Tag Archives: Singapore

Behind Chinatown

Chinatown Complex

When I used to tell people I lived in Singapore’s Chinatown, I usually saw raised eyebrows and heard a confused “Oh.” The four years I spent there provided an education that would be hard to find in the ‘burbs. In Chinatown I experienced a social ecosystem sliced and bound by up to eight lanes of traffic, where the constant and the variable are mashed up into an entity that bears different identities depending on where and when you look.

The sanitised, candy-coloured tourist streets are one thing. But the more ‘hidden’ sides of Chinatown began to fascinate me as I tried to understand and find ways to reconcile with some distressing social situations – particularly homelessness and scavenging among the elderly. Many evenings, closed souvenir stalls would become makeshift beds.

For the communities living in Chinatown’s high-rise housing, the daily grind plays out against the tourist tides and the yearly cycle of festivals. In a way, life for them is partially a spectacle played out in gritty concrete vertical cities.

Badminton atop the podium of the Chinatown Complex:

Badminton at Chinatown Complex

Breakfast (also for the resident podium cat) at the same place:

Chinatown breakfast

The night before lingers at the Chinatown Complex:

Chinatown Complex

The chess corner at Sago Street is inhabited 24 hours a day:

Chinatown chess 2

Chinatown chess 1

Chinatown chess 3

The unofficial recycling station at Spring Street:

Chinatown Recycling Station

Life’s debris. Hopefully it was of use to someone else who needed it:

Life's debris at Chinatown Complex

The food centre in the Chinatown Complex – an important social space:

Chinatown food centre

Between worlds:

Motorcycles, Chinatown

Colonising a laneway:

Chinatown laneway

Fire on the streets for the hungry ghost festival:

Chinatown hungry ghost 2

The street cats have their haunts, and their adoptive parents:

Chinatown cat 1

Chinatown cat 2

In 2009, I walked past a collection of old furniture and recyclables on Jiak Chuan Road. It took me a minute to realise it might have been a person’s home or perhaps a makeshift work station of some kind:

Jiak Chuan Rd 1

Jiak Chuan Rd 2

Jiak Chuan Rd 3

Jiak Chuan Rd 5

Jiak Chuan Rd 4

K2LD’s ‘Beauty in Imperfection’

K2LD Architects have established a small gallery space beside their office in Singapore’s Waterloo Centre. Last night it was filled with sake-fuelled discussions about a freshly opened exhibition of Japanese ceramic and wood vessels.

The ‘Beauty in Imperfection’ exhibition is the first to be held at the new K2LD Design Gallery at 261 Waterloo Street, #02-31. K2LD principal Ko Shiou Hee intends to make the gallery a hub for design-related exhibitions (of various disciplines) and is open to proposals from those seeking a display space.

The gallery is actually smaller than what is depicted in my snaps of last night’s opening event; the rear space (containing the ring-shaped display platform) is soon to be taken over by K2LD’s neighbour, Dwelling Concept.

‘Beauty in Imperfection’ showcases beautifully textured ceramic vessels and some wood pieces from Shiou Hee’s personal collection. Each of the (unused) items is for sale. Shiou Hee explained to me that he collected these objects while living in Japan. He built a considerable collection of one-off mismatched pieces – a manifestation of his favour for an ephemeral sense of harmony.

The artists whose work is displayed include Hanaoka Yutaka, Murakami Yaku, Gomi Kenji, Yokoyama Takuya, and Hanyu Noa. The exhibition will be in place until 11 November 2011. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm.

K2LD moved to the Waterloo Centre about 8 months ago, joining a small cohort of creative practices taking root in this HDB context. Interestingly, K2LD has a second office in Melbourne and has completed a number of projects in Australia (including two schools in Tasmania). A southwards (rather than eastwards or northwards) move is relatively rare for Singaporean practices. It’s nice to see!

Conformist and non-conformist gardens

I often wonder about the garden philosophy of Singapore. The ‘garden city’ concept is a way to brand the island, and supports a valuable landscaping industry. It results in a particular image for Singapore, despite many of the prescribed vegetative species being foreign. It makes the expressways more pleasant traffic funnels. But from the perspective of the pedestrian on the footpath, urban planting is also a form of control – a barrier (similar to a fence) rather than an environment to be inhabited.

Singapore’s garden spaces are often less a representation of nature, and more a rationalised formula.

I find myself drawn to the exploration of the island’s various ‘natural’ environments to see how plants really behave in this climate. The photos that follow were taken at the Southern Ridges Forest Walk and the Venus Loop at the MacRitchie Trails. These environments have had various degrees of human intervention. As sites for nature tourism, they also have an economic dimension, as well as some connection to the garden ‘story’ of Singapore that is still being written.

What I enjoy about them is experiencing the spaces and forms that develop in them through natural processes. The photos don’t do justice to the various degrees of enclosure, openness, and light filtration created by these environments, but the ways in which vegetation layers itself is clear. So too is the way boldly shaped tropical plants can create natural focal points.

It could be nice if some day, daily Singaporean urban spaces support other types of gardens – such as food or educational gardens tended by the public. Wouldn’t it be good to grow vegies rather than hedges?

Reclaiming urban spaces: Hub-to-Hub public art program

“It is a deadly paradox for Singapore to be risk averse as a nation when Singapore’s very survival depends on its ability to coolly and rationally deal with the uncertainties, dangers and risks that constantly confront [it].”

– Tay Kheng Soon, ‘A World Class City Deserves a World Class Architecture. How to Get There From Here,’ Architecture Journal 1987 (School of Architecture, National University of Singapore, 1987): 38.

Uncertainties, dangers, and risks: factors that make for intriguing urban environments, yes? I don’t refer to a physical sense of risk and danger. I’m talking about surprising conditions that grab hold of our mental faculties, senses, and powers of perception until we come to terms with what we’re experiencing.

Encountering risk and uncertainty in public spaces often results in an affecting experience – the learning of something new, and an enhanced feeling of connection to a place. It can happen on Singapore’s sanitised and orderly streets, but not that readily. More often than not, you need to have an inkling of the areas in which it might occur, and make a project of seeking it out if you’re so inclined.

My curiosity was piqued when I heard about the Hub-to-Hub temporary public art project, which is currently being staged at seven sites in the Bras Basah and Bugis area. Risk is at the heart of its agenda – in both its animation of public spaces and its collaborations between creative professionals (and students) from diverse disciplines and nations. For this, I applaud its curators.

One of them, Prof Steffen Lehmann of The University of South Australia, revealed at the ‘Hub-to-Hub 2011 Symposium’ (held on Sunday 16 October at the NLB) that he hopes the art event will be a tri-annual one, encouraging Singaporeans to reflect on and “interrogate” the role of public space. Sounds great. Is it happening?

The sites offered to the creative teams ranged from the semi-Arcadian (Dhoby Ghaut Green), to the semi-commercial (outside The Cathay), to the intimate and tucked-away (Stamford Green), to the prominent and prestigious (outside SAM and 8Q), to the understated and circulatory (Waterloo Centre).

The varied installations connect with their sites to greater and lesser extents. The works I enjoyed the most, however, are those that thoroughly invite the passerby into an exploration and mental collision with the installation:

  • Stilt House at Dhoby Ghaut Green by Team Europe. I wondered, “Is it safe to climb it?” and “What are its walls made with?”
  • III Movement at Stamford Green by Team Aural. I thought, “This is an interesting way to listen to the city.”
  • Multiculturalism and the Giant ‘Mop’ at SAM@8Q by Team Australia. I temporarily asked myself, “Do the creators want me to walk inside it or stay at the edge?”

The seven interventions will be in place until 4 November 2011. You can download a walking map with info about each project from the Hub-to-Hub site, as well as background info on the program’s aims and curatorial topics. Taking in each work involves an easy walk from Dhoby Ghaut Green to the Waterloo Centre.

Hub-to-Hub was co-organised by re:ACT and its main sponsor is the URA’s A+UDE program.

Burn, bury, or recycle?

‘Recycling in Singapore’ – Green Drinks at TAB

In 2010, Singapore produced enough waste to fill Marina Bay to about human height every week, according to Veolia Environmental Services Singapore. To be exact, it threw away 6,517,000 tonnes of material. 40% of this waste was incinerated; 2% was sent to the landfill on Pulau Semakau; and 58% was recycled.

That sounds like a pretty rosy recycling rate, but the main contributor to it was industrial waste such as construction debris, ferrous metals, and used slag. When it comes to municipal waste alone, Veolia estimates that Singapore recycles less than 10% of its rubbish.

That’s a far cry from Austria’s 69%, Germany’s 59%, South Korea’s 49%, and the UK’s 38% municipal recycling rates. The majority of Singapore’s municipal waste is burnt in the island’s four incinerator plants – one of which is in north, and three of which are in the west.

Veolia’s Mathieu Davy presented these facts during a talk organised by Green Drinks Singapore (local branch of Green Drinks International) and the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS). The presentation was titled ‘Recycling in Singapore’ and was held at TAB on the night of Wednesday 12 October 2011.

Veolia sponsored the evening, using its talk to encourage recycling and advise on recycling dos and don’ts. The session shed light on some interesting facts about how Singapore deals with its waste, and on how this can be related to the design of waste management infrastructure in our buildings.

Mathieu got the audience members squirming about their own rates of consumption by revealing that the average amount of domestic waste produced per person per day in Singapore is 1kg. This is a significant amount – particularly in Asia. In comparison, Vietnam produces 0.4kg, China produces 0.6kg, and Taiwan produces 0.9kg. Clearly, there’s a relationship with GDP. The amount produced by the average European is 1.6kg, and for someone in the USA it is a hefty 2.1kg.

About 30% of Singaporeans’ daily 1kg of waste is food waste. Although food waste presents opportunities for the creation of compost and energy (via the gases produced), Singapore’s only food waste recycler (IUT) closed a few months ago. The high recycling rates of Austria and Germany, said Mathieu, are partly due to the fact that these countries do recycle food waste.

Mathieu believes that the biggest barrier to recycling in Singapore is the rubbish chute, which makes it too easy for high-rise residents to simply make their waste disappear. He shared that in his home city of Paris, all chutes have been sealed. This, suggested Mathieu, forces a more direct personal responsibility for one’s waste, and hopefully encourages the contemplation of separating recyclables as everything must be carried down to the one bin area. In his experience, dual chutes (one for rubbish, one for recyclables) don’t work without intense and ongoing education programs.

The Singapore government is targeting increased rates of recycling in Singapore. Today’s rate of 58% is an improvement on the 40% rate of 2000. The government is targeting 60% by 2012 and 70% by 2030, revealed Mathieu. While this would be good news for anyone who thinks about sustainable living, it would also be great for companies such as Veolia, who profit from our rubbish.

To his credit, Mathieu pointed out that the professionalisation of the recycling system in Singapore will endanger the traditional Singaporean recycler – the karung guni. We should also consider the wider social dimension of recycling in Singapore – and the potential impact on the community’s poorest members (often elderly), who survive by selling the cardboard, newspapers, and cans they extract from bins and dumpsters.

Veolia Environement is a French business. Its Singapore subsidiary is one of four companies undertaking waste collection and treatment here, the others being locally based Colex, Sembwaste, and 800 Super. Privatisation of the industry began in 2001, and Veolia now manages three of Singapore’s nine waste sectors: Tanglin/Bukit Merah, Bedok, and Pasir Ris/Tampines.

Most of Singapore’s recycled materials are exported for reprocessing. A little reprocessing of metal is carried out here, explained Mathieu. Glass often heads to Malaysia, and a lot of Singapore’s paper goes to Indonesia and Thailand, he said. It does make you wonder why ‘green’ Singapore is missing this link in the material-recovery chain.

This Reuters article from 2008 offers some perspectives on why recycling is now becoming a big business in Singapore.

Nature/architecture fusion in Club St laneway

Next time you’re walking down South Bridge Road, Chinatown, take a detour down the laneway that runs parallel and stretches between Mohd Ali Lane and Ann Siang Hill. Your eyes as well as your ears will thank you! An incredible environment has grown at the back of the shophouses. It’s a superb example of the delightful conditions that can arise when things are left alone to mature without interference.

Virile tropical vegetation has plugged into and wrapped around built forms. The fusion provides shelter and supports bird life. It may not be the best thing for the longevity of the architecture, but it’s amazing to see and experience. Here are some photos I took yesterday.

Big Ideas, Small Island: ‘Making Future Cities’ conference

Making Future Cities was the first international conference of the SEC (Singapore–ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability – see my blog post of 5 September for further info on the SEC). The three-day conference was held 12–14 September 2011 out west at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The event was not open to the public. It called for “understanding and evaluating the contemporary urban system, its recent history, its present dynamics, and its possibilities.”

The program was heavy, befitting the seriousness of the subject. Up for discussion were Asian urbanisms, transport, zero-carbon-emission buildings, air travel and border conditions, food, the political economy of territory, resilient cities, and more. The opening addresses preluded the challenges that would inevitably be debated; Professor Kees Christiaanse of ETH commented that it is not possible to create a manual for making sustainable cities.

I managed to catch two half-days of presentations, and sat among a full house of academics, researchers, PhD students, and URA representatives. The work presented included the research of PhD candidates from ETH and the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), FCL researchers, ETH professors, and invited academics. The focus was global, but some presentations were dedicated solely to research on Singapore.

The first morning’s presentations by PhD candidates discussed the urban environment of Singapore’s Little India and Kampong Glam, Changi airport and its surrounds, enclaves in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the consumptive aspects of Shanghai’s built environments, and the strange border condition of China’s Pearl River Delta. During the session’s summary, the suggestion was made that the Rochor area is Singapore’s only remaining ‘urban’ area – with mixed use, varied building forms, mixed social groups, some secrecy, and some filth.

During the last afternoon of the conference, I heard Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic of the FCL present some of her research into the conditions of ‘city and territory’ in Belgrade, the Netherlands, and the Nile Valley. Her presentation served as a precursor to the research she’ll be undertaking at the FCL on Singapore’s relationships with (and impacts on) the areas beyond its borders.

With regard to Belgrade, Milica highlighted how political forces have changed the nature of the city, its territory, and its meaning. Her discussion of planning practices in the Netherlands revealed how territory is traditionally viewed there as a space of social practice – never pre-given and natural. Her research in the Nile Valley discovered the influence of resources on the condition and perception of cities and territories.

‘Social and urban economist’ Professor Dieter Läpple presented a keynote address titled ‘Perspectives of Resilient Cities.’ He suggested that our modernisation processes, production regimes, and modes of consumption have eroded resilience – not only of many natural systems but also of many social systems. Resilient cities, he said, make room for diversity, redundancy, and contingency. They have robust, adaptive, inclusive, and innovative structures. The reconciliation of development and sustainability will need different strategies in every city, but global guidelines can be derived, he suggested. He challenged the FCL to embed itself in global sustainability.

During the closing round table forum there were provocative remarks and passionate voices of disagreement. You might say it’s the sign of a fruitful exchange of ideas. Before the audience got stuck in, Professor Chua Beng Huat talked about ‘the Singapore model’ as a series of practical decisions made in response to circumstances, rather than a replicable template. Professor Wong Yun Chii mentioned “virtual water” – the water Singapore would consume if it grew its own food. Professor Tay Kheng Soon talked about ‘rubanisation’ and hurled some dirt too. Carolyn Steel uttered words such as “richness” and “love of life” – surprising but welcome.

There exists the hope that the FCL research will result in guidelines and policy recommendations for a positive impact on Singapore’s built environment. I wish the FCL the best of luck. I hope its work can find regular and digestible coverage in popular forms of media in order to encourage sustainable thinking from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

Agora at the NLB

Congratulations to Wy-To architects – Art Director of this year’s ArchiFest exhibition at the NLB Plaza. The agora-style setup of the exhibition structure is an excellent embodiment of the festival’s ‘Common Spaces’ theme. There’s something tantalising about experiencing focused public space like this in Singapore.

Wy-To collaborated with Chia Ming Chien, Chua Yeong Ching, Peter Hunt, Anita Nevens, and Irene Pautrisia Tandiono on the project for the Singapore Institute of Architects.

The exhibition will be open until 21 October 2011.

The Rail Corridor: Singapore’s backyard? A connecting spine?

ArchiFest Public Forum and URA ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ Exhibition

Singapore’s newest ‘site’ continues to ignite passion and encourage debate. The former KTM railway land was discussed at length during yesterday’s ArchiFest Public (AFP) Forum. Along with the URA, Singapore’s designers and the wider community are keenly contemplating the possibilities for this unique land. The AFP Forum provided an opportunity for some of the online chatter to be aired in person. The URA did not give a presentation.

A couple of concepts emerged that resonated strongly (at least with me). The idea of regional connectivity as a shaper of rail corridor interventions is perhaps the most poignant. This idea was mentioned and alluded to by some of the speakers and reinforced by ‘Herbert’ – a member of the audience. Contributing to a surprisingly lengthy Q&A session at the end of the forum, Herbert aptly pointed out that many maps of Singapore fail to show neighbouring countries, instead illustrating Singapore as an isolated island. Neighbourly connections, he suggested, could be the story of the KTM land, informing interventions and art installations, and at the same time reinforcing history and place. He made a valid point.

The lovely idea of a green rail corridor as a ‘backyard’ for the residents of Singapore (the ‘front yard’ being the Gardens by the Bay) was also raised during the forum. This idea apparently first emerged during the ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ workshop, held on 8 October (which I didn’t attend).

Now for more detail …

The ArchiFest Public Forum was organised by the Singapore Institute of Architects and held at the National Library Building on the morning of Sunday 9 October 2011. The forum did not set out to discuss specific concepts for the KTM railway land, but rather, ideas and possibilities.

Speakers included Dr Lai Chee Kien (Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, NUS), Dr Shawn Lum (President, Nature Society Singapore), Tobias Baur (Director of Atelier Dreiseitl), Seah Chee Huang (SIA council member and Chairman of ArchiFest Organising Committee), and Dr Tan Beng Kiang (Deputy Head, School of Design and Environment, NUS).

A Q&A session was moderated by Kelley Cheng (Editorial Director of Singapore Architect magazine and Founder/Creative Director of The Press Room). The forty-odd-strong audience seemed to consist of people from the architecture/design community and the general public.

I found Dr Lai Chee Kien’s presentation, titled ‘Railway Heritage in Singapore,’ rich and illuminating of the past and present. With the aid of a wonderful set of historic images, he revealed how:
–       the Singapore rail line was once heavily used on Sundays by Singapore residents heading to gambling dens in Johor Bahru (with ferry transfers between Woodlands and JB)
–       Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Ipoh were three of the main stations on the line, offering hotel accommodation
–       On the Malaya Peninsula, the line’s location near the west coast allowed for proximity to rubber estates
–       Hindu temples along the Singapore line catered to Tamil labourers
–       Duxton Plain Park is a remnant of an earlier branch of the Singapore line (hence the topography of the park today)
–       The original Singapore line was deviated from Bukit Timah southwards due to flooding in the Orchard Road section of the line

Dr Shawn Lum presented ‘Perspectives from Nature’s Viewpoint,’ emphasising the ecological value of connected nature areas. He asked the audience to think of the nature areas near the KTM land (including the unprotected Clementi forest) as ‘islands.’ General ecological rules suggest that large, interconnected, and topographically heterogeneous islands will support more species than smaller, distant, homogenous ones.

The KTM land, said Dr Lum, offers the potential to create clusters of habitats along its length. Habitats along the rail corridor could link with existing surrounding nature areas to create a chain of habitats encouraging pollination and migration across a substantial area. He highlighted the possibilities inherent in management for biodiversity.

Tobias Baur alluded to the landscape architecture opportunities of the rail corridor (and the possibilities that could arise by linking with waterways) via a selection of international projects. These included the Sagrea Linear Park (Barcelona), concepts for Kaohsiung Port Station (Kaohsiung), Solar City (Linz), Zoll Hallenplatz (Frieburg), Tanner Springs Park (Portland), and Bishan Park (Singapore).

Seah Chee Huang presented five adaptive reuse projects – the High Line (New York), Cheonggyecheon (Seoul), Kraanspoor (Amsterdam), Tate Modern (London), and the London Old Gas Cylinders and Shunt Lounge.

Dr Tan Beng Kiang showed preliminary student work from an architecture studio at NUS, which is also currently on display at the URA. The ‘Rail Ideas’ project aims to emphasise the rail corridor as a connector for heritage, nature, mobility, communities, and education. Dr Tan pointed out that 1.12 million people live within 2km of the rail corridor. Among the student ideas were a food village, a skate park, a farmer’s market, a bicycle hub, and an edu-farm.

Dr Tan shared a great stop-motion-style video compiled by NUS students called ‘Operation KTM Street View.’ It’s composed of shots taken every 10m along the rail corridor.

The Re-imagining the Rail Corridor exhibition at the URA Atrium presents student concepts (from various design schools), information about the corridor, and a handful of concepts from professional designers. FARM, for example, proposed a gigantic seesaw for pedestrians sited within an existing bridge. FARM described it as “a whole new way to ‘ride’ the old railway tracks.” Sounds fun.

More info about the Rail Corridor here and  here.

NRF, ETH, SEC, and FCL: Four acronyms worth knowing

If you’re interested in “sustainable building technologies, the city as an urban system, and the relationship between urban and rural environments,” then the following acronyms are some you’ll want to KIV (that’s “keep in view” for non-Singlish speakers):

1. NRF

Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) was established in 2006 as a department in the Prime Minister’s Office. Its mission is to coordinate the research activities of different agencies within the larger national framework, and to fund strategic R&D initiatives that would generate economic benefits for Singapore.

NRF is currently collaborating with ETH.

2. ETH

ETH Zurich is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It is an education and research institution that was founded in 1855. It focuses on engineering, architecture, mathematics, natural sciences, system-oriented sciences, and management and social sciences.

What’s ETH doing in Singapore?

3. SEC

ETH and NRF established the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC) in Singapore in 2010.

SEC serves as an intellectual hub for research, scholarship, entrepreneurship, and postgraduate/postdoctoral training. Scholars and researchers from ETH are relocating to Singapore to collaborate on research under the theme of ‘Global Environmental Sustainability.’

SEC’s first interdisciplinary research program is called FCL.

4. FCL

The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is a new laboratory for sustainable urban development. This first SEC research program is scheduled for five years and started in September 2010. It involves collaboration between ETH and the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (sorry, I meant NUS and NTU).

As explained at the SEC/FCL website, the research focuses on three scales: sustainable building technologies, the city as an urban system, and the relationship between urban and rural environments.

There is also a plan for collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (that’s MIT), which, along with ETH, will soon move into the new CREATE Campus (short for Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise).

CMI, that’s more than enough acronyms.

Some related info:

There are a number of research and PhD positions open at SEC/FCL in architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and hydraulic modelling.

An extensive three-day FCL conference titled ‘Making Future Cities’ is coming up in September.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting one of the ETH researchers, Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic. I look forward to her ‘City and Territory’ lecture at the upcoming conference.

PS – CMI is Singlish for “cannot make it” (also Singlish).