Singapore’s Sentosa Island Gondola, Part 2 – The Design

Post by Steven Dale

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Sentosa Island Cable Car in Singapore. Special thanks to Andrew Seh and Dominic Teo, who gave me the tour, answered questions and provided some insight into this system. All images by Steven Dale.

To start with Part 1, click here.

Aesthetically, the Sentosa Island Gondola is a tale of two systems. It’s schizophrenic in its physicality, towing the line between stark utilitarianism and modern, urban chic. Never however, do those two aspects converge effectively. It’s as though there are two halves to its personality, and neither ever seem to want to meet the other.

The first half of that personality is functional, practical and to be perfectly honest – ugly. Interior station architecture is loud, dark and cramped. This is a shame as the exteriors of the stations are perfectly pleasant and acceptable. One moves from beautiful restaurant terraces and balconies into a space that makes one feel as though they’ve left a resort and entered a mechanic’s garage.

The Mount Faber Station Interior.

This is particularly true of the intermediary station which rests on the 15th floor of Harbourfront Tower Two. From the outside, it’s gleaming, modern and urban. One purchases a ticket in a marble atrium and is whisked up via private elevator to the 15th floor only to enter a room devoid of light, amenity and charm.

From this . . .

. . . to this . . .

. . . to this.

It has the exact same appeal as the undecorated floor of a financial district office tower. No attempt has been made to hide the guts.

Let’s make clear that this isn’t the fault of the technology. That may sound like I’m acting as a gondola apologist, but hear me out. We know that the infrastructure and architecture are somewhat separate from one another. As such, it cuts both ways: Station architecture can be beautiful and it can be ugly. For better or for worse, that’s not the choice of the technology, that’s the choice of the system owner.

Having said that, urban cable systems are more and more having to deal with issues of architecture and urban form, and the Sentosa Gondola frankly fails to live up to those expectations.

This is one of the biggest complaints I have about the system. Given the money that was spent on upgrades and new foundations, one expects some money to have been spent on station interiors. As mentioned yesterday, this system is almost exclusively marketed via its arguably excessive VIP cabins, yet it’s hard to imagine any VIP choosing to board the system in such austere environs.

This austerity isn’t helped by the decision to retain the hulking concrete support infrastructure for the system’s two intermediary towers. The decision to do so was a financial one and completely justifiable. So much money was being spent on other station and tower upgrades, it’s hard to rationalize new towers for purely aesthetic reasons.

Reuse of old concrete towers was a strong financial decision, but a poor aesthetic one.

At the same time, I think an opportunity was missed here.

MDG systems with little grade change typically require more towers to span such a long distance – the Lisbon gondola, for example has 9 intermediary towers distributed along less than 1km length. But the unique topography and the genius of using a skyscraper as an intermediary tower, eliminated that need.

Here was an opportunity to really demonstrate how little space such a system could occupy. Instead we’re left with towers that make the system feel much, much older than it actually is. It’s a totally understandable situation, but a shame nonetheless.

From an urban design perspective, the system shines around Harbourfront Tower Two. The area is completely urban. Buses, subways, offices, roads, pedestrian causeways and shopping all converge in one bustling area swarming with people, cars and transit. Here, the gondola is but one among many.

In the Harbourfront area, the gondola feels like a natural part of the environment and thoroughly modern.

At Harbourfront Tower Two the gondola is just a part of the world. As the surrounding architecture is a mass of modern steel and glass, the gondola appropriates that image. Because the area feels like the future, so does the gondola.

But that changes as soon as one passes from Harbourfront Tower Two into the port area, leading towards Sentosa Island. There, the system takes on a clunky, old-world feel. As the port is industrial, the gondola feels industrial. The same occurs as one approaches Sentosa Island. Surrounded by theme park rides and amenities, the gondola transforms itself into a theme park ride – nothing more.

In the port area, the gondola appropriates the image of dirty, old and industrial.

This was a totally unexpected experience for me. More often than not, a cable system is located in one specific type of environment. We associate it with that environment and not with others – ski resorts being the prime example. And yet here we have a situation where a gondola is passing through a variety of different urban forms all within close proximity to one another.

The gondola wasn’t imposing itself on the urban form, it was instead reflecting it and appropriating it. It was a blank canvas whose perceived function changed based upon the environment it passed through.

Buses don’t do that. Put a bus in a theme park and it’s still a bus. That’s not a criticism of buses nor a praise of gondolas. It’s a phenomenon that – admittedly – confuses me and one I’d love Gondola Project readers to chime in on.

For researchers and aficionados of urban gondolas, this is the importance of Sentosa. The system juxtaposes itself against itself and its urban environment by passing through several dramatically different urban forms in a short period of time. That allows one to quickly understand its place in the urban world.

Ultimately then, the lessons of Sentosa are more philosophical than technical. It teaches us that a theme park ride does have a place in a dense urban world and suggests a way forward to realizing that image.

Each gondola is also equipped with cup holders. I just wanted to throw that in there because it's amazing. Why don't buses and subways have that?

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. "Each gondola is also equipped with cup holders. I just wanted to throw that in there because it's amazing. Why don't buses and subways have that?" As a toy for tourists you could expect that. Probably there is a small shop somewhere near the platform where you can buy your popcorn and cola to enjoy the movi... movement even more. Our metro got a few cup holders - but there are reasons why drinking and eating isn't that much seen in buses and or metro. Yes, the bus is sometimes a pretty rough vehicle, depending on the driver, traffic and streets - but in general after a few hours the looks within would be pretty similar like the ones in any fast food joint during rush hour. But they expect that and have people to clean up every now and then - the transportation infrastructure though should be more about transportation than dining I guess. In case of buses: they are pretty maxed out to the minimum - a bit different to the mentioned gondolas. But as we all know long-distance-buses do have such installations differing from the urban-line-buses.
  2. Philosophical lessons from an aerial gondola? Cable Zen? Indeed. Being suspended in the air, looking at the view. It is quiet. It is peaceful. It is relaxing. It is Zen. Actually I don't think the blog has emphasised this so much. Aerial gondolas are a really nice way to travel.
  3. @ LX, I don't know. When you've got one of those monstrous double latte venti starbucks things that are scalding hot and you're trying to read a book on a subway, a cup holder seems like an appropriate (and incredibly low-cost) gesture.

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