SINGAPORE
IN HIS HANDS

Our transformation into a vibrant global city couldn’t have been accomplished without the farsighted planning of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Among the lesser-known players in this narrative are the agency’s model-makers – artists who help bring concepts and plans to 3D life. Having retired in 2015, Mr Cho Sai Chee reflects on five decades as a model-maker.

"I'm just a model-maker,” says Mr Cho, 70.

“But you know, model-makers are eyewitnesses,” he adds. “We see the changes in Singapore’s urban landscape first-hand.”

Lean and sprightly with silvery-white hair, the veteran model technician has been making architectural models since 1964. “Even after 50 years, whenever we got a new master plan or concept, I still got excited and couldn’t wait to start working on the new models!” he says.

Mr Cho arrived at the then Urban Renewal Department of the Housing and Development Board as a bright-eyed 19-year-old. He jumped at the opportunity to apply the skills he’d picked up from his technician diploma course at Singapore Polytechnic.

“I like to build things with my hands, and modelmaking is all about handwork,” he says.

As Singapore’s urban skyline developed, so too did Mr Cho’s passion for the job. He delved deeper into his craft, treasuring opportunities to make models of high-rises and skyscrapers with novel configurations. “Every building is different, and every new model is my favourite,” he says.

Like his fellow model-makers, Mr Cho is meticulous about crafting even the tiniest details to scale, such as carving windows or twisting wire trees. While the process has become speedier and more precise with the help of laser cutters, there’s no doing away with good old-fashioned experience.

“This is what tells us right away if a model can be built,” says Mr Cho. “If it’s something new, we’ll do up a sample and go through rounds and rounds of changes. We never give up.”

He admits that it’s not a job for everyone. “Not only do you need skilful hands, you need patience too,” he says. But it was the perfect job for Mr Cho. For the last 51 years, as part of URA’s model making team, he created over 1,000 models,
giving form to the vision of URA’s planners.

Mr Cho could be found most days in the office he shared with his fellow model makers, hunched over worktables pasting, painting and persevering.

Curious gallery visitors peered through the glass to admire their specimens (office towers, condominium buildings and wire trees) and view the array of modelling materials (acrylic sheets, kapaline boards and balsa wood, to name just a few). “Our work is never finished,” says Mr Cho.

The uncertainty of Singapore’s post-Independence years remains clear to Mr Cho. “We felt that if we worked together
as a nation, we’d make it,” he says. “At URA, we worked really, really hard. Our architectural models reflect the fruits of that labour. They also show us that whatever we plan will come true.”

"Model-makers are eyewitnesses. We see the changes in Singapore’s urban landscape first-hand."

- Mr Cho Sai Chee