The Most Important Building

If you walk down Victoria Street in Singapore, at some point, you’ll see a massive, two-winged, white building rise from the greenery. On one side, the two wings open into a square, almost inviting curious onlookers into the glass-covered foyer with incredibly high ceilings. On the other, a curved front reveals 16 stories, the floors of each wing connected via a skybridge. And inside? Nothing but books.

The building that looks like an angel that has landed on an 11,000–square meter site and now rests on one knee, protecting over half a million works of literature under his wings, is the National Library of Singapore. And here I thought the five-story KIT library where I spent so much of my undergrad was big.

When it comes to the social experiment that is “a country,” Singapore is one of the world’s most successful examples — and I think this building has a lot to do with it. After some initial turbulence during the first colonization periods, Singapore eventually became a major global trading hub and, subsequently, financial center. It has the third-highest economic output per person, very low tax rates, and a high quality of life. It is safe, healthy, efficient, and despite being expensive, 88% of people own their homes.

If you want your city to be one of peace and prosperity, make the library the biggest building. That seems to be the lesson. At least make it bigger than the biggest pub, casino, or cinema. Big enough to make reading fun, studying interesting, and the pursuit of knowledge cooler and nobler than the pursuit of money, fame, or success.

Of course, Singapore has skyscrapers much taller than 16 floors. The main event is a hotel. And yet, the presence of an angel sitting in the midst of the island, extolling the virtues of curiosity, steadfastness, and restraint, seems to have just the right effect for everyone to keep their heads on straight.

The next time you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, don’t look for the station. Look for the library, and if not in there then at least from there, you’ll find everything you need.