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In Singapore, “No More Free Space?”

By Bianca Husodo

 
“No More Free Space?”: Lucky Shophouse

“We found that it used to be a tiny bookshop selling cassette tapes and magazines. As the building is 100 years old, we peeled off layers of paint at the front façade to reveal the original colour,” says Chang Yong Ter, principal of Chang Architects, the design studio responsible for Lucky Shophouse, a colonial shophouse which was renovated into a high-ceilinged residential house for a family of three. Despite its narrowness, the compound is reworked into a winding three-part structure segmented with a green courtyard. Pictured here, Lucky Shophouse’s current resident Arvind (left) and Chang (right).

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“No More Free Space?”: Enabling Village

At Lengkok Bahru, a small neighbourhood in Redhill, sits the wood stack-enclosed cubic structure of Enabling Village. Its building, once a former vocational institute, is now an inclusive hub that aims to nurture connections between people with disabilities to residents in nearby housing estates and, eventually, the wider community. “For us, the bigger thinking was how to create a space, not just specifically for people with disabilities, but for all with every ability,” remarks Phua Hong Wei, senior architect of Woha Architects, the design firm commissioned for the project. It was about creating a common ground for people with diverse abilities, from different backgrounds, to use the space — that meant devising programmes with SG Enable, dedicating galleries to display artworks, and building breezy, wheelchair-friendly verandas.

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“No More Free Space?”: Bishan Park

In 2008, spurred by an initiative of Singapore’s Public Utility Board, a three-kilometre stormwater canal was de-concretised and naturalised into a meandering river that now veins through one of the city’s largest urban parks, Bishan Park. “I think this is where the beauty of the project lies: The different aspects come together to complement one another; we cannot separate these things,” says the park’s landscape architect, Tobias Baur, referring to the biodiversity the river brought to the community. “We develop a biophilic design, where humans and nature all coexist and benefit from one another.”

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“No More Free Space?”: Goodlife! Makan

“Food is central to everyone. After all, when we see each other, the first greeting that we often say is “Jiak pa buay?”, Hokkien for “Have you eaten?”. That’s usually the elderly’s form of greeting, and we thought there is no better way than to bond everyone through food,” says Wu Yi Fei, an operator of GoodLife! Makan, a communal kitchen which was converted from a derelict space below a public housing block dedicated for stay-alone seniors to reconnect with the wider community, using food as its main connector. “This space would allow them to get together and rediscover their skills and potential not only through cooking, but also through food preparation and the entire process of cleaning up afterwards.”

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“No More Free Space?”: T House

The garden, the sun, rain and breeze are elements that collide with the T House, a residential home that features a partially submerged yet open living room-slash-dining room, designed by Ling Hao of Ling Hao Architects. “It is a double volume space and when the light streams in from the two skylights at the side, the space is almost as airy and bright as the outside. Then, you hear the birds chirping, you see the plants growing at the side, and you feel like you are still outside,” says Hao.

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“No More Free Space?”: SkyTerrace at Dawson

Catering to young families who want to keep their elderly parents close — and at the same time, keep privacy of both parties intact — SkyTerrace at Dawson does that through inter-connecting separate loft units in its high-rise public housing model. “Dawson is one of the older estates in Singapore. Family and community were the main design impetus in this project driving our inputs and design concepts. We wanted to see how we can reinvent public housing in a new, modern way, that is centred around the community and the people,” explains Fong Chun Wah, deputy chief executive officer of the Housing and Development Board.

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“No More Free Space?”: Southern Ridges

Suspended high above the ground, connecting five hill parks and gardens from Mount Faber Park to Labrador Nature Reserve, is the 10-kilometre long Southern Ridges pathway. An iconic part of the structure is Henderson Waves — a curvaceous, structural bridge standing 36 metres above Henderson Road, the highest pedestrian bridge in the country. Designed by Lawrence Ler, who is now the design director of American architecture firm Gensler, he notes of the bridge’s intended elevated point of view, “Whether you are a child or an adult, you can lie on your back and look at the sky or stars and enjoy the sea breeze. I think that is what we wanted to create — a bridge for the people — and less so an infrastructure.”

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“No More Free Space?”: Library at Orchard

At the heart of the near-constant hubbub of Orchard Road — occupying the third and fourth level of Somerset’s Orchard Gateway mall, to be exact — is a sanctuary where stillness and silence prevail. Library at Orchard was designed as a “beautiful, aesthetically inspiring, community space” for “everyone” to “enjoy and internalise the learning and reading experience,” as Elaine Ng, chief executive of the National Library Board, puts it. “The end result is almost like a walk through a city. I think that was what we had hoped to achieve, and the space is big enough with 700 square metres,” adds Kevin Sim, principal architect of New Space Architects, who worked alongside Singapore Polytechnic’s design team for this project.

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“No More Free Space?”: iLight at Marina Bay

Ever since the ’70s, Singapore, in preparation of the growth of its city centre, has been reclaiming the city’s waterfront: the Marina Bay district. Today, the tourist-attracting hotspot pays testament to the national effort, framing its panoramic view of the CBD area or large-scale events, like the annual sustainable light art festival, iLight, of which incorporates its surroundings or public infrastructure — a bench, a tree, the building next to it — as part of its exhibition. “I think it’s really interesting to see how this narrative has evolved and continues to evolve,” posits Randy Chan, the festival’s curator. “In 50 years, Singapore was transformed from mud pits to metropolis, and this site is where we could showcase that narrative. The next step is to explore what the future of a land-scarce city like Singapore will be, and as we talk about the idea of free space, what it means to the public and consider how we can actually manage the contestations.”

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“No More Free Space?”: The Caterpillar’s Cove Child Development and Study Centre

“This school is situated within an office building. However, we didn't want the children to have the experience of walking into an office building. So the challenge we posed to Lekker [the architecture firm behind The Caterpillar Cove’s design] was: How do you design so that when they walk into this space, it becomes magical, it becomes like a school?” explains Dr. Geraldine Teo-Zuzarte, the centre director of The Caterpillar’s Cove, pictured here (right) with Ong Ker-Shing, the director of Lekker Architects. Both were mothers of pre-school kids at the time of the centre’s development. It pushed them into a headspace to view things from a child’s perspective, thus their re-imagination of a conventional office space into an adaptive canopy-replete open plan for young children to self-regulate and explore.

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“No More Free Space?”: Community Living Room

“I came into this project in 2015. We wanted a space, where residents can come to talk to each other and make new friends. This is the first time that such a Green Parklet has been created in the Yuhua neighbourhood,” says Yvonne Huan, member of the Yuhua Resident Committee, one of the groups who spearheaded the initiative to repurpose unused corners into community living rooms and open farms for anyone who would like to participate. Huan adds, “This is a better alternative to spending the whole day in their own homes without anything to do after the day’s shopping at the market.”

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“No More Free Space?”: Khoo Teck Puat Hospital

“The predecessor of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) — Alexandra Hospital — was an old colonial hospital consisting of a few three- to four-storey buildings and a huge landscape garden that occupied a third to a quarter of the site,” says architect Jerry Ong Chin-Po, explaining the reason behind KTPH’s specific design brief — “hospital in a garden”, just like Alexandra Hospital. Which is why at every available rooftop and along every corridor at KTPH, patients and visitors would encounter planter boxes and gardens. The Yishun Pond, a neighbouring pond right by the hospital, is included not only as part of the vicinity’s recreational and recuperation aspects, but also to irrigate the plants within the hospital’s premises — hence, smartly obliterating the need for a large, space-dominating water tank.

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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.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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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.

The Singapore Pavilion’s “No More Free Space?” exhibition — first presented at 2018’s Venice Biennale — is currently restaged at the National Design Centre until 30 June.