Singapore is the third densest country in the world. Its land — considerably smaller than the rest of its Southeast Asian peers, merely about three-fifths the size of New York City — is home to 5.6 million people. Dwindling territory is something the country has had to tackle head-on since its independence; its freedom contained within physical constraints from the very beginning.
With its population estimated to grow another million in the next decade, is the island nation, finally, running out of space?
As it poises to terraform itself in search of space, unnaturalness is the world’s, and certainly Singapore’s, future. Land reclamation, once its go-to solution, is no longer a sustainable long-term solution. Underground caverns are currently explored. Another way it has tried to make room for more is by demolishing “ugly” properties, and building, in their place, better-designed edifices. And while the possibilities of expanding into the ocean through floating coastal cities are on the horizon, what will be the next conceivable future for modern urbanity as we know it?
These questions were what kickstarted the Singapore Pavilion’s 2018 showcase at the Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, titled “No More Free Space?”. The showcase — a collaboration between National University Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design along with the industry’s leading architects — was a shortlist of 12 projects that work around their limitations by borrowing existing or natural resources, from Enabling Village, an inclusive social hub for people with disabilities which occupies a former vocational institute; to Bishan Park’s stormwater canal that was transformed into a meandering biodiverse, recreational river. Private residential homes — the Lucky Shophouse and the T House — were selected for their innovative design thinking albeit posed with inflexible parameters.
“If you don’t have much space, if you don’t have the resources, would you be able to make delightful experiences for people?” posits Professor Erwin Viray, lead curator of the exhibition and head of pillar of Architecture and Sustainable Design at SUTD. “The Pavilion itself brings its contribution to the Biennale by saying that despite all the limitations in Singapore, it is actually possible.”
As part of the exhibition’s title, the phrase “free space” is intended to prod further dialogues. “It pits the quantitative aspect of finite land area against the qualitative aspect of our architects’ ability to imagine and design,” says Wu Yen Yen, one of the exhibit’s curators and principal of Genome Architects. “Are Singaporean architects’ abilities to create space and place curtailed because of our physical constraints? The curators think not, and we have chosen representative projects to share with others why we think that.”
The conversation, as explored in the exhibition, goes beyond physical availability. To Wu, it could mean “somewhere and anywhere you have freedom.” She adds, “There are several interpretations. It can be a freedom in your mind; a space that is given up for public use for a greater good; or it can be an empty room that is enhanced and made magical by sheer light, space, air and landscape: the free elements and in that way, space made free.”
At the Singapore Pavilion’s “No Free Space?” exhibition, currently rehoused at the National Design Centre, hangs a centrepiece, co-created by Wu and fellow curator Dr. Jason Lim Teck Chye. An ethereal cloud, intricately clustered out of hand-knotted tech-infused acrylic, is designed to mirror the video scenes of selected architecture projected onto the ground, enveloping the visitors in its dance of multi-coloured light flickers. The floral scent of Vanda Miss Joaquim, Singapore’s national flower, wafts from ceramic tubes fired from local Jurong clay. According to Wu, it’s a multi-sensorial experience meant to encapsulate “a slice of Singaporean spatial quality.”
To Professor Viray, “free space” extends to the visceral. The way things are structured, its well-balanced composition, matter as much as why they are built. “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” once mused Winston Churchill while considering the repair of the bomb-havocked House of Commons in 1943. Professor Viray asserts, “Spaces do make us feel and behave a certain way.”
How, then, does that translate to how Singapore’s architects and space designers build its landscape?
“If the answer to a quantitative question is a quantitative answer, then there is nothing new,” says Wu, explaining that if the limitation is land scarcity, and the way forward is to densify the city is by building upwards, or to urbanise the suburbs, or to compact usable area, then there’s nothing particularly novel being explored. “But in Singapore, the curators feel there has been a shift which we are encouraged by, and that is how Singaporean architects have re-phrased the answer in a qualitative way by borrowing free elements, by triggering imagination in answering the same question differently.”
The answer, in part, can be extracted from the selected projects — merging indoors and outdoors, openly embracing natural landscapes, adaptive re-use etc. is possible specifically in our geographical, social, physical climate, through design.
So does Singapore need more “free” space?
“Personally, I feel we do need more of “free”: The freedom to imagine within finite space, the freedom to experiment ideas, the freedom to embrace and express differences,” Wu answers. “And these need to be built through architecture standing as a testament to this freedom, not just in discourse.”
Above, the 12 selected projects from the “No More Free Space?” exhibition of Singapore Pavilion.
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