The good, the bad and the future ‘star structures’ around the world


With the success of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum fresh in the memory, civic planners continue to put their faith in showpiece architecture, with often-variable results

The Frank Gehry-design Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

By Helen Clark

Colourful and chaotic, a hive of life in the midst of sedate Singapore, Little India has always been regarded as a loose cannon. But as of April 2015, the enclave has a signature civic centrepiece that can hold its own with the shiny architectural marvels elsewhere in the city-state. Coming in at a cool SGD20 million (USD14.24 million), the Indian Heritage Centre certainly stands out from the surrounding faded shophouses, markets and curry restaurants. Designed by acclaimed practice Greg Shand Architects, the building houses art galleries, educational and community spaces and is the first museum of its kind dedicated to the Indian community in Singapore.

The striking structure with its distinctive glazed geometric façade is an example of how planners continue to use cultural centrepieces to build the brand value of towns, cities and urban areas within them.

Museums, art galleries, and other cultural and civic projects have been used to bolster prestige for millennia. Indeed, the first ever museum popped up in Alexandria in Egypt as far back as the 3rd Century BC. In recent years, however, the desire for new and often eye-wateringly expensive civic architecture has become ever more irresistible. Much of this is down to what is known as the “Bilbao effect.”

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In essence, it is the terrific economic effect a showpiece museum like the Guggenheim’s outpost in Bilbao, Spain, can have on a town. According to The Economist, the Spanish town raked in more than USD110 million in its first three years in taxes alone; in 2013 one million people visited.

This has given town planners and tourist boards alike the idea: invest in big-scale projects. But the knock-on benefits may not be as immediate and obvious across the world as hopeful planners think. The idea has been that such places are, fixed cost excepted, always going to be beneficial to the community. These showpieces can drain their surrounds. The push-pull effect of them upon a city and a city upon them is complicated.

“Few cities command the accolade ‘great’ or even ‘liveable’ without a significant cultural presence. Successful cultural districts are therefore powerful policy tools. But they are difficult to get right, and expensive and politically embarrassing to get wrong,” wrote Adrian Ellis, a global thought leader in international arts and culture, in The Art Newspaper in 2013, a month after the Global Cultural Districts Network, launched at the New Cities Summit in Sao Paulo.

Asia has good and great examples of successful civic architecture. In Singapore the new Indian Heritage Centre is the latest in a succession of projects that includes The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, an acclaimed performing arts centre. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the M+ in Kowloon, a giant museum of visual culture due to open in 2019, is eagerly awaited.

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Other initiatives, however, have failed to set pulses racing quite so quickly. China went on such a museum-building spree that it fulfilled its new museum quota three years early but many lay empty of both visitors and artefacts.

Meanwhile, both Myanmar and Kazakhstan have built entire cities – Naypyidaw and Astana – to exemplify what their rulers see as national ideals, yet both have an odd, empty feel, cluttered with large monuments but little real culture.

Possibly Ellis had it right when he wrote: “A successful cultural district is not one that is built, but one that, once built, thrives and animates the city or region that it serves.”

And with the “Bilbao effect” continuing to be a huge factor in thinking, the likelihood of more grandiose projects – successful or otherwise – is as set in stone as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the first purpose-built public museum in the world.

The Good…

The Esplanade, Singapore

The Esplanade, Singapore

Singapore was once an unfortunate butt of many jokes. What do you call the only shopping centre with a seat at the United Nations? Singapore. However, in recent years the city-state has turned itself around becoming a hub for art, design and clever use of urban space. Just look at its airport after all. The Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay is a large performing arts centre and one of the busiest in the world, with some 3,000 shows a year. It is also both not-for-profit and Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

MONA, Tasmania
Photo credit:

MONA, Tasmania  

Fender Katsalidis Architects built MONA, with three levels underground, with ceilings that reach up three floors in places, built for some of the more grandiose exhibits. The building and approach to it by boat are almost, if not quite, as famous as David Walsh’s extensive collection. Though essentially a private venture Walsh’s MONA has helped to revitalise Tasmania’s tourism industry and offers free entry to all Tasmanians, also, earning it a few points in the added cultural value stakes.

The Star, part of the Urban Xchange festival, Penang, Malaysia  

The Star, part of the Urban Xchange festival, Penang, Malaysia

A recent, purpose-built exhibit made from cables and LEDs in an unfinished building The Star is part of the Urban Xchange festival in Malaysia which aims to “bring Butterworth (the under-loved port on the Malaysian mainland opposite Penang capital Georgetown) back to life and catalyst its industrial charms as an appeal for further artistic development.” The theme of the festival is urban renewal. But in a more creative fashion than simple gentrification. This grassroots collection of artworks and installations is (arguably) almost an anti-Bilbao, more about repurposing and revitalising than a shiny castle on a hill.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Ah, Doha… known to be featureless, hot and flat. Its Museum of Islamic Art, however, is something to behold. Opened in 2008, the New York Times said: “the museum’s colossal geometric form has an ageless quality, evoking a past when Islamic art and architecture were a nexus of world culture. At the same time it conveys a hope for reconnecting again.” It is far from the flash of much of region and from Gehry’s shiny Guggenheim, too. Its collection, spanning centuries and continents, including Islamic Spain, is as worthy as the building it is housed in.

The Bad…

Uppatasanti Pagoda, Naypyidaw

Uppatasanti Pagoda, Naypyidaw

Naypyidaw is Myanmar’s decade-old capital, conceived then built long before anyone dreamed of a free election in the nation. Empty, multi-lane highways and golf courses, fun parks, a zoo and a manmade beach by a lake all decorate the empty capital. Few wish to live in this strange and isolated showpiece and even foreign aid workers prefer to spend donor money on regular USD350 return flights from Yangon than live here permanently. A quick-reference metaphor for all this is the Uppatasanti pagoda. It is a replica of the feted Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Only this one is hollow.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, Astana

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, Astana

Purpose-built Astana is 18 years old. Strange sights abound and the story goes the place was almost named for the Central Asian nation’s only post-Soviet leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The city is certainly a juxtaposition of many things, and can be described as a kind of “Soviet Disneyland.” The Khan Shatyr mall, the world’s biggest tent, is one telling showpiece. The Norman Foster-designed space has an indoor beach (in a country where temperatures get to minus 40 degrees Celsius).

Red Brick Museum,
Photo credit:

Red Brick Museum, Beijing  

China may be emblematic of both the notion that great cities must have great culture and that recklessly building up cultural centres like apartment blocks and overpasses is not quite how culture and art work. The new and shiny Red Brick Museum is just one (of several thousand) examples of this. As The Economist wrote in 2013, “It is like walking into an empty Olympic swimming pool.” It is part of a boom that saw 3,866 museums by 2012 and 451 opened that year alone. That is a lot of new culture in anyone’s parlance, but it will take an especially clever (or amenable) economist to quantify the mass effect it will have upon China’s liveability or prestige.

The Future…

Acrylic Fish Tanks, Custom Aquarium, Thailand

Acrylic Fish Tanks, Thailand_ICM
Image credit: ICM

“Think Bilbao Effect, with fish!” Ludicrous at that statement initially sounds International Concept Management (ICM) is opening up shop in Thailand and hoping that as the star of the showpiece museum fades over parts of the west it is still in its ascendancy in Asia, and no more so than in one of the world’s top tourist destinations. They are, it seems, hoping a statement aquarium will attract visitors the way the Guggenheim did, and they have done well before creating one-off and stunning aquariums in Russia and Morocco.

M_plus_HK_Credit_VPANG Architects
Photo credit: VPANG architects

M+, West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong

This ambitious endeavour will open in 2019, two years behind schedule. This is very much at the “Starchitecture” end of the civic space spectrum, with hopes the huge hub will be a worthy Asian rival to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The museum alone is to be 60,000 sqm and the curatorial board for the place is weighty at 21 members.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Civic space tends to come after infrastructure but in Ho Chi Minh City’s case one has led to the other. The long-heralded metro is being built through the centre of the busy District 1 and, while building goes on, the once-busy artery Nguyen Hue has been closed to all traffic, allowing pedestrians free rein, an anomaly in the frenetic city. Though businesses were initially sceptical, it has offered the city an unexpected renaissance, allowing old and young to promenade on balmy Saigon nights.

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