Where past and present flow in a rush of excitement

Clarke Quay: Riverside Entertainment Steeped in Stories from the Past

Issue: Feb 2010

Clarke Quay aglow with activity at night
Clarke Quay aglow with activity at night

The Singapore River has always been an iconic river of the city-state of Singapore for it was on its banks that the foundation of the nation was forged. In the 19th century, Clarke Quay, sitting near the mouth of the river, was one of the most vibrant hubs of commerce along the Singapore River. The area was lined with warehouses and light barges from Boat Quay would transport all sorts of goods to be stored in the godowns there.

Built on an Enduring Past

Clarke Quay in the 1800s
Clarke Quay in the early 1900s

Into the latter half of the twentieth century, though, the area languished when cargo services were relocated to Pasir Panjang and the river became too severely polluted for much activity. But the grand old dame with a glorious past was not to be neglected.

In the 1990s, the area was revived as part of the government’s Singapore River Planning Area. Clarke Quay has since developed into Singapore’s first festival village by CapitaLand. Where once bumboats jostled for mooring space, now visitors and locals jostle each other for the hottest nightspots, the most sought-after restaurants and the best buys.

Rebirth of a Historic Icon

When CapitaLand took over Clarke Quay a decade ago, its aim was to revitalize the Singapore River promenade and restore it to its former glory by establishing the place as the premier food and beverage, entertainment and lifestyle riverfront precinct in Singapore and in the region. To that end, world-renowned UK architectural firm, Alsop Architects, was hired to embark on a two-phase asset enhancement work of the area beginning in 2004.

Clarke Quay before its facelift in mid-2000
Clarke Quay before its facelift in mid-2000

The first phase involved refurbishment and repositioning of the units facing the riverfront. The challenge then was not merely to redesign the streetscape and waterfront but to do so without compromising the heritage of the place.

“A previous polite historical refurbishment of Clarke Quay had failed to revitalize it in any significant way so I felt perhaps there was a chance that a more radical strategy that allowed the old architecture of the place to breathe but set against a lexicon of striking interventions would provide a new iconography for Clarke Quay and Singapore,” said Stephen Pimbley, a partner at Alsop Architects.

Elevated dining platforms that project over the river wall called “Lilypads” covered by a series of interconnected round roof canopies known as “Blue Bells” were thus erected to maximize the waterfront, alfresco dining experience. When night falls, the Blue Bell umbrellas light up in an array of colours reminiscent of traditional Chinese lanterns along the Singapore River. The walkway along the waterfront was also widened to 4.5 metres.

Lilypads and Blue Bells, reminiscent of traditional Chinese lanterns, transform the riverfront promenade
Lilypads and Blue Bells, reminiscent of traditional Chinese lanterns, transform the riverfront promenade

Another consideration Alsop had to contend with was the need to provide a climate-controlled environment to combat the scorching heat and torrential downpour that are part of an Equatorial climate.

In the second phase, willowy, umbrella-like structures comprising ETFE (Ethyl Tetra Fluro Ethylene) canopies were built to rise over the roofs of the surrounding shophouses. Aptly named “Angel Sky”, these structures protect against the heat and rain by creating a climate modifier through reverse engineering of the thermoplastic ETFE material. The frames of the Angel Sky support large, whale-tail slow speed fans that provide gentle breezes at street level. A 4,000 square feet water feature at the Central Square which uses chilled water at 16˚C and trees planted along the streetscape all help provide a cooling environment without resorting to the usual air-conditioning.

Angel Sky canopies rising to shade customers from the elements without obscuring the view
Angel Sky canopies rising to shade customers from the elements without obscuring the view

“The ETFE had never been used before in Asia so it had to be tested to make sure it met local codes. The Venturi effect (air accelerating along the streets to aid cooling) and the Alhambra effect (air passing cross water) of the water fountains also had to be tested and proven. It was a process that required a lot of patience and commitment from the CapitaLand team,” said Pimbley.

Clarke Quay is Alsop Architect’s first major project in Asia and for all their effort, the design won the ASEAN Energy Efficient Building Award for Tropical Building Design in 2006.

Oasis of Fun and Feasting

Clarke Quay is a pleasure dome for jet-setters looking to dine on world cuisines like Cuban, Indonesian, Italian, Persian, Moroccan, Chinese, Japanese and Indian, and then to party the night away at any number of night spots against the backdrop of architecture that hearkens back to historical times. It is where the future sits firmly on the foundation of the past. Five blocks of 60 restored warehouses and shophouses play host to a multitude of restaurants, nightclubs, entertainment spots and retail shops lined along the 200-metre long waterfront by the Singapore River.

Each tenant is exclusively selected to provide a unique mix of local and international experience in the heart of the city,” said Tanya Fum, marketing communications manager of Clarke Quay.

“Revitalization of the precinct via our extensive redevelopment together with the “software”, in terms of getting the right mix of local and international tenants, has contributed to the successful repositioning of Clarke Quay as the choice entertainment and F&B destination for tourists and locals alike.”

The Pump Room incorporates a microbrewery, bistro and bar with a live band and offers freshly brewed beer you can savour by the riverside of Clarke Quay
The Pump Room incorporates a microbrewery, bistro and bar with a live band and offers freshly brewed beer you can savour by the riverside of Clarke Quay

And this right mix has reaped rewards for the current tenants of the place.

“Clarke Quay of ten years ago was largely a tourist destination with a large retail element and not much in the way of entertainment. It was considered a ‘tourist trap’ and avoided by locals to a large degree. Now, retail is a very small component and it is an entertainment hub. At my last count, there were twelve live bands in action here. It is wildly popular with locals and tourists alike,” said William Graham, the Executive Director of Quayside Dining Group who runs his stable of eateries with his wife, Pauline.

The Quayside Dining group runs three outlets at Clarke Quay: The Pump Room, Clarke Quay’s only microbrewery, restaurant and club; the Peony-Jade at Clarke Quay, a restaurant serving Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine; and Quayside Seafood Restaurant, the only seafood restaurant that let diners cruise to its establishment on bumboat to dine under the stars.

Anchor tenant, Lifebrandz, which has been running the dance club, Ministry of Sound, at Clarke Quay since 2005 was so pleased with the place that it opened five F&B venues at The Cannery in Clarke Quay the following year. The Cannery offers entertainment the likes of those at international hotspots in Madrid, Paris, London, Ibiza and Milan.

“We wanted to think big and commit a large space for the multi-tiered concepts and high-profile international brand names we wanted to introduce to the market. Clarke Quay provided the right space at the right time for us,” said Bernard Lim, CEO of Lifebrandz.

Lunar – Clarke Quay’s pioneer Mandopop club and one of the largest clubs run by Lifebrandz
Lunar – Clarke Quay’s pioneer Mandopop club and one of the largest clubs run by Lifebrandz

Lifebrandz is a brand development and management group specializing in lifestyle related sectors and has been one of the first tenants to benefit from Clarke Quay’s revamp.

“Cluster concepts like Clarke Quay have caught on and this is obviously the winning formula that appeals to the sophisticated audience in Singapore. Today, Clarke Quay is buzzing. It has developed into a nightlife and entertainment icon in Singapore where locals and tourists hangout. This naturally has benefitted our businesses and outlets there,” said Lim.

A monument of historic proportions, a wonderland of entertainment and activities, an Asian icon - Clarke Quay is certainly one place in Singapore that has lived up to the legacy of its past.

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