Waiting behind the scaffolding and temporary cardboard pathways of the former SAF Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) Club is a Philippe Starck wonderland. Teapot-shaped lamps the size of baby elephants, rocking dining chairs, fluorescent acrylic dividers imagined by the renowned French designer – this quirky space is part of a complex that will soon include offices, retail, residences and a hotel, which will open in the second quarter. South Beach Singapore welcomes you to the other end of the rabbit hole and its chief, Aloysius Lee, wants to invite everyone to the tea party.

Lee, who recently assumed the group CEO role at Millennium & Copthorne, says it all started with the Hudson Hotel in New York, which he checked out years ago at the behest of City Developments Limited (CDL) chairman Kwek Leng Beng. “When I got there, I was surprised to see so many social spaces. People were queuing at its restaurants and bars.” Although the rooms were small, the buzz made the hotel trendy. “That was when I knew we had to do a hotel like that – a highly individual place for highly individual people.”

And such spaces are no longer in the exclusive territory of tiny boutique hotels. Lee notes that big chains like Starwood (W Hotels), Marriott (Edition Hotels) and Intercontinental (Indigo) have evolved to match guests’ changing tastes. “People today want ‘alone togetherness’,” he explains. “Starbucks is a perfect example. You see people sitting alone but they’re not lonely because they know they’re part of a network.”

In South Beach’s case, that individualism comes from having an idiosyncratic designer.

“This isn’t a traditional hotel where all the furniture repeats itself. Starck made sure that almost every piece is different,” he says. “We had some arguments over cost and functionality but, aside from that, we left him to his own devices. You don’t disturb a good designer because imposing strong opinions will only destroy his concept.”

CDL won the tender for the 3.5ha land, which comprises three 1930s army blocks and the NCO club, for $1.68 billion. In comparison, the land for Marina Bay Sands was sold for just $1.2 billion. But Lee is optimistic about South Beach’s success.

“We’re not competing with the other hotels in the area – we complement them by adding to the vibrancy of Beach Road. We’re also building a bridge that will connect us to Suntec City, in order to capture the Mice market,” he says. Ninety per cent of the South Beach Tower office space has also been snapped up by companies like Facebook and Boeing. “The residences, which will be completed later this year, will be like collector’s items – no other home can boast such a great view of the Padang,” he adds.

“Mixed-use developments are the future, because it’s all about full satisfaction.”