Robbie Goh

on ‘reading the city’ and being an author of it


A cultural analyst and literature professor at the National University of Singapore, Professor Goh is the author of Contours of Culture: Space and Social Difference in Singapore (2005) that examines the city’s landscape with a cross-disciplinary approach.

What is the term ‘reading the city’ about?

The usual approach to a city is often to treat it as finished space and when you treat it as that, you move through it without really seeing it. You certainly don’t see it as critically. The term ‘reading the city’ was popularised in  a famous book by James Duncan, although others have used the concept as well. At the simplest level, it’s about critically viewing the city, reading the city almost as if it was a book or a painting and looking at it as a composition or story.

Not reading the city critically is like going into a classroom and receiving what people tell you in a gullible kind of way and then just regurgitating those words. It’s like sitting in front of a TV screen and watching programmes, internalising all these received values without thinking it through. It’s like becoming a zombie.

What are the ways in which we can ‘read the city’?

There is really no end to this process. First, we can look at colour choices – who chooses these colours and why have they been chosen? Are they harmonious or are they clashing? Do they form patterns that are revealing or interesting?  Do they have historical, social, political meanings?

Then what is more central than colours will be things like spatial organisation. Are the spaces big or small, and what are their likely intentions? Big spaces, for example, are probably intended as public gathering spaces like the infamous Singapore void deck.
We can also talk about utilisation. How are these spaces constructed? In this case, we would assess the author of the space. How did he or she design it? What kind of likely purposes or intentions did he or she have?

Finally, how then do people respond to this construction? Do they use it in a way that was intended or are they using it in contrary kinds of ways? And if so, why? What about the constructed structure that invites these kinds of different or contrary utilisations?

Even though most of Singapore has been planned and constructed by one author, our state, many Singaporeans use it differently. Do we see a bottom-up approach emerging?

Space in Singapore tends not to be planned in a bottom-up way, so instead of the grassroots voice impacting upon space, it’s more like an individual’s usage of the space negotiating with the intended usage. So there isn’t really a grassroots or mobilised or organised body of people, but more of individual interventions with the space to change it. The sociological term for such individual engagements is called bricoleur or ‘making do’. So the person who makes do is somebody who really doesn’t expect the system to change or cater to his needs. Rather, he finds a way through and around the existing system.

French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau would argue in his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, that such bricolage happens in the everyday. Let’s take a normal office scenario for example and that one’s breakfast hour is scheduled at 9 AM. However, a staff starts walking to the canteen at 8.55 AM. This is a small way of negotiating and meeting his own needs, and this to de Certeau is a way of bricolage.

How might we read such individual interventions?

Michel de Certeau is very much an optimist of the human condition and he argues against another kind of institution that belongs to Michel Foucault. Foucault’s view of the individual in an institution is much more negative, where the latter is overarching and very powerful. In his view, when you step into the space of an institution, you pretty much get confined, constrained and disciplined. So what Foucault would say about a void deck is that the spatial organisation of it inevitably disciplines and constrains its users.

But de Certeau saw the human condition as always managing to avoid or to stick out of institutional constraints – not totally, but partially. For him, it’s like the little guy fighting against the big guy of an institution and managing to succeed to a certain extent. For Foucault, the big guy always won. For de Certeau, the idea of a bricolage shows the individual’s power to negotiate.