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In Singapore, Buildings Made To Die

By Guan Tan

The Red Road high-rise housing estate, Glasgow, was finally demolished after decades of disinvestment.
Jane M Jacobs
The Red Road high-rise housing estate, Glasgow, was finally demolished after decades of disinvestment.

Almost a decade ago, professor Jane M Jacobs burrowed herself in research. She was investigating how high-rise buildings were a solution to housing issues. There, she came across Glasgow's Red Road Estate. The eight towers of apartments arrived at their end and were due to be razed to the ground. 

"Effectively, we watched a building 'die'," Jacobs quips. When Jacobs says the word 'die', she is not merely referring to the physical destruction of the towers. Architectural death includes "tenants being relocated, systems being closed down, [and] services withdrawn". Like how a drop of water would cause ripples to go on and on in a cup, the destruction of architecture leaves behind irreparable sociological and societal damage. And in rapidly growing and constantly evolving cities like Singapore, this is a prevalent yet ignored problem. 

There are many ways a building could die, Jacobs continues. End conditions include obsolete buildings, decaying structures, demolition to pave way for new architecture, and ruination. 

The reasons for destruction are generally unknown to the public, neither do residents invest much thought into demolishments. To citizens, buildings are robust and confer security. "We tend to imagine that built environments are permanent, and they are certainly more fixed in space and time than most things, but they are nonetheless in constant change."

Jacobs stresses that "the average life cycle of buildings is growing shorter". In Japan, for instance, there's even a proper term for this phenomenon – the "short building life syndrome". Aside from the obvious monetary costs, there are "cultural costs" involved. 

Jane M JacobsUrban decay at the Red Road high-rise housing estate, Glasgow.
Urban decay at the Red Road high-rise housing estate, Glasgow.

Similarly in Singapore, "buildings are often coming down to make way for a better or newer version, or to adjust to a new piece of infrastructure". Look around Singapore and you'll find numerous empty housing estates. Residents have been asked to move out to make way for newer structures. It seems like common sense to Singaporeans, for we have been desensitised to cases of forced relocation. Yet, it doesn't necessarily mean we are clear of the insidious psychological effects. 

Jacobs explains that buildings bear meaning and value to "the people who live and use them. One's sense of self is often deeply linked to the place, the memories it holds, and the routines it supports." When humans are forced to relocate and watch their former homes razed to the ground, "it can generate a sense of emotional loss and disorientation". 

Relocations are so customary that here in Singapore, there are "special bureaucratic expertise in this area, with dedicated relocation officers in the Housing Development Board," Jacobs adds. What these people do is but a game of housing chessboard – moving residents here and there to achieve a perfect game. Citizens are, perhaps, like objects. 

"Perhaps that work needs to be reimagined or expanded to generate more meaningful community involvement in the processes of change," Jacobs considers. To her, a sense of loss and trauma residents struggle with should be resolved in any way possible – be it community activities or therapy.

Jane M JacobsThe rapid obsolescence of interrupted speculative development – the incomplete and now decaying Sathorn Unique Tower, Bangkok.
The rapid obsolescence of interrupted speculative development – the incomplete and now decaying Sathorn Unique Tower, Bangkok.

"Demolition of buildings clearly causes disruption, especially if it means relocation of one's home, or suddenly finding your favourite food stall no longer where it once was. There rightly will be nostalgia and upset," she adds. 

It seems inevitable that in Singapore, old buildings should go when their technology and design is outdated. Jacobs begs to differ. There can be "some kind of intervention, yet architects have not had a tradition of designing with this kind of future in mind". Old buildings can be repaired, conserved or rehauled, quite like the "large tracts of cities in Europe and North America [that] are stabilised by conservation". 

But restoration is not a custom in Singapore, only because architects do not factor reparation into their initial designs. More often than not, buildings are designed with the beginning and extravagant launches in mind. Architects are praised and acclaimed for the buildings' outward appearance. Longevity is not talked about. In other words, buildings are designed to die. 

It doesn't end here. The architecture industry is moving further into perfecting their design of 'death'. "There is already a growing interest in the need to train architects and building professionals in life-cycle analysis, and to think about how buildings can be designed for deconstruction so that they disassemble efficiently, as well as an interest in the material metabolism of buildings, so that at the point of demolition we might be able to cost-effectively repurpose its component parts or mine and upcycle materials," Jacobs observes. 

There's the widely understood concept of fast-food and fast-fashion. These are small, consumable objects that people tangibly touch and feel. They also, therefore, have the capacity to criticise the profiteering motivations behind these harmful products. Yet, when it comes to massive infrastructures like residential towers, we don't palpably feel the adverse effects. In a climate of unquestioning residents, it brings us to the question, 'Will there soon be fast-architecture?'