How to Solve Orchard Road’s Identity Crisis

The gahmen doesn't have a clear plan. So here's ours.
by Teo Ken-hin
ExperimentsApril 5, 2019
Orchard Road is flailing. To address this, the URA, STB and NParks (?) have come together to fix our flagship shopping street. But their proposed plans seem to fall short of a clear commitment to Orchard’s identity crisis. So… we came up with a few specific ideas of our own.

Having largely had great memories of Orchard road growing up, we checked out the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and National Parks Board (NParks) joint plans to revamp Orchard Road with anticipation… Had they cracked it? Would this proposal bring back a youthful romance to the street?

The short answer: no.

Sadly, the government’s rejuvenation proposal – optimistically complete with renders of people doing yoga in public and peppered with strange quotations from faceless individuals – led us to become increasingly crestfallen with every buzzword.

As we scrolled through the outline, the questions that grew at the back of our heads: “THIS PROPOSAL IS FOR WHOM?!!”

And also, “What about… THE SHOPPING?”

Even the creepy faceless shoppers are all like... "Wtf. Why here got yoga, one?"

Sigh…

Look, there were some macro ideas that we did agree with, like the breakdown of the street into distinct zones, a massive green break outside the Istana, so on…

BUT the big overarching solutions proposed to us (via an Australian consultant) are, first, to make Orchard Road “The lifestyle destination” and, second, to “Bring back the Orchard”. Eeyeer… Lifestyle?! Is this 2001? Planting fruit trees? Uhhh… good grief.

If these are deemed to be engaging and fresh, then the powers-that-be are sorely mistaken. The proposal is bewildering in its lip service and cringingly dated ideas – but, worst of all, it commits to absolutely nothing. No balls. And this has cost the taxpayer $1.3 million in consultant fees. (We can’t not mention this.) And so, we present to you…

THE JUNK ORCHARD ROAD MAKE GREAT AGAIN PLAN

We will concede up front that due to the nature of (extremely valuable) property ownership on Orchard Road, a blanket decision to do anything will be hard. There is probably too much turf to protect and too many agendas to account for. This seems to be the thinly veiled sentiment behind this think piece by Mark Shaw, chair of the Orchard Road Business Association.

Que será, será. We at JUNK, on the other hand, being free of these realities, have decided to reboot Orchard Road from a user’s perspective. If a world-class research firm can’t convince anyone, maybe we can! So here goes!

Step 1: Orchard Road = Shopping

Let’s talk about the KEY act of reviving Orchard Road as a shopping destination, which was not even directly addressed in the URA proposal: enticing shoppers back.

Surely the issue of Orchard Road is to revive it a premier shopping street, with “shopping” being the operative word. We need to get people to come back not just locally but also internationally for a great retail experience, to get them to come, spend money and help retail fight back.

It’s worth asking – if this is even the future? Do we still go out to shop? Surely the assumption is that we all love to stay at home and let TaoBao and Amazon sort all our consumption out. That is not unreasonable, but as with all things that go round, they do come round again, and recent research has shown that even Gen-Zs are more partial to shopping in the real world than online.

Welcome to Orchard Road Shopping Centre! Please get off your slow diesel bus and get on to our whizzy electric trams... and shop... into the future!

We would love to come back to Orchard Road if it convincingly became the one-stop place to get everything done and settled in an afternoon. Perhaps Orchard Road needs to be able to take on some of the qualities of the online world, without any of the pitfalls. Perhaps it needs to be predictable, clear and useful as a destination; a place where you can touch and feel products in person, but also know ahead of time what you can get, when you get there. We know! Crazy X radical!

“What about satellite town malls?” you say. “Don’t they beat Orchard Road by being convenient?” Yes. Regional malls are great for the convenience of their local residents, but have you seen the number of SAF singlets and slippers there? It’s hardly a desirable destination, especially on the weekends when the crowds can be overwhelming.

No, we think that the Orchard Road brand does have enough equity to still be thought of as a place that can be tempting, gratifying and aspirational. We think that it can still be revived as a place to escape to from the everyday.

So…

Step 2: Distill Orchard Road

Orchard Road is too large and flabby. The area north of Paterson and Scotts Roads is really not where the energy is, but actually has the feel of a village that services the well-off neighborhoods surrounding it. And that’s no bad thing; its vibe could be that of an (even more) upmarket Holland Village – and to some degree it actually already is, with family-focused malls from Tanglin Mall all the way to Forum. It may be more sexy for it to have its own identity from now on, like… Tanglin Village?

Distill it. This is all we need.

The part south of Concorde Hotel should also not count as Orchard Road. Sorry, Plaza Singapura, you really tried but your time is up; even the Christmas light up looks so sad when it stretches to include you. As a result, we suggest to include you in the Bras Basah area, where you can be free to be the go-to mall for the schools and universities. Cool, what.

The one thing we do agree with in the proposal is to site a massive public park outside the istana. It’s an important national space and should be open to all to enjoy. But we would also recommend a a huge fuck-off sculpture celebrating consumerism as the centrepiece of this green break. It could also serve as an ominous reminder of the dangers of unsecured credit, which falls in line with the government’s general war on fun. The MAS would surely approve.

As for the rest of the road in between these two areas? Simple! Make it all part of one great big mall.

Step 3: The Street is the Mall

Our vision sees Orchard Road as one massive, street-length department store, with the various malls serving as specialist departments.

Imagine:
ION as the “ground floor” – beauty hall, fast fashion and a massive supermarket.
Paragon and Ngee Ann City as the “mid-level floors” – fashion, toys and family bollocks. Lucky plaza: a massive electronics emporium.
Centrepoint and Orchard central become the “top-level floors” – books, home furnishings, etc.

From Cuppage terrace down to the Istana, we switch things up: here we have multi-story, flagships with strong facade identities for all sorts of brands – both retail and F&B, from high brow to mass market. These would also be laid out in and around the “laneways” of Cuppage Plaza and Orchard Plaza (and we would keep the sleazy Japanese salaryman vibes of that particular hood).

While it may seem monolithic to cluster directly competing retailers together, it does make for a more compelling experience for the shopper as they bounce from place to place looking to score a deal. And with the following points, we aim to make the Orchard Road retail experience even more pleasurable.

Step 4: Orchard Road: A Great (Searchable) Mall

Orchard Road is marketed as a retail paradise, but how many times have you gone down in hopes of buying something only to find out they don’t have the item in stock, or in your size? Or you hear the dreaded: “All the stock we have is on display…” FUCKing chee…

Behold! The all knowing power of T.O.R.G.D.M.! (The Orchard Road Good Deals Machine) Lay prostrate!

So Orchard Road is essentially unreliable as a retail destination. And in an online world (digitalisation? blockchain?) this can be fixed by having a streetwide search function. One that lets people know if things are available, where they can be found, and even offers price comparisons and reservation functions.

This may sound like a big ask, but it may not be so outlandish – some retailers have already bridged this gap. Kinokuniya in particular lets you check the availability of books online before you decide to head down.

Step 5: Pedestrian traffic > Road traffic

Orchard Road needs to allow for more spontaneous foot traffic. Currently, crossing the street requires military-like levels of planning and precision: “Which underpass? Cross here? Or maybe take that one then cross over?”

No. People just want to simply cross the fucking street and move as the crow flies. We want to be less reliant on underpasses and, for god’s sake, no stupid bridges! It’s just five lanes of one-way traffic goddammit, not the MCE!

To make this more doable, we suggest downgrading Orchard Road – from a major thoroughfare for traffic heading to the CTE – to an arterial road with lighter traffic more agreeable to human movement. Buses should also be removed from the street. But we wouldn’t banish all traffic – light passenger and delivery vehicles will be allowed to get to the malls. Think of the families and elderly who will really appreciate this.

Shoppers first. Everything else second.

If we ditch buses, how would shoppers get about then? There will always be the MRT but if they do arrive by bus, we envision that they can get off at the northern tip of the street outside Tang Plaza, then transfer to a fleet of electric trams that zip up and down the road, flanking a central island planted with fresh new trees. This island can also house smaller businesses like cafes and food stands and function as a shaded pedestrian path on really hot days .

As for the existing trees, let’s not get too hung up on what is currently there. The current trees are ugly, misshapen and are a species that attracts mynahs to breed and shit everywhere. Annoyingly, these trees also cut light to the existing sidewalks, making Orchard Road feel old and dark, do you not agree? Transferring the trees away to a central reservation will brighten up the sidewalks significantly and will also give better visibility to the facades of the buildings on the street, allowing for a better activation of the frontages (see point 9).

Step 6: Cool it down

"I wish that I could be like the cool kids 'Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in."

Yes, we live in the tropics. It will always be hot and muggy, but we are not fans of some misguided fantasy of roofing the whole street and covering it up; all that just makes it claustrophobic. We don’t need patronising architectural follies that will date faster than a horny teenager.

Instead, just make micro climates where possible to ease the tropical heat. Large air circulators at the junctions will be nice and will give the street a visual dynamism to boot. Plus, a frequent, hop-on-hop-off electric tram system means that you get anywhere on the street in less than 10 minutes under shade.

Step 7: Cater to cheapskates and bargain hunters

Here’s one for those that matter.

We propose a subterranean astroturf lawn between the basement of Paragon and Ngee Ann City. This could be a place to stage gladiatorial-style live game shows where the last one standing gets to buy a 100” flat screen TV for a dollar. Orchard Road needs this sort of permanent gimmick and we think watching people trying to score cheap shit will provide hours of mesmeric entertainment.

Watch cheapskates battle it out from the comfort of a big underground field.

Crucially, this space also brings back a large public gathering spot, which vanished when ION was built above Orchard MRT. A place for locals, tourists and especially domestic help to chill in a large, sun-dappled (via skylights), air-conditioned, underground meadow.

Step 8: Destination : New Rasa Singapura

Shit food courts and half-baked, mid-priced chain restaurants seem to be an Orchard Road speciality. Food options are currently the worst thing about Orchard Road, and we’d like to just say FUCK OFF. What we really need are cheap food options with conviction.

If you can afford us some nostalgia here, a new edition of Rasa Singapura would be nice. For the uninitiated, the original Rasa Singapura was an elevated hawker centre behind the current Tudor Court that was supported by the STB. It was a gastronomic institution but closed in the late 80s to make way for development.

Hello cheap eats, goodbye *SCAPE! (You're not a cool kid. Don't laugh, Design Orchard, you're next.)

We need a new hawker centre at the heart of Orchard Road. We’d have it anchored on the SCAPE site – yes, goodbye SCAPE, no one loves you – and kind of crawling around Orchard Cineleisure and its adjacent buildings. The hawker centre should be elevated and broken up by courtyards to allow good airflow. But it also should be narrow, just as its forebear was, to allow for labyrinthine discovery.

This would be the symbolic start or end to the Orchard Road experience, and would not be just for locals, but a global attraction in its own right – one that combines the heat and fire of proper Asian cooking, and the social nature of chowing down on hawker food.

Step 9: A bonanza of brands

Thanks to the URA, Singapore hardly has the hyper dense and electrifyingly chaotic spaces of cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo. Instead, our city is pleasant and well-planned – which, OK, we can vibe with, but maybe all of Singapore does not need to be that soporific and picture perfect. Least of all, Orchard Road.

Brands - banging in your face. And our monumental fountain sculpture thing featuring bronze shopping bags and a titanium credit card.

Orchard Road can and should be garish and in-your-face, at least in part. So from Cuppage to the Istana – the flagship territory of our revised Orchard Road – we’d love to see garish, branded store fronts that function as billboards, like a face to the street that changes endlessly. Bring the art of window dressing back to the road!

Orchard Road also needs to take a leaf out the Changi Jewel playbook, and ask for more bespoke versions of store experiences from the brands. And on that note, how has Shake Shack, Burger & Lobster and the Pokemon centre opened in the airport and not in our prime shopping district is anyone’s guess! Truly embarrassing.

So there we have it! What we really want is for Orchard Road to be focused and relevant to the shopper. We need it to do one thing well and not many things badly. If it succeeds in doing that, one might stay and spend more money. This surely is a win for all? To help people spend their time more efficiently,integrating a real-world and online retail experience would be unprecedented, not just for us, but would also make Orchard Road a global shopping destination without peer.

… So, URA, howz dat for feedback??

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