At 50, Singapore faces many of the same challenges that another geographically constrained port city, Boston, faced after a half-century of national independence. In the 1820s, Boston’s highly unified leadership
sought to maintain the city’s social stability and livability amid astonishing human and economic growth. To do so, it embarked on a policy of what might be called visual didacticism. By establishing monuments, art galleries, parks, and residential development, leaders hoped not simply to expose Boston to what were then considered elite forms of culture, but to instill a perceptual and ultimately social discipline and identity upon the city’s newcomer population. This top-down campaign to transform Bostonians into rational and orderly spectators of nature and art unintentionally spurred a set of radical cultural and social movements. The participants in these movements—Transcendentalists, magnetic clairvoyants, Spiritualists, and blind autobiographers, among others—sought out more ethereal visions than elite cultural venues provided. While bearing in mind the significant differences between antebellum Boston and contemporary Singapore, this lecture asks what lessons the former might pose for the latter, and considers the unexpected cultural consequences of urban beautification.