The idea of an underground city is nothing new. There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction that imagines living life sub-surface, threatened by ailing living conditions above ground. In an email interview with CoBo Social, Singapore-based photographer, artist and designer Finbarr Fallon talks about his proposition of an underground Singapore, and why he believes it might actually work.
TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Singapore Art Museum
The Bras Basah.Bugis Precinct, or as the locals like to call it—the ‘Be-Be-Be’, is one of Singapore’s oldest districts. Touted as the island country’s ‘Art District’, it was once the administrative centre during its British-ruled colonial times, and is now the home to a host of museums, monuments and architecture that reflects Singapore’s multicultural charm, with a calendar brimming with culture, design and art happenings all-year round.
It is within the bustling area that Fallon’s speculation of a subterranean Singapore emerged. A commissioned mural on the hoardings of Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which is currently undergoing redevelopment until 2023, Sub/merged imagines a fully functional city located right beneath SAM. In this underground world, robotic arms are fervently at work to maintain vertical hydroponic systems, submarine-like buses transport commuters through water pipes, and trees are suspended mid-air, nourished by artificial lighting. Sub/merged is a provocative imagination of a future, where the sky, quite literally, is no longer the limit. The hypothetical city also confronts a rather dire truth about rapid urbanisation in megacities—that upward verticality may no longer be the solution to land scarcity, and that transformative and viable planning and development strategy is the sustainable answer to saturated cities.
Trained as an architect with a penchant for visual arts, his multi-faceted practice undertakes a wide range of works from architectural photography, films; to CGI illustrations and digital media, often spotlighting the role of architecture in urban cityscapes. This is not the first proposition Fallon has made for a subsurface city. In 2017, he created Subterranean Singapore 2065, an architectural film project as part of his Master’s studies at The Bartlett School of Architecture offering a speculative proposal for large-scale underground living in Singapore. The film was subsequently chosen to be shown as part of ArtScience Museum’s exhibition “2219: Futures Imagined”, which ran from November 2019 to April 2020.
Can you describe yourself in three words? Curious. Independent. Deliberate.
Who is your favourite artist? How does he/she inspire you or your work? It’s a difficult question, as my ‘favourites’ depend on the artistic medium under discussion! My favourite photographers are Nadav Kander and Edward Burtynsky, whose use of scale and geometry in photographing urban and other liminal landscapes makes their works simultaneously immersive and uneasy for the viewer. To me, their work is both story-telling and sublime: capturing lesser-seen, man-made landscapes in a geometric yet dramatic way that simultaneously evokes awe and terror. This evocation of tension through scale and spatial composition is something I work towards in both my photographic and speculative work.
What has been your favourite moment of your creative career so far? Seeing Subterranean Singapore 2065, a speculative short film, as part of the ArtScience Museum’s exhibition “2219: Futures Imagined”, last year.
When I made the work back in the UK as part of my Master’s in Architecture final project, I never dreamed it would have the opportunity to be brought to life over here. I worked with the team at the museum to conceptualise and build a whole room that mimicked one of the underground spaces, complete with mechanical fans, raw concrete walls and steel structures to display the works. It was a fantastic experience and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to share my work with such a large audience, in an exceptional setting!
Can you talk about how you approach your creative process? I find that being out in the field, engaging first-hand with places and people, is an inherently generative process. I can wander for hours with a camera or sketchbook, just observing the city and its infrastructure. I also spend a lot of time trawling the virtual world, and have managed to germinate quite a number of creative projects from going down wormholes that began with obscure satellite images or seemingly-dead website links.
How do you see the correlations between your artistry, photography and your design practice? The underlying theme that unifies the three is my interest in liminal urban spaces. At one level, I’m interested in representing these liminal spaces in a way that does justice to their potential—some of which may exist only briefly, and some of which exist for a long time but go unnoticed. But I also want to support, through design, how we can make sure these liminal spaces are also ‘loose’ spaces, that enable people to adopt, take over, work within and against to creatively re-imagine spaces of the city.
How did the interest for the Bras Basah.Bugis Precinct, and the idea of a subterranean Singapore come about? I first came to Singapore in 1997, as a five-year-old, and can’t remember much of the city except what my parents took photos of. So coming back to Singapore for the second time in 2013, I was amazed by how much had changed.
In particular, I remember taking the escalator down at Bras Basah MRT station and marvelling at the contradiction of going down deep into the earth—in fact, into Singapore’s second deepest MRT station—and yet still feeling strongly tethered to the surface thanks to the rippling light passing through the glass-bottomed water feature above.
I was also impressed by the contained bubbles of spectacular nature created at the Gardens by the Bay domes. A key feature of this trip was also being diverted into air-conditioned underpasses whenever possible by my wife, who was desperate to hide from the heat and humidity aboveground. So when it came to thinking about how and where to develop the urban underground of my speculative project, it was natural for me to draw on these experiences of Singapore’s mastery of technology and nature to achieve futuristic environments.
What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work? I want viewers to feel compelled to think about the possible futures that could spiral out from the propositions or the stories presented in the work. Many people are somewhat apprehensive of the thought of dwelling beneath the earth—but I would like to convince them that through good design it wouldn’t be so bad!
Has the pandemic affected the way you create? And more specifically, has it changed any of your views on the propositions you made in Sub/merged? Within the bounds of legal permissibility, and being a responsible citizen, I still regularly tried to document the stories I saw every day, for example during daily meal dabao (the Chinese word for takeaway) or grocery runs. I also found that the pandemic forced me to think more deeply about how to capture a sense of time passing amidst the repetition and minutiae in one’s domestic environment, through photography, and I spent a lot more time with my large format camera, for example.
I think where the pandemic made Sub/merged differ from Subterranean Singapore 2065 is in the sense of optimism conveyed by the former. My latest work for the Singapore Art Museum, Sub/merged, is focused on normalising living underground, by offering up slices of everyday life in a subterranean context. This is contrasted to the cautionary tale of the Subterranean Singapore 2065, where the world-building is focused on the spectacular. The irony is that the activities and landmarks populating Sub/merged, like commuting or the National Library, are so familiar to regular visitors to the Bras Basah.Bugis Precinct, but are actually aspirational in a pandemic context where no one can go out! So I tried to use colour and motion to bring forth an atmosphere of optimistic anticipation—both about an imagined subterranean urban future, but to a lesser extent, how we might return to greater normality someday soon.