Photoessay: Singapore architecture

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Formal pond

I think I’m a formalist at heart. I need that sense of logic and control to feel relaxed; I suppose some people will call that being anal retentive or a control freak. Or that my images lack soul and are flat and boring. I defend that by knowing that it’s all personal opinion, anyway. Perhaps this is why architecture appeals to me. On one hand, really interesting architecture is both visually satisfying and at the same time usable by the people it was designed for; on the other hand, there’s a lot of architecture that’s unnecessarily complex adornment over a basic structure that wasn’t very well thought out – doors on the wrong side of traffic routes, for instance; passageways and lifts that don’t connect; rooms whose internal layouts you can’t make work without special furniture, and facades that are impossible to clean or maintain. Photographically, finding order and balance in the disorder – especially when the surrounding environment is taken into account – is not as easy as it looks. A building or space is in reality fluid and never really remains in the perfect state envisioned by its creator – he or she cannot foresee exactly all of what might happen in its environment in the future.

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Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong are three of the most interesting cities I’ve been to in Asia (excluding China; that’s on the to-do list for now) for a couple of reasons: they don’t mind experimenting a bit with design, and they also can afford it. Coupled with reasonably good maintenance (forget that in Malaysia) and you have something visually interesting and eminently photographable. Though Japan tends to make some effort at linking the old and the new, I don’t find that to be the case in Singapore; contrast seems to be celebrated and enhanced, if anything – to emphasize the fact that a building is new. Or perhaps it’s because there isn’t that much history to draw on in the first place. I’ve tried to preserve that feeling of semi-harmonious difference in a number of these images.

In any case, this photoessay is a series of architectural subjects at all levels of detail – cityscapes, individual buildings, small details – I shot for my personal work between assignments during a recent trip to the city. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and 70-200/4 VR.

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Delicate shadows

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Dome of mystery

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Cladding, I

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Cladding, II

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Science Museum

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Contrasts, I

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Old is new

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The Great Wall

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Contrasts, II

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Contrasts, III

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Organic inorganic

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A sinister reflection of the future

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. As usual, a great set of photographs. They meet the four criteria you set in the thread that comes after this one, especially in the end, the idea. I’ve failed many times trying to take a decent photo of lily pond (what?) leaves. It never occurred to me to make use of the geometry of the structure that holds them (your first image from the GR). Most of us would just try to focus in on the lilies themselves and the water. I’ve read many discussion here about photographing architecture, one of your favorite subjects. The so-called “coldness” or lack of emotional element in steel and concrete always seems to come up. (Hmmm, don’t remember hearing anyone mention beauty per se). I think part of the problem comes from mixing up the subject, the buildings themselves which are after all concrete, steel, and glass, with the photograph of the subject. It’s that latter that Ming is sharing. Obviously, he can share the actual building, only invite us to visit Singapore. Somehow this issue falls into the same category as photographs of flowers. Flowers? In a real sense, a flower is architecture as well, organic and natural, of course, but functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. By functional, for example, I mean the fact that there are only yellow flowers in the Galapagos Islands and it’s the only color that attracts the only bees that live there (joint evolution). I love to try to take photographs of beautiful flowers and have discovered that if the flower is beautiful, the picture is usually a beautiful picture of a beautiful flower! Boring, not a keeper. In fact, it would be much better just to have the flower itself, which many people do. Or in the case of architecture in Singapore, the building itself. Just go look at there “real” thing” in 3-D with smells and noise all around it, and people. On the other hand, when I see a great photograph of a flower I am astounded that anyone could have produced it with a camera and darkroom or photoshop. The photo has to be much more than just a picture of that flower. Much more has to be added to it by the photographer to be worthwhile. I admire anyone who can do that with a flower. Well, that’s exactly what you’re doing with architecture. Your photographs require the building and great light, of course, but the final image goes way beyond that. Otherwise, why bother. So, what word did I just use, oh, astounded to see what you have shown us with this architecture. Keep them coming. It’s you, not just the buildings.

    • Lilies need context too 🙂

      Beauty in architecture: I think buildings come across as cold because of the execution and environment, not because of imagination. As you say: the environment isn’t very warm, and that absolutely translates into the image.

  2. I always think of Mondrian and Escher whenever I look at your work. In my view, where people discern sterility it is actually a function of much of your the subject matter – modern buildings in S.E. Asia are formally interesting but rarely radical or interesting, with a few honourable exceptions. And the urban environment there has become sterile. Yet when you are in more naturalistic or less manicured locations, your work is clearly not flat or too perfect.

    The stuff on your gallery site is fantastic. Keep going!

  3. “A building or space is in reality fluid and never really remains in the perfect state envisioned by its creator” As an architect, and it’s a personal opinion because another architect is not going to think the same, I disagree with that vision. There is no perfect state envisioned, at least for me. That’s because besides the three dimensions we have to think in the time, the society and the users. Other thing is that drawn plans for its character is two dimensional and “frozen” at time. But any architect has to design for you, for example, thinking that sun is going to enter your bedroom in the morning, that you are going to get older so the maintenance has to take in account your age. That you can have children and they can grow so your spaces have to be flexible enough to adapt to new bedrooms. That nights comes so artificial lights are going to to have a nocturnal impact. The plan drawings are guides to the builders or to communicates ideas, the space is moving in the time, in my opinion. (by the way extraordinary compositions)

  4. Filipe Brandão says:

    I really don’t see how being a control freak and soulless images correlate. If anything absolute control is what it takes to masterfully execute a vision, be it architectural or photographic. It’s curious that you used architecture as an example. I am an architect, and I believe that to produce good architecture, absolute control is required and it takes years to achieve the knowledge and experience that is needed. That’s why architects are considered young up to their mid forties. In fact, most of the greatest architects are precisely know by their obstinate nature and monastical dedication to the profession. Mies, Le Corbusier, Alvaro Siza, just to name a few that despite those traits are able to produce buildings that are considered art and filled with soul.

  5. Flat and boring? I seriously doubt anyone would say that about your photography! I think it’s really difficult to take interesting shots of architecture – yours are beautiful.

  6. I know it’s difficult but I’d ignore the “soulless” adjective and continue to do what you do so very well. How many contemporary photographers, peers of yours, can you name who have a truly recognizable style? Many photographers work their entire lives and never develop a personal signature to their work. It may not be for everyone but then nothing worthwhile is, and there are many who really enjoy your work.

  7. This is a really great set! I’m enjoying even more than usual because I can also see how you’ve applied the two technical things (framing and lines leading out of the frame) we were working on during the workshop. To use a watch analogy, it’s like the photos have crystal backs and you can see how they actually work. 🙂

  8. Graham Lawrence says:

    There’s a fabulous saying by John Hejduk that goes . . . The fundamental issue of architecture is “Does it affect the spirit or doesn’t it? If it doesn’t affect the spirit its building . . . If it affects the spirit its architecture”. I think your huge strength Ming, almost more than anything else, is capturing the spirit of architecture. Personally, I’m not in the market for individual prints. But when is a book coming of some of these shots?? Best wishes.

    • Thanks Graham. A book? Well, either when I figure out how to print them at a sufficiently good standard and acceptable price, or I get over the fact that every book that people can afford is going to be poor quality and probably a waste of time to produce because of the economics…

  9. Magnificent set, Ming. “Organic Inorganic” and “Compression” are stellar.

  10. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Nice photos, I love “Contrasts”. I shoot smallish sections of walls a lot, but it is time to step back and take a larger view.

  11. You are the Master of preserving tonality Ming.

  12. David McCaskill says:

    Which ones were shot with the GR please?

  13. The Great Wall – for me, this is the kind of photography I instinctively associate with you. Highly detailed and considered abstracts. Fantastic! If I wasn’t spending boat loads of money on equipment for my upcoming trip to Nepal, I would snap up an ultraprint – perhaps when I get back!

  14. Thoughtful, beautiful, significant set. Post-processing has changed somewhat. Is it the D810 or else?

  15. KUDOS Ming, beside your excellent photography, I know very well, that’s also a lot of footwalk, to do such outstanding images!

  16. You do a great job of ‘seeing’ what is not immediately obvious. ‘Compression’, for example, would not be an intuitive composition for me. I like ‘Delicate Shadows’ too. I spent a weekend in Singapore and took some photographs. The thing that struck me the most was the abundance of trees in such an urban setting, and how vibrantly green the leaves can be caught in the light, and the way they cast shadows like this – a juxtaposition, or a softening, depending on your perspective. ‘Formal Pond’ is a mastery of perspective and composition. I feel inspired by that one.

    Just a note on Hong Kong and ‘maintenance’. While it is true that an army of cleaners is employed to keep public spaces sparkly clean, it is also true that there is a different tradition for building exteriors compared to, say, Europe, or the US. Painted exteriors are seldom re-touched, and are often left to peel bare. Bare concrete looks incredibly weathered after a short number of years – decrepit even. Apartment buildings that are tiled on the exterior (many – due to typhoons), only get re-tiled every twenty years or so, and can look very weathered. There is definitely a typhoon texture here beyond the glass towers. I quite like that.

    • Thanks Linden. I like the ‘urban texture’ too – I suppose that’s a consequence of making sure the inside matters, but being efficient about money. Also, glass/steel are somewhat binary: they’re either intact, or not.

  17. Magnificent, gorgeous, superlative, stellar even comes to mind. Such an enjoyable set.

    This set does nearly inspire, or goad?, me to try again to produce pleasant images at a time when I am very sorely tempted to label the effort as inappropriate idleness and give it up … since my own images fall so short and do nothing in terms of supporting my family. Nevermind ….

    This body of work strikes my tastes as both beautiful and excellent. Kudos!

  18. Just Looking says:

    Great shots. You’ve picked the right views (I have some nearly identical!). Some of the new Singapore is spectacular, and there are some great ‘set pieces’, like the new Marina Bay. Much is made of the contrast between old and new being one of the attractions of the place. Yes, but … the new is gradually overshadowing, crushing the old, and a good deal of the ‘adaptive re-use’ is really wholesale rebuilding, with some reference to the old facades. The place is becoming less and less distinctive. With a few notable exceptions, Singapore’s modern buildings ‘could be anywhere’. Lets see how it works out over the next 20 years …

  19. Excellent collection. I admire the way you capture the beauty and lines, and then find that pop of color to add a nice contrast. Very nicely done!

  20. Lovely!

  21. Sid - The Wanderer says:

    Gorgeous shots…not just beautiful but also thought provoking! I especially love the one of the Hindu temple and bull with glass facade buildings, brings two different yet coexistent worlds together…

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