-hyped Art and Science Museum) were still under construction. This is a common practice in the industry – casino developers often rush to open the casino and hotel as quickly as possible as they are the main revenue-generator. Depending on the financing model, other non-gaming facilities such as convention centres, theatres and museums are pushed down the schedule along a scale of profitability and essentiality, and in some cases dropped altogether. To prevent this from happening, authorities sold on the idea of an “Integrated Resort” often stipulate that the casino can only open if a certain quantum of non-gaming facilities is also operational. That the sky-park was a main attraction at the launch is thus significant – it is an essential part of the casino package catering to well-heeled gamblers staying in the hotel, and at the same time, it is an essential part of the public realm as envisioned by the national planning and tourism authorities. Straddling between private business and public demeanor, the sky-park is a contact zone of different worlds, quite contrary to its appearance as a singular and unifying architectural element.
The stratification begins at the ground level. Visitors who wish to go to the public observatory at the sky-park pay for a $25 ticket before proceeding to an elevator tucked at the furthest end of the hotel lobby that is reserved for the purpose of shuttling them directly to the 57th level. The public observatory occupies one end of the sky-park. Adjacent to it is the famous 150m swimming pool, accessible only to hotel guests. At the opposite end is a celebrity restaurant, open to both hotel guests and the public, but one cannot walk directly to it from the public observatory. This tripartite division mirrors the three hotel towers, each serving as separate vertical infrastructure to different sections of the sky-park (fig 1). The architectural form is thus both a mechanism of stratification as well as its expression. As I will develop further in this project, this stratification cannot be understood using concepts of “class” or other conventional socio-economic categories. Rather, we should pay attention to what the industry calls “lifetime value” and its less savory counterpart, “player extinction”. It is a different metric of calculation based on extractable capital projected across individual life-cycles, or to put it simply, the capitalization of human life itself. The casino economy circulates primarily in two of the three sections of the skypark – the public observatory is relatively unmolested by it.
Fig 1: Architecture as vertical stratification. Yellow lines demarcate lift access from hotel to sky-park
Yet, in 2010, this stratification was not so neat. Perhaps, in the rush to open for business (MBS’s competitor, Resorts World Sentosa, had opened a few months earlier), the managers did not pay sufficient attention to the boundary between the public observatory and the swimming pool. Along with other curious members of the public, I wandered along a path behind the pool and took in the strange spectacle of a stunning city panorama set against a foreground of oiled bodies basking in the sun (Fig. 2). It was not simply that this crowd of anonymous eyes, priced at $25 a pair, could command the same view as those whose time in the pool was bought at upwards of $1000 a night. But rather, it was because those who paid more found themselves on display for the masses who peered from behind incognito. This was an absurd inversion of value, as if the premier seats had been given to the lowest-paying customer. Yet, it was also this unintended “dialectical image”, to plunder Benjamin’s conceptual arsenal, that rubbed against the polished spectacle that is MBS and its urban context. As a momentary crease in space, it shocked the spectator out of the comfortable stupor of insulated worlds. Without the separation, the two sets of eyes, premised on two different economies, intersected in the same space and recognized each other as unwelcome. It should not be surprising that since the opening, the swimming pool has been cordoned off, and this strange spectacle no longer exists.
Fig. 2: A momentary crease in space
City as Museum
In 2010, visitors to the public observatory could opt for a self-guided audio-tour. Similar to a museological experience, we were guided to stand at specific locations and look at specific landmarks while listening to the narration. This audio-tour had discontinued when I visited again in 2021, while the narration had been translated into a series of plaques placed on perspex shelves, once again urging us to take up position at various vantage points and read the city according to the script.
The museumification of post-industrial cities competing on the basis of “unique experiences” and “culture” is well documented, and this seems to be very much a example of the trend. As I have suggested earlier, MBS is quite unique amongst casino-resorts where it engages actively, rather than rejects, the urban context. This came about through the combination of a planning authority so resolute even Sheldon Adelson could not bend and the choice of Moshe Safdie as the architect who knew exactly what the government wanted for this site. This point was clear to me in 2010 when I went through the audio-tour and interviewed various stakeholders of the project.
2010 (left) and 2021 (right)
Yet, when I returned to the observatory in 2021, something about the sparseness of the narration on the plaques pricked my memory and sent me rummaging through my old notes. Comparing the two sets of narration ten years apart, I noted which buildings were highlighted and organized the narration into three layers of discourse – “touristic”, “national” and “corporate” (Table 1). The bulk of the narration packages the city as exotic experiences and destinations for touristic consumption. However, there is an important difference: while turning the city into a spectacle is often a way to attract customers to the property, the touristic discourse at MBS actively encourages visitors to leave the property to visit other destinations. Somewhere as far as the offshore island of Kusu and the ethnic enclave of Little India, for example, were heavily promoted. More than a strategy to attract visitors to MBS, the sky-park actually reflects the government’s strategy of using the visibility and magnetic power of MBS to invigorate the tourism industry at a national scale.
The voice of the state is most audible in the national discourse, which is partially overlaid on top of the touristic discourse. Here, buildings and spaces are picked out not as destinations but as emblems of local identity and pride. These two layers of discourses are not always distinct but in the longer audio-tour of 2010, it was more strident. Listen to how the triumphant and statist history of public housing was bluntly interjected into the narration:
“The highrise buildings beyond the City Hall are just some of the housing units built by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. Shortly after Singapore’s independence, Singapore faced serious housing shortages. The government, beginning in 1960, quickly built more than 54,000 low-cost flats, hoping to turn renters into homeowners who can contribute to the growing economy. In the 1990s, young working singles began to buy up HDB studio apartments originally built for Singapore’s senior citizens. Today, almost 80% of Singapore’s population live in HDB apartments scattered around the city.” (Audio-tour F, 2010)
Another layer of discourse prominent in 2010, but completely absent in 2021, is the branding and marketing of Marina Bay Sands itself. The corporate discourse took every opportunity to bring the spectactors’ eyes back to the building on which they were standing, thus breaking the screen (or the “fourth wall”) that characterized this mode of visual consumption and acting in the opposite direction to the touristic discourse. Here, it was all about selling the property as an “architectural masterpiece” and its retail, recreational and cultural offerings. Even the casino, which is often obscured in all official discourse on the Integrated Resort, had some airtime:
The graceful building you can see beside the convention centre is the Marina Bay Sands casino. In this modern day Monte Carlo (SOUNDS: JAZZY MUSIC), guests enjoy four levels of gaming in a luxurious spacious setting. An immense crystal chandelier, one of the world’s largest, casts splintering beams of light across the casino floor. Light from the 132,000 Swarovski crystals highlights popular table games like the Roulette, Blackjack, Baccarat and Sic Bo. Slot machines featuring the latest titles round up the vibrant scenes of floors 1 and 2. The casino’s upper 2 levels offer more than 30 private gaming rooms for premier players and Paiza members. (SOUNDS – MUSIC CHANGES TO CLASSICAL) The exclusive invitation-only Paiza club offers the best of every amenity available at Marina Bay Sands to its players. These exclusive gaming spaces are richly decorated with handcrafted gold and silver carpets, custom wall fabrics and rosewood finished corridors.
Given the strict control on any publicity of casino gambling in Singapore, I have some doubts about the legality of this excerpt. But the point should be clear by now. At the moment of launch, the stratified worlds of Marina Bay Sands came together briefly and created many strange encounters. The uncomfortable gaze at the swimming pool also manifests here in the competing voices of the narration. They are all momentary creases of time and space where the mystifying power of the spectacle has yet to envelop the senses. My return to the sky-park in 2021 alerted me to these creases, precisely because they have all been smoothed out. When confronted with a spectacle as beautiful and seamless as Singapore, one has to sometimes look for these moments, and sometimes wait for them to jump out belatedly at you.
Layers of Discourse 20102021TOURISTICCentral Business DistrictCentral Business District“Tallest Buildings in Singapore”Clifford PierFullerton HotelThe MerlionThe MerlionOld & New Supreme CourtNew Supreme CourtEsplanade BridgeTheatres on the [email protected] Bay (National Day)The [email protected] BayNicoll highway &
Benjamin Sheares BridgeBenjamin Sheares BridgeSingapore FlyerBay East Garden Marina BarrageHelix BridgeHelix BridgeMarina Bay Street Circuit
(F1 Formula Racing)Marina Bay Street Circuit
(F1 Formula Racing)Gardens by the BayMarina Bay Cruise CentreDragonboat Racing at Kallang River
& Marina BayKusu IslandLittle IndiaSt Andrews CathedralCity Hall/Art GalleryNATIONALPadangPublic HousingSingapore RiverStraits of Singapore and harbourKallang Indoor Stadium & Sports HubCORPORATEMarina Bay Sands as
“architectural masterpiece” TABLE 1