Saturday, July 4, 2009

The $40 Million Retail Therapy

There is this unmissable special report on Orchard Road makeover today in the Straits Times.

After $40 million and 14 months, I am looking forward to a more vibrant Orchard Road. For the past many months, driving past Orchard Road is like going through a labyrinth of construction sites spreading along the 2.5 km of shopping belt. Now, as the veils are coming down, Orchard Road is ready to face the world with a clean new face. Or is it?

To me, shopping along Orchard Road means coming in and out of underpasses, jay walking across the street to another short stretch of shops, dashing out into the open space after the covered walkways abruptly end in the middle no where and zipping along uncoordinated themes offered by a wide array of modern as well as drabby-time-stood-still shops.

The whopping $40 million may sound impressive but I do not expect to see a visually inspiring Orchard Road. I just hope that it will not turn out to be a desperate attempt to put on excessive make-up on an 'old lady' just to earn a few years' worth of youthful look.

The problem is that there is a lack of 'soul' at Orchard Road. The $40 million works can repair the previously disjointed shopping experience and at most add a 'white wash' effect visually. I would see it more as a 'repair' than a makeover.

We need some 'louder statements' to give Orchard Road more unique characters. Sometimes, it does not take a lot (like $40 million?) to achieve a great visual effect. Take this one for example...

Several large eggs (each 100 feet wide) were spread on the Zaailand, one of the largest city squares in the Netherlands. They are cute (ya, it is quite odd to describe huge thing as cute). They spark conversation. Most of all, I think they add character to the streetscape.

To be fair, we do have some street sculptures along Orchard Road, most notably the LOVE sculpture. The thing is, this sculpture is found in many parts of USA and other parts of the world such as Taipei, Tokyo, Bangkok and Shanghai. It does not add uniqueness but conformity to Singapore.

Else where in Singapore. away from Orchard Road, there are sporadic attempts to add 'characters' to the city state.

A $2 million 'Momentum', created by sculptor, David Gerstein, was strategically erected near One Raffles Quay since early 2008. The colorful steel sculpture, shaped like a Christmas tree, is fairly loud although some call it the ugliest sculpture in Singapore.

Along the Singapore River, the sculpture with "Children Jumping Into The River" is one of my favourites. I do not have to mention or introduce the famous water-spouting Merlion, do I?

We also have the world's largest fountain at the Suntec City. With a huge bronze ring measuring 66m circumference , the size is impressive but the look is not, as far as I am concerned. Due to reasons related to "Feng Shui", it is known as the "Fountain of Wealth". This water feature is popular among the fortune seekers who would faithfully wait for their turn to 'touch' the fountain. I suppose in that sense, it is inspiring as it inspires, err, wealth creation?

I think a fountain can be more inspriring than that. Perhaps this one is an example...

Crown Fountain in Chicago is a piece of interesting pop art. Instead of static and dull display of sculptures, these impressive 'video fountains' appear to be interacting with the people around them. Watch this video. Some say that it is creepy. What do you think?

Back to Orchard Road and its makeover.

Orchard Road as a shopping destination has come a long way. It all started in 1958, when founder of CK Tang bought a 1,351 square metres piece of land at a cost of $3.45 per square foot, at 310 Orchard Road which he built at a cost of $200,000. Since then, more malls were added along the road. However, it seems that the shopping paradise did not quite grow organically. Rather, much of it was orchestrated under the strict watchful eyes of the local planning authorities. Is that why Orchard Road has always been somewhat a shade paler than regional competitors, such as Hong Kong?

This year alone, three jewels are added to the 2009 retail mall collection : Orchard Central (just opened), Ion Orchard (opens on July 21) and 313@Somerset (opens in November). This adds another 2 million square feet of retail space to the existing four to six million square feet.

On top of those new kids on the block, other existing malls such as the Paragon and Heeren have been working hard to keep their youthful appeal.

I would think that all these new and revamped malls are going to look impressive. However, the overall appeal of Orchard Road may not. After $40 million, I am afraid we might just find pieces of jewels studded on a long and dull drapery.

This time, let's hope that I am all wrong.

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

~Anais Nin~
(French Author 1903-1977)

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