The coastline of Singapore, Johor and Riau Archipelago, surrounding the Straits of Singapore and the Straits of Johor, is occupied by port terminals, industrial facilities, security installations and gated estates. Through the extensive industrial development of the waterfront since the 1960s, the cities and urban centres in this region have effectively withdrawn from the coast. The sea has become an urban frontier and as a result, the frontier of public interest and imagination.
Multiple ways of looking at the complexity and beauty reveal while moving through the region by sea and on land, placing the sea back in its centre.

5 days
10 different boats
22 islands
3700 km on the sea
Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia
Project for a Trinational Metropolis
In maritime cultures, the sea is sometimes seen and imagined as the land: the source of livelihood, the space of everyday life and connections among people, their activities and settlements, which all gravitate toward it as the centre. Archipelagic life and structures, such as the Malay world along the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore, have evolved around the sea and relied on collaborative exchange over water.

Once part of a unified sea region, disparities and differences today characterize the trinational space of Singapore, Johor and Riau Archipelago. Despite the shared culture and history and high degree of economic synchronization, the three sides still lack common visions and approaches for cross-border urban development.

During the autumn of 2014, the Sea Region studio proposed territorial design strategies addressing nature protection, urban heritage, sea transport, aquaculture and public use of the coastlines. Together, they would lead to stronger metropolitan connections in the currently divided territory. The Singapore Strait, one of the world’s most intensely urbanized seas, has always been the lifeline of the region. The project aims to return the extraordinary sea of the Strait into the centre of the public discourse and imagination about the region’s future.


Teaching team: Milica Topalovic, Hans Hortig, Stefanie Krautzig
Researchers: Karoline Kostka, Magnus Nickl
ETH students:  Sarah Barras, Luca Bazelli, Benjamin Blocher, Panos Coucopoulos, Manuel Crepaz, Alessio De Gottardi, Martino Iorno, Simone Michel, Matthias Müller, Anna-Katharina Zahler

Special thanks to experts, collaborators and guests: Kersten Geers, Markus Ng, Lukas Pauer, Bas Princen, Juria Toramae and BAPPEDA BATAM (Municipal Planning Authority of Batam): Wan Darussalam, Muhamad Aidil Sahalo, Yulhendri Murbarak; UNRIKA BATAM (University of the Riau Archipelago): Rahmat Kurniawan, Hendra Susanto; UTM (University of Technology Malaysia) FACULTY OF BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Prof. Ho Siong, Chau Loon Wai, Abdul Rahim Bin Ramli, Teh Bor Tsong, Goh Hong Ching, Fan Tu; MARINE DEPARTMENT MALAYSIA: En. Shah Habidin, En. Nordin; IRDA (Urban Redevelopment Authority): Ms Jafaar, Mr Shafirul; PORT OF SINGAPORE AUTHORITY: Lim Tian Yew, Daniel Lim; NUS DEPARTMENT OF ARCHITECTURE: Eric G. L’Hereux, Jörg Rekittke; NUS DEPARTMENT OF CIVIL ENGINEERING: Prof. Vladan Babovic; NUS ASIA RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Rita Padawangi and THE ISLAND FOUNDATION: Heena Patel.

Special thanks to ETH ZURICH and FUTURE CITIES LABORATORY: Kay Axhausen, Remo Burkhard, Stephen Cairns, Kees Christiaanse, Rewel Dangoy, Peter Edwards, Adrianne Joergensen, Anna Gasco, Lisa Giordano, Rudolf Krieg, Kevin Lim, Edda Ostertag, Faizah Binte Othman, Sascha Roesler, Daniel Sin Soo Meng, Cheryl Song, Ursula Suter, Amanda Tan and Ying Zhou.
Luca Bazelli and Matthias Mueller
Between 1854 and 1869, the British explorer and naturalist Alfred Wallace created an extraordinary journal of natural wealth of the region, The Malay Archipelago. Upon his visit to the island of Singapore, he wrote of the ‘most luxuriant’ vegetation, gambier plantations and forests with free roaming tigers, and of 700 species of beetles he had collected there. He praised the favorable conditions of climate and soil on this spot, deeming it ‘productive’ beyond any other he had visited in his travels in the East.

But already during the XIX century, after the port settlement had been established in 1819, the urban transformation the island was far reaching.  Agriculture, the building of roads, railways and buildings led to the cutting down of jungles, drying of swamps and disappearance of coastal mangrove forests.
During the XX century, the effects on the physical environment of urbanization and industrialization intensified. The post-independence development agenda during the 1960s, 70s and 80s emphasized on Singapore’s economic autonomy from Malaysia, brushing other concerns aside. Bedok, East Coast and Jurong areas were among the first to undergo a complete transformation of the physical setting, the ‘cutting’ of hills and ‘filling’ of the coastline. Until today, the land reclamation has added around 25 percent to Singapore’s land area, replacing much of the old coastline with a new artificial interface between land and sea.

The 1980s brought regionalization of economic processes, with manufacturing, electronic industries and agriculture leading the migration from Singapore to Riau and Johor. These processes were helped by independent initiatives by Malaysian and Indonesian governments to industrialize, including the massive palm oil production, and the development of petrochemical facilities (such as Pasir Gudang) for processing, storing and trade of oil along the Straits of Singapore and the Straits of Johor. As a consequence of the high paced growth of cities in the last three decades, much of the trinational region has experienced the same pressures on ‘nature’. Huge reclamation projects are today equally characteristic of the coastlines of Singapore, Batam Islands and Johor Bahru. It is estimated that in Singapore, 99 percent of all original mangrove forest has been extinct, while the Johor State has experienced the highest mangrove losses in Malaysia, with 42 percent reduction since the 1970s. The impact on marine ecosystems of the shipping movements, dredging, reclamation and the spilling of chemical material is high throughout the region. In Singapore alone, more than 80 percent of the territorial waters are used for the activities of the port, corresponding to large reduction of coral and other habitats. The absence of freshwater sources in Singapore and Riau led to the building of reservoirs, starting with MacRitchie Reservoir in 1867. The damming of river mouths along the coasts to collect fresh water has changed most of the former brackish streams.

Looking at the sites and practices of nature protection in Singapore, Batam and Johor, it is first apparent that, in the region focused on the sea, the coastal areas have been especially sensitive to change. In the port cities, the access to the sea has been crucial for much of the logistics, industries and even the military; through real estate and tourism the coast has become a commodity too. At the same time, the costal areas are also the places of the richest biodiversity, of concentration of traditional settlements, culture and economy, thus also the areas where most valuable heritage sites can be found.

It is further apparent that so far economic development agenda had dominant role over ‘nature’ or any other possible agenda in guiding urban growth. Instead, ‘nature’ reemerged in region as the byproduct of urban development. The state institutions in Singapore have promoted parks and greenery with human-centered, utilitarian and economic function. Nature was coupled with other urban functions, such as land reservation and military zones in Changi, Kranji and the Southern Islands, or source protection in Bukit Timah. The tendency that emphasizes on environmental management and engineering solutions to ecological and environmental conflicts in the growing city has prevailed. An important part of incorporation of nature into the urban development has been the practice of ‘greening’ Singapore, focused on urban and aesthetic function of greenery for the city dweller. This served urban branding purposes as well, promoting Singapore as ‘garden city’, the ‘city in the garden’ and even the ‘greenest city on Earth’.

Thought Singapore, Johor and Batam form a cross border metropolitan area, they are also three cities in different stages of development, and with differing conceptions and mechanisms of nature protection. For example, the Iskandar planning authorities have given high attention to the coastline of Southern Johor in their plans, but they might not be able to implement them. In the Riau Archipelago, the plans and mechanisms of nature protection are still weakly developed. In all three cities, growing concerns over role and place of nature are increasingly evident.

The goal of the project has been to explore a common vision for nature protection in the trinational region, and to provide arguments for nature areas as ‘productive areas’ that can substantially raise appeal and value of living, work and leisure in the cross-border metropolis. The project emphasizes on the dimensions of nature protection so far missing in the region: it explores the opportunities for cross-border nature protection; it emphasizes the protection of biodiversity; it also considers nature as form of heritage.
Simone Michel and Anna-Katharina Zahler
Traditionally, fishing has been one of the main economies in the region. Older generations of Singaporeans remember the schooners of the Makassar Bugis docking at the barter trade center in Pasir Panjang, the local gathering point for boats from all over the Indonesian archipelago, where the trade of fish, sea cucumber and other foods and small goods flourished into the 1980s.

Different factors brought modernization to the traditional fishing and food economies and cultures. From the mid XIX century, steamships enlarged the scale of fishing and fish trade. Singapore was an important fishing harbor where products were sold and distributed to the Malayan hinterland via railway and roads.

In the industrial society, eating habits gradually changed too. Fresh fish and canned fish replaced the dried salted fish. Growing populations all over Asia introduced the need for cheaper food; poultry for example replaced marine products as major source of animal protein in the diet of the region’s population. It is estimated that in the early 1980s, 75’000 people were still fishing on the Straits (70% Indonesian, 27% Malay and 3% from Singapore). In the late 1980s, Singapore opted to phase out most of its agricultural production. Today the city imports 95 percent of its food, and only 3 percent of fish consumed in the city comes from local farms and fishing grounds. The production of ornamental fish for export in several agrotechnology parks today actually exceeds the sustenance production.

The fish arrives to Singapore from long distances; from Indonesia it is shipped by carrier vessels, from Malaysia and Thailand it sometimes comes by lorries. From the countries further out such as Norway, the fish arrives by plane directly from the airport to the Jurong Fishery Port before being distributed. Large-scale commercial fishing is now present in the region alongside local and traditional fishing and sea farming. Motorization of boats pushed the frontiers of the former fishing grounds into deeper waters; this requires larger vessels, larger ports and cold storage facilities, and implies a high degree of regulation and bureaucracy. These infrastructures, together with massive supply and distribution networks, usually give large-scale commercial fishing advantage over fish from local production. In this manner commercial fishing practices often results in destruction of local fishing economies and markets.

After 1965, the regional fragmentation to national territories led to weakening of trading networks. In 1981 for example, the Indonesian authorities confiscated 16 fishing vessels from Malaysia and observers of the event noted that ‘to be caught fishing in Indonesian waters entails the risk of losing boats, gear, the day’s catch, or even life itself.’ Until today difficulties with taxation and declaration of goods in the cross-border situation prevent or reduce the flow of catches from Riau to Singapore, or foster informal trade under false declarations. Additional issues such as land reclamation, the heavy shipping traffic in the Straits and the discharge of chemicals, puts the marine environment in the region under pressure.
Since the 1970s, aquaculture (and fish consumption) have grown tremendously and many commercial fish and prawn farms can be found off the coastline of the Strait of Johor. This type of farming also poses environmental hazards as it often involves removal of mangroves and water pollution.

Traditional fishing communities are still mostly active in Riau. In Batam municipality, traditional fishing continues to form an economic base for about 5 percent of the population (in 2010, 9487 households were active in the fishing, compared to only 1758 active in agriculture). These are communities whose daily lives and practices are already in the gravity vortex of the nearby cities. Possibilities to preserve or integrate their cultures and ways of life into modern urban economies in the region have so far presented unsolvable equations.

The goal of the work is to examine potentials for trinational fishing and aquaculture in the region that would be able to meet the local needs. The project explores the advantage of cross border planning strategies: ways to ensure high water quality and ecological quality of the marine environment, and ways to create local territories for fishing and sea farming in balance with other functions of the maritime space. The project also discusses cross border approach to regulations concerning the production, distribution and trade. The project provides arguments for the productive role of fishing and mariculture, in their ability to raise appeal and quality of life in the cross-border metropolis, and explores ways in which they can be seen as an element of region’s identity and cultural heritage.
Sarah Barras and Benjamin Blocher
The Singapore, Johor and Riau region has a rich tradition of water transport. Though land-based forms of transportation steadily grew and became predominant during the XX century, people still move by sea. High-speed ferries connect the local and the regional ferry terminals and harbors into a relatively dense network. Singapore Tourism Board reports that in 2013, more than 1.5 million visitors arrived in Singapore by sea; more than half of all arrivals, around 70,000 per month, were from Indonesia. Similar numbers were reported for Batam: nearly 70,000 Singaporean and 23,000 Malaysian visitors arrived at the island by ferry in February 2013. Looking at the seascapes in the region, one can observe great differences in the use and types of boats. Huge air-conditioned ships dominate the international shipping fairways and the anchorages of the Singapore port, while in other parts of Singapore and Johor people still move by bumboats. Chinese sampans move among the islands in the Riau Archipelago.

The technological changes have radically transformed the nature of sea travel, and had great impact on the shape and function of ports and cities. The period from the XVI to the mid XIX century in Southeast Asia and the world is known as the Age of Sail; human migration and international trade from the Arab world, India, China and Europe reached Singapore and the region by sailboats. During the first half of the XIX century more efficient steam ships and ocean liners gradually replaced sailboats, and subsequently other new techniques and technologies continued to transform the nature of sea transport.

Among the most important, the ‘containerization’ of the 1960s was a logistic revolution that enabled globalization and escalation of cargo shipping. Around the same time, with the advent of air travel, line voyages nearly ceased to exist. These changes also revolutionized the character of the port and its interaction with the city. In Singapore and other port cities, this has been a movement from the times when port and waterfront presented commercial and cosmopolitan centers, to the present day when the port and the sea have became logistic territories at the periphery of public perception.

Political history of the sea region is equally crucial, as it gives an insight into the changing nature of maritime borders. The colonial period was marked by a bipolar political geography in the region: after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, Riau Archipelago was controlled by the Dutch with their port in Tanjung Pinang, rivaled by the British in Singapore and Johor. The flows of goods in the Singapore Straits were highly regulated at the time, but people moved freely from coast to coast. There were no passports; ferry connections between Johor Bahru and Singapore as well as Singapore, Batam and Tanjung Pinang where frequent, and small boats could be rented for shorter distances and travels across the Strait.

With the events of the 1963-66 Confrontation and of Singapore’s independence in 1965, the fluid character of the border was replaced by attempts to establish national sovereignties over maritime space. The gradual introduction of national borders also reflected in new ways of water transport. The flexible, small-scale boats were replaced by large-scale, directional ferry connections. Today’s ferry terminals function as intermodal interchanges, immigration checkpoints and commercial centers (with shopping malls, casinos, etc); they generally have no public waterfront. The immigration control procedures – the fingerprints, passport scans, check-in and boarding, etc – have added to the formalization of the water transport. The ferries follow fixed routes and cross the international shipping fairway on designated crossing points. With a capacity of up to 250 passengers, they travel at speed of 28 knots (50 km/h). They serve different uses, from business to weekend leisure trips. By contrast to the increasingly rigid patterns of public movement across the Straits, the transfer of goods in the region was simplified through the introduction of special economic zones – the new ‘borderless’ territories and free-flow regimes of globalized production and trade. Thus, in less than fifty years since the independence of Singapore, the character of movement across the sea in the region has been reversed: from a flexible and open transport based on smaller boats, to an increasingly rigid and directional type of movement.

The goal of the project has been to explore possibilities for a new model of water based public transport in the trinational region. The specific interest has been in the possibility of small scale, flexible connections (smaller boats, longer waterfronts, flexible embarkation and disembarkation) that could complement the existing transport networks. The project provides arguments for the productive role of water transport for the region, in its ability to raise appeal and value of living, work and leisure in the cross-border metropolis. The project explores ways in which water transport can be seen as an element of region’s identity and cultural heritage.
Manuel Crepaz and Martino Iorno
Pulau Ujong, the Malay transliteration of the Chinese Pu Luo Chung, named Singapore as the ‘island at the end’ already in the IV century. Geographically, Tanjung Piai in the west of Johor Bahru marks the southernmost point of the peninsular Malaysia and of the Asian continent. From here, the Asian mainland dissolves into the 18,307 islands of the Indonesian Archipelago.

The roughly 2,760 inhabited islands in the Johor, Singapore and Riau region can be described in terms of their traditional archipelagic culture in which settlement structures used to stretch along the coast, and economy and daily life gravitated towards the sea. Few hundred other islands in the archipelago are uninhabited and covered by vegetation. At the same time, the archipelago is a site of conflict imposed by urbanization, the reshaping of landscape for infrastructures, industrial zones or tourist facilities.

Islands and coasts in the region are places of memory, as most traditional settlements are located along the coast and in the river mouths. Calm and shallow waters of the archipelago, safe anchorage places and rich fishing grounds have always attracted settlers. Settlements along the Johor River leading to the hinterland were of great importance; this passageway to the interior had even attracted the Portuguese fleet to sail beyond Kota Tinggi in 1535. Next to the indigenous Malay, diverse ethnic groups from China, Mongolia, Thailand and Java settled in the region. From the XVI to mid XIX century, in the period of international maritime trade and warfare known as the Age of Sail, the Europeans arrived in the region and founded their ports. These continuous migration flows and cultural crossovers in the archipelago have created a specific cultural heritage.

Not many sites of history and memory in the region are known and accessible. Due to their often remote locations on small islands, they are removed from public view and semi-forgotten. The preserved heritage sites include for example the Raffles Lighthouse, the Kusu and the Sister’s islands, and the Penyengat Island, with its mosque, the former fort and the residence of the sultan ruling over the Malay-Bugis Kingdom in the late XVIII century. Other sites such as the Fort Canning Lighthouse and the Long Ya Men rock have been rebuilt, occasionally even in a different location. The quarantine station on Saint John’s Island, the recreational facilities on Pulau Damar Laut, and schools and cemeteries on other Southern Islands have been lost.

In Riau, there are areas and relationships that are exceptional in the fact that they still convey the more traditional form of archipelago culture. Here, children take boats to the next island to reach school, mosques are the places of public life even on the smallest of islands, houses are built on stilts on the shore and boats connect between island communities.

The future of these island communities in the archipelago is uncertain; they are already to various degrees subsumed in the urban economy and dependent on modern infrastructures and services. Their incremental growth would be desirable, but they often fall victim to industrial expansion and tourism. The shift from traditional archipelagic culture of settlements focused on the sea, to the modern land-based thinking and urban development, has made life on mainland more attractive. The heritage of the archipelago should thus be seen as the specific asset for the region’s culture and identity.

The goal of the project has been to explore a common vision for preservation of the maritime culture of the trinational region, by curating sites of memory in the archipelago.
Panos Coucopoulos and Allesio De Gottardi
Every year 120,000 vessels pass through the Malacca and the Singapore Straits, carrying one quarter of the world’s cargo and making it one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The southern end of the Malacca Strait is formed by a tight passage through the Singapore Strait, connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea and the Pacific, and linking the major Asian economies, India, China, Japan and South Korea. The maximum size of a vessel that can make passage through the Strait is referred to as the Malaccamax: bigger vessels have to take a detour through the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait or other passages through Indonesian archipelago.

Due to its favorable natural conditions and deep water, the Singapore Strait and the port became one of the most important shipping nodes. At any time, there are about 1,000 vessels within the port limits of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). This fleet of container ships, oil tankers and cruise ships creates an astonishing density resembling a floating city. Comparing the footprint of buildings in the city parts overlooking the Strait with the footprints of vessels on the water, one begins to read the water and the land as one continuous urban fabric.

This ‘urban sea’ also forms an autonomous urban territory, with restricted entrance points, designated traffic lanes and crossing routes, highly separated uses and user populations. In order to facilitate the vast amount of traffic, the Singapore Strait is a highly regulated space. In 1971, an agreement took effect between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to coordinate vessel movement in the Malacca and the Singapore Straits. In 1994, this regional cooperation was extended trough the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, granting the ‘right of transit and innocent passage’ to all ships. The passageways are further implemented by the Traffic Separation Scheme, a system of street-like traffic corridors projected onto the water. In order for any foreign vessel to access Singapore’s waters, a pilot, knowledgeable of the conditions of the port, has to enter the boat and navigate its way through the harbor. Arriving ships and boats are parked in designated anchorage zones, or unloaded at ports and jetties. These various zones, their strict regimes of use and highly dense activities, coin the space of the Strait as ‘urban’, and as the paradigmatic image of the phenomenon of urbanization of the sea.

While the commercial shipping and port activities continue to grow and compete for water surface and coastal access in all three countries in the region, there are also other users at urban sea. Oil tankers, cargo ships and bulk carriers are intermingling with cruise ships and passenger ferries, in total representing an offshore population of roughly 10,000 to 20,000 individuals. The population flows between the sea and land are subject to different logics and protocols of immigration control; the permeability of the sea-land boundary is continuously fine-tuned. While cruise ship terminals offer immigration-on-demand to the arriving tourists, supply boats operate 24-7 to deliver medicine, food and mail to cargo ships who’s crews are generally not allowed to enter foreign territory.

The changing port-city relationship over time transformed urban physiognomies and characters of cities worldwide. The evolution of Singapore’s port was greatly influenced by the remaking of the political geography of the region, as well as technological revolutions. Artist Allan Sekula observed that ‘since technological inventions like steam boats and logistic improvements like the container, the logics of port logistics and cargo handling changed dramatically. The replacement of manual labor by cranes and the deepening of port areas for bigger ships emptied (dehumanized) the port facilities and created logistic hubs along the coast.’ The ‘containerization’ of the 1960s was a logistic revolution that enabled escalation of cargo shipping in Singapore. Around the same time, with the advent of air travel, line voyages nearly ceased to exist. These influences marked an urban transition from the times when Singapore’s port and the waterfront presented commercial urban cores and most cosmopolitan parts of the city, to the present day when the port and the sea have became largely invisible logistic territories at the periphery of public perception.

A parallel phenomenon with great impact on life by and with the sea was the formation of the maritime national borders that gradually took effect in the region during the 1960s. The combined demands of industry, logistics and globalized trade contributed to their strengthening. Together with industrial and port facilities, national security installations occupy large stretches of the coastline separating the city from the sea. The highly secured and utilized national waters de facto function as an extended borderzone, which stretches from the sea onto the land: the maritime borders in the region have their reflection the land.

The skyline of downtown Singapore and the skyline of vessels in the deep-water echo each other: two distinct worlds, visually connected, virtually cut off. The psychological distance among the three cities, Singapore, Batam and Johor is great; instead of uniting the region, the sea separates.

The goal of the project has been to rethink the sea space and the coastlines in the trinational region, as space that can perform urban public functions; a space of public encounter, business, cultural exchange, leisure, a cosmopolitan space. The sea and the ports in the region used to hold these public functions in the past; the project therefore considers how some of those qualities can be reclaimed in the present.