The human spirit of art
Esplanade: Theatres On The Bay. Picture: Hidetaka Mori

Benson Puah is many things. But primarily I think he's a philosopher. As I listen to him talk over lunch at Singapore's spectacular Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay performing arts centre, of which he's the chief executive, I'm astounded at the breadth of his ideas and the fluency with which he articulates them.

Guide to Singapore:

"One has to understand the role of cultural institutions in society," says Puah, who is also chief executive of Singapore's National Arts Council.

"What role can we hope for them to play in our own cultural evolution? In many societies, governments have commodified art and it's become a product for consumption. They focus on the industry. Of course that's an important part, but cultural institutions must matter to the people first."

Shades of a Confucian commitment to the betterment of the community and of society at large through shared cultural endeavour, as well as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere's concepts of equality and political aesthetics? To be sure.

But I recall our pre-lunch tour of the Esplanade, a $S600 million ($458.8 million) waterfront development at Singapore's Marina Bay which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

We had stood in awe at the distinctive twin domes, the spiky aluminium sunscreens protecting their huge expanses of glass lending them a durian-like appearance. We had marvelled at the impressive 1600-seat concert hall, with its reverberation chambers, acoustic canopy, curtains and 4740-pipe organ built by Johannes Klais Orgelbau.

We had ducked our heads in the doors of the theatre, with about 2000 seats, and more intimate theatre and recital studio, all of which yearly play host to a culturally diverse range of events. We had looked at artworks in the Jendela visual arts space and watched a free concert for schoolchildren in the foyer, where other artworks were also on display.

We had wandered through the outdoor theatre, forecourt, courtyard and three-level mall with its mix of food and retail outlets, and its Performing Arts Library. We had taken photos of the city skyline and Marina Bay from the impressive roof terrace.

And I hear another, deeper music in what Benson is saying, one that resonates within a complex architectural acoustic that is organic, holistic and addresses the individual at a fundamental level.

"We talk about arts in the community," he says. "We talk about arts in education. It's looking at the fundamental building blocks of an individual and how arts can be a part of that. We want the individual to discover their own pathways as to how art can matter to them."

William Yeoman travelled to Singapore courtesy of the National Arts Council. In 2012 Esplanade commemorates its 10th anniversary with the theme Celebrating Life - The Best of the Human Spirit through the Arts, with 17 arts festivals and series presented throughout the year. For more information, visit

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save