The pre-eminent hotel in Singapore, it has to be said, has always been Raffles. You can’t fake history. Named after modern Singapore’s founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, its famous bar and billiards room alone secures its legacy. The floor covered in peanut shells, home of the Singapore Sling, and where, back in 1902, the manager grabbed a visiting member of the Singapore rifle team to shoot an errant tiger. You don’t get this at the Holiday Inn.
You can’t fake elegance either. Whatever you think of British colonialism, one thing they took care of was building salubrious watering holes the ruling elites could stride into after a busy day sniping at the wildlife to relax in cool and gorgeous palmed lobbies sipping on a gin julep. Shepheards in Cairo is a similar example of such style and grace (sadly lost). Raffles’ sister hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, another (French colonial, obviously, but the same vibe).
These hotels had pools too. But back when they were built, all you had to do was dig a hole in the backyard, grab the tiler when he was finished doing the bathrooms, and it was all wonderful and sparkly and refreshing and, frankly, good enough. Besides, any pool was a darn sight more indulgent than what was on offer back in the Old Country.
Nowadays though, with ever increasing steel capabilities, high pressure glass strong enough you can drive a truck across it, and who knows what other technologies we can toss into the mix, hotel swimming pools, well, how should I put this, they don’t all look the same. Throw in $1 billion or so, and they don’t look like anything else in this world.
Singapore today is not the world Raffles knew. So much has been built since independence that he’d barely recognise the place. Particularly around the harbour where everything is fighting to catch your eye. I’ve been fortunate enough to walk around the Empire State building, London’s Houses of Parliament, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and I live in Sydney where the Opera house is a daily reminder of the genius of Jørn Utzon (both inside and out). But in all truth, I have never been struck dumb by a man-made edifice anywhere in the world like I was when I first saw the Marina Bay Sands. As I wandered around its base, jaw dangling open, my eyes were permanently craned up, locked on it in awe. It’s captivatingly elegant. Its three towers stand side by side as sensual as any depiction of The Three Graces. Your eye can’t help caress them up and down. I nearly drifted into traffic at one point. One can only imagine the engineer’s response when some excitable architect showed him his sketches for this wonder. “You see, I thought we should make it tall. How about 57 stories tall? Oh, and not just one tower, I thought three would be nice. Three towers 57 stories tall so if you put them on top of each other, they’d be one and a half times the height that New York’s Twin Towers were. And we’ll lay a surfboard across the top! A really, really long surfboard – about the length of a 747 – with a curve in it. And I thought we’d build it over there on the other side of the bay on the mud flats. Because I think it’ll be nice to build such a thing on mud. Hmmm. What do you think???”
Architects are generally very frustrated types. They dream of being the next Calatrava or Gehrig or Hadid and designing major statements that will become hubs of cultural and literati life and celebrated across the world. Some realise that even becoming the chap who designs the new McDonald’s prototype would be gratifying. At least then you’d have the pleasure of seeing thousands of copies of your evident genius brought to life. Most architects, however, end up designing the fire exits or the bathroom stalls for an office block and if they’re lucky, a renovation for their mates. But every so often they hit the jackpot and turn their tools to a job that leaves a genuine legacy. There’s no other way to say it. The Marina Bay Sands is an architectural triumph. And the mud issue was real. Unlike most other construction zones where if you dig down you’ll strike stone, just building the foundations for this utterly vast masterpiece required 800 trucks a day for two years to remove all the marine mud and clay so reinforced concrete could be laid down. And then they started actually building it.
All hotels worth their salt have pools. They’re one of the first things that pop up on their websites to entice you to stay there and not over at the backpackers’ which is a quarter the price. The pool at Raffles is gorgeous. Very elegant and serene and beautifully lit at night. It’s perfectly at home in its surrounds and makes you think, ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ There is nothing about the pool at the Marina Bay Sands that makes sense. And serene it certainly is not. It’s one huge wet cocktail party in the sky. Which is logical. Camry-driving accountants and track-suit wearing Games of Thrones bingers don’t hold pool parties. Uber marketers do. Brazilian bar-tenders do. Prada and D&G-wearing Singapore girls with porcelain skin, do. In packs. I was hopelessly naive. With my white towel rolled up under my arm, I entered the elevator and shot into the sky. The doors might as well have opened on another planet, or at least a spaceport, because when I stepped out, I was greeted to a vision that beggared belief. I actually had trouble taking it all in. For a start, you are 200m up in the air and the pool has an infinity edge – it’s like swimming on the edge of an aeroplane, if you could possibly imagine such a thing. And the pool isn’t tiny of course. It stretches away for 150m. That’s three times the length of an Olympic pool. The whole thing is completely insane. Elegant bars – I don’t know how many, a dozen maybe? – with wrap-around lounge seating in practical colours like white and pale grey and more and more white line the pool deck. Palm trees grow miraculously out of the water. Below, far far below, the harbour lights twinkled through the tropical sea haze. Everything was floating above the stars.
Whatever made me think I could swim a kilometre in a pool at 9 pm on a Friday night on the top of a Singaporean spaceship-inspired hotel, eludes me. Let’s just say, there weren’t many others wearing swimming goggles and there were no lanes marked out and not many kiddies in floaties to swim around. But I was there to do a job and while it was busy in the water, I’m adept enough at dodging pool crowds. Even crowds drinking cocktails. Maybe I was imagining it, but did the water taste, ever so slightly, of Bacardi? Or pink gin?
Marina Bay Sands is the new Singapore. As magnificent a statement of confidence as turning up for work in nothing but your swimwear and a tie. As strong a smell of success as two dozen oysters, natural, (naturally) and champagne (the real stuff and a lot of it). It’s incomparable from start to finish and, in fact on the face of it, it should have been impossible. As the proverb says, the wise man built his house upon the rock, not the sand. Let alone the mud. But it’s still standing. Singapore itself, as a tiny nation state, was predicted to fail too. To slip into the mud.
You might be thinking that in the world of hospitality there are very few new ideas to be discovered. It’s true that when you’re travelling, a welcoming smile, a comfortable bed and a quiet room are what you long for. Oh, and a good bar. But I’d suggest that, while those basics will always be true, they don’t leave a lasting impression. At least not an impression anything like swimming 200m in the sky. The Marina Bay Sands has changed how I look at the world and that doesn’t happen very often. Now, whenever I’m walking through any city I happen to be in, I look up and think, ‘Oh, that’s a little boring. I wonder why they don’t put a pool up there?’ With $1 billion or two, they probably could. And I’d remember it forever.
Marina Bay Sands was pool #555 on the author’s quest to swim 1000 pools around the world.