The Great Orchard Road Reboot: How designers would do it

Urban experts and top designers reveal their wish list of ways to bring more buzz to Singapore’s most famous shopping street, not just for Christmas but throughout the year

Artist impression of this year’s Christmas lights at the junction of Orchard and Scotts road. PHOTO: ORCHARD ROAD BUSINESS ASSOCIATION

SINGAPORE – After more than two years of retail blight in Orchard Road brought on by the pandemic, things are finally looking up for one of Singapore’s prime tourist attractions.

In a recent media preview of this year’s Christmas light-up in Orchard Road, Mr Mark Shaw, chairman of the Orchard Road Business Association (Orba), said the precinct is “well on the road” to recovery to pre-pandemic levels of tourism.

Urban experts and home-grown designers whom The Straits Times spoke to welcome the good tidings and have chimed in with their ideas on how to add buzz to Singapore’s most famous shopping street, not just during Christmas – but also all year round.

This is mainly to keep the internationally renowned shopping precinct resilient and to fend off disruptions in the future.

There have been calls in the last few years to pedestrianise Orchard Road to free up more public spaces for street-level events and reimagine the shopping belt as more than just a global retail draw.

As far back as 2017, there were a slew of plans to refresh Orchard Road’s streetscape that included making the area, which has the city-state’s highest tourist traffic, a car-free zone over the long haul.

But in 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, international visitor arrivals took a nosedive, falling by 76 per cent in July 2020, according to a recent report jointly published by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and global digital payments company Visa.

The report said that tourism receipts fell by 39 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 compared with a year ago. There was also a steep fall of 61 per cent in transactions on goods and services in March 2020 from inbound travellers.

But, with the recent opening up of international borders and easing of safe management measures, tourists are coming back to Orchard Road.

The STB and Visa report revealed that before the pandemic, international visitors contributed 52 per cent of retail spending in Orchard Road in 2019 during their stays in Singapore. Marina Bay was the other shopping precinct that attracted visitors and accounted for 24 per cent.

The Orchard Road light-up returns with gusto this year, with in-person events such as augmented reality experiences and full-scale programming from next Saturday till Jan 2.

Artist impressions of this year’s Christmas lights at Orchard Road. PHOTO: ORCHARD ROAD BUSINESS ASSOCIATION

The 39th edition of Orba’s Christmas On A Great Street will see Orchard Road transformed with glittering light displays, an array of immersive attractions, pop-ups and musical entertainment.

Meanwhile, the National Parks Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) this year announced plans to pedestrianise a stretch of the road from Buyong Road to Handy Road in phases starting from 2025.

There are also a host of ideas for the Orchard Road party vibe to last longer.

Award-winning Singapore designers such as Mr Alvin Tan, from multidisciplinary design studio Phunk, and Mr Jackie Lai from JIA Studios say the celebrations should go beyond the year-end season through curated programming that celebrates Orchard Road as a lifestyle hub throughout the year.

Artist impressions of this year’s Christmas lights at Orchard Road. PHOTO: ORCHARD ROAD BUSINESS ASSOCIATION

Mr Tan recalls that Orchard Road has a rich street culture history.

“Places such as Hard Rock Cafe, Forum, Far East Plaza, Wisma and Centrepoint became community havens for youth and the birthplaces of cultural movements in the 1980s to the 1990s that revolved around street fashion and music,” says the 48-year-old.

“In the 2000s, it was HMV at Heeren, Cineleisure, Pacific Plaza and Borders at Wheelock which led a street culture phenomenon that can be compared with the offbeat fashion hub of Harajuku in Tokyo or the nightlife of the Lower East Side in New York City,” he adds.

“If we can shed light on this culture through a Netflix documentary to pique the interest of Gen Z and millennials around the world, we can build on Orchard Road’s many facets, which go beyond shopping and dining.”

Mr Lai says that pulling out all the stops – especially now that borders have reopened – will position Orchard Road as a unique place for tourists and locals looking for authentic experiences.

There have been calls to pedestrianise Orchard Road to free up more public spaces for street-level events. PHOTO: ORCHARD ROAD BUSINESS ASSOCIATION

“In the mid-1900s, Singapore had a tradition of travelling hawkers who sold food from baskets attached to a shoulder yoke, as well as on tricycles and pushcarts,” says the 45-year-old, who is the founder of JIA Studios and a recipient of the Society of Interior Designers Singapore’s 20 Under 45 Awards 2021, which recognised 16 of Singapore’s top designers.

“Today, we can have food trucks along Orchard Road that help to add to the overall streetscape with tempting aromas of Singaporean street fare. Visitors may want to come back and set up business here if they feel like Singapore has more to offer than other cities,” he adds.

“What better way to attract foreign talent than to give them a range of urban experiences that may start in the malls but spill out onto the streets?”

SPH Brightcove Video
Senior correspondent Chantal Sajan asks locals and tourists on Orchard Road what they would like to see to add a new element of energy to Orchard Road.

Looking to build a vibrant streetscape may sound good on paper, but what about the island’s tropical weather?

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the Department of Marketing at National University of Singapore Business School says that having a public square may help, but it will not be complete without addressing Singapore’s high humidity and unpredictable thunderstorms, which can put a dampener on street activities.

“One possibility is to have a pedestrian area that can be domed with air-conditioning, much like what can be seen in Bugis Junction, that offers comfortable conditions for browsing and shelter from inclement weather, yet has an outdoor atmosphere,” says Prof Ang.

“Perhaps a piece of land next to the MRT station for accessibility or near malls so that visitors are not at the mercy of the elements.”

Another point to consider is that Orchard Road should champion human experience and look at going “car-lite” in the future.

“Such street life is exactly what SUTD has been advocating with the annual Park(ing) Day for almost a decade,” says Associate Professor Chong Keng Hua, from the Architecture and Sustainable Design pillar of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

SUTD, with support from the URA, has been piloting various street closures, transforming street parking into vibrant public spaces and pedestrian-friendly streets in Jalan Besar, Bugis and Kampong Glam.

This year, it introduced Park(ing) Day at the precinct around Somerset MRT with support from the National Youth Council.

“Consumer behaviour has drastically changed since the pandemic. More people are now buying online, but many still like to go to Orchard Road for its physical, sensorial and social experience, as seen in its vibrant studio and dining scenes, and the large crowd outside The Cathay when there are busking activities,” says Prof Chong.

“Also, after the pandemic, people have learnt to appreciate naturally ventilated outdoor spaces, rather than air-conditioned indoor spaces, both for public health and environmental reasons.

“The main issue in our tropical city is that we need to provide sufficient sheltered areas, trees and greenery to cool down the street and protect it from extreme weather. Now is as good a time as any to bring back the ‘orchard’ in Orchard Road.”

According to Mr Chintan Raveshia, Cities Business Leader for South-east Asia at London-headquartered global professional services firm Arup, Orchard Road’s 2.2km stretch from Tanglin to Dhoby Ghaut presents both an opportunity and a challenge, due to its proportions. Arup has offices across 35 countries and provides design, engineering, architecture, planning and advisory services for the built environment

He says Orchard Road is a long and important city connector, and it is difficult to move cars completely away from it as it connects some of the most diverse and attractive precincts in the centre of Singapore.

“Orchard Road’s biggest challenge is its width,” says Mr Raveshia. “Most successful shopping and community urban corridors in the world are streets, not roads.

“Streets have a beautiful proportion that allow for people to connect, relate and have a sense of ownership. Good examples are London’s Carnaby Street and Bond Street, or Tokyo’s Omotesando shopping street.”

He says that instead of having one main public square in Orchard Road, it is more feasible to develop different parts of the long road to avoid congestion, increase diversity of attractions and let these nodes organically carve out niches through the diverse communities that they attract.

“We need to start visualising Orchard Road as a string of squares, with each square propagating its own identity and purpose flanking across the street with limited vehicular access in those areas; bound together by this colourful string called Orchard Street.”

The Straits Times speaks to five award-winning creatives about their wish list for rebooting Orchard Road

1. Jackson Tan, creative director of multidisciplinary firm Black

Creative director Jackson Tan co-founded contemporary art and design collective Phunk in 1994 and creative agency Black in 2002. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Make Orchard Road more memorable through unique, innovative concepts and activities, says Singapore designer Jackson Tan, 48.

He is one of the founders of acclaimed art and design collective Phunk, which was formed in 1994.

He says any long-term vision for Orchard Road should elevate the shopping belt from its status as a “nice place for shopping and eating” to a beloved and iconic destination for memorable moments and experiences.

“No. 1 on my wish list for adding buzz to Orchard Road would be a spectacular public art parade-cum-performance similar in scale and quality to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” says Mr Tan, who is also the co-founder of Black, a multidisciplinary firm that was formed in 2002, focusing on branding, design and curation of events and experiences.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual tradition in New York City which started in 1924. It is sponsored by the United States department store chain Macy’s.

Mr Tan also suggests “something similar to The Sultan’s Elephant”, a free public event created by the Royal de Luxe theatre company. It was commissioned in 2005 to mark the centenary of French novelist Jules Verne’s death through a grant from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, and has been performed at various locations globally since 2005.

The event is inspired by The Steam House, Verne’s 1880 novel chronicling the adventures of a group of British colonists in a wheeled house pulled by a steam-powered mechanical elephant.

“When I first saw the huge mechanical elephant in May 2006 lumbering across the busy streets of London towards Trafalgar Square, I was so captivated that I ran after it through the streets,” recalls Mr Tan, who saw the elephant on a work trip to Britain.

“The sheer proximity to such a novel piece of street theatre transformed me instantly into a happy young child.”

Royal de Luxe’s latest street theatre was in September this year. It was centred on the 300kg giant dog puppet Xolo, which roamed the streets of Villeurbanne, near the French city of Lyon.

2. Jackie Lai, director of interior design firm JIA Studios

Mr Jackie Lai, creative director from JIA Studios PHOTO: JACKIE LAI

Imagine a highly transformable, solar-powered mobile vehicle that can morph into a food truck, an exhibition booth or a mobile showroom to promote products outdoors. It would also be weather-proof, with a roof that can be extended to shelter shoppers from the elements.

Mr Jackie Lai, founder of multi-award-winning interior design firm JIA Studios, is a passionate advocate of improving lives and livelihoods through design.

Besides signing up for Project Kampong Lorong Buangkok, an initiative to preserve Singapore’s last mainland kampung, he is working with Afghan non-governmental organisations in Kabul to design mobile libraries in abandoned buses for children in the Taliban stronghold.

He recently completed the design for Doonya, a flat-pack home with a loft which can be set up in slums by four people, each using one allen key (an L-shaped metal bar to turn screws and bolts), in just eight hours.

Mr Lai, 45, imagines food trucks, mobile exhibition booths and even caravans providing a platform in Orchard Road and giving a megaphone to small businesses and artists struggling to survive.

He says of the potential mobile vehicle: “If an exhibition booth can be modular and movable, why not a mobile vehicle such as a food truck or a caravan, which can be positioned in under-utilised spaces near building facades so as not to obstruct footfall?

“The pandemic has taught us how to be adaptable and resilient. Mobile showrooms can be converted into clinics in case of a medical emergency and can be quickly transported to places where people need care urgently.

“But the main function of these flexible mobile vehicles is that they help preserve livelihoods and allow small businesses to promote their goods and services.”

3. Jane Goh, director of tour agency Xperience DMC

Ms Jane Goh, director of home-grown tour agency Xperience DMC. PHOTO: XPERIENCE DMC

Creating a “pedestrian paradise” by choking off traffic to the Orchard Road shopping belt might not be practical, says Ms Jane Goh, 53, director of home-grown tour agency Xperience DMC.

“When you pedestrianise such a large stretch of land, say from Orchard to Somerset MRT stations, the question will be: How are you going to fill it?”

Her firm designs experiences by offering novel tours and events. In 2020, it launched the Fascinating World of Aviation Plus Exclusive Hangar Tour in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and when borders were closed. The tour presented the island’s aviation history through on-site tours of Seletar Aerospace Park. It won the Outstanding Tour Experience in the 2021 Singapore Tourism Awards.

Ms Goh says: “It will be challenging to fill the whole road with activities to attract pedestrians. A square will be more manageable – say, outside Ngee Ann City, where the footpaths are quite wide and visitors can attend marquee events such as the New Year Countdown.”

Apart from making these spaces Instagrammable, Ms Goh says there has to be a purpose that guides the events.

“There has to be a reason for people to visit. Iconic spaces do not just happen overnight. They are locations that have grown in stature over time and through word of mouth, movies and good media exposure.

“Orchard Road should not be just about shopping, but also be a destination. Take, for example, Las Vegas. Besides the casinos, people visit in droves to also catch the glitzy stage shows.”

4. Alvin Tan, co-founder of art and design collective Phunk

Mr Alvin Tan (right) is one of three behind the Here Is SG sculpture, which is made up of wood, metal and greenery. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

Other than Orchard Road, multidisciplinary artist and designer Alvin Tan cannot think of any other thoroughfare in Singapore that has the power to rally the crowds and cast a spell over all who grace its 2.2km stretch from Tanglin Road to Dhoby Ghaut.

“It’s glamorous and glitzy, and has a rich history that holds a mirror to how Singaporeans shopped, wined and dined for more than a century,” says Mr Tan, 48, one of the founding members of home-grown art and design collective Phunk.

In August this year, Mr Tan designed a massive sculpture, 20m long and 3.5m in diameter, in Marina Bay waterfront titled Here Is SG, which is part of a national branding campaign set against the city skyline.

He says Orchard Road is the ideal “town square’‘ for free events at the pedestrian level that can pack a punch without being ticketed or constrained.

“Vibrant street activities can start on a Friday evening and stretch all the way to Sunday. Some parts of Orchard Road can be closed to traffic to accommodate visitors and make sure the crowds are able to move freely without any congestion.

“Brands such as popular fashion names can have pop-ups and pavilions to showcase their new releases, while buskers and stand-up comedians can hold court entertaining passers-by,” he adds.

“The key is to integrate the street-level activities with shopping malls, so that businesses as well as visitors get to join in the party.”

5. Kelley Cheng, creative director of multidisciplinary design firm The Press Room

Ms Kelley Cheng is the creative director of multidisciplinary design firm The Press Room, which she founded in 2009. PHOTO: KETSIREE WONGWAN

Orchard Road is filled to the rafters with international brands, observes Ms Kelley Cheng, who was named Designer of the Year at the prestigious President’s Design Award 2020.

So “go local” in Singapore’s most famous shopping street, she suggests – not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year, to add buzz to the thoroughfare.

“If we are unable to have more local designers and brands in malls, then let’s have a bigger local presence outside them,” says Ms Cheng, 50, an architectural graduate from the National University of Singapore and creative director of multidisciplinary design firm The Press Room, which she founded in 2009.

“Pedestrianising the streets allows Singaporeans a platform to perform, sell food and drinks, sell their precious homemade craft works and, most importantly, allows locals to come out and play.”

She cites the Fete de la Musique or World Music Day in Paris as an inspiration.

“On June 21 every year, the whole city is filled with musical performances, concerts at every corner of the street, food trucks, people dancing and drinking freely. Visitors who see this instantly want to take part in the revelry and it makes the city come alive.

“Even if it is just once a year, it is my favourite day of the year when I visit Paris.”

Ms Cheng adds that instead of waiting for Christmas to up the ante, there can be uniquely Singaporean festivals staged in Orchard Road such as Singapore Art Week, Design Week and Singapore Writers Festival.

“We need to liberate more spaces in Orchard Road and celebrate its distinctive precincts from Tanglin and Orchard to Somerset and Dhoby Ghaut.”

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