Latest news


Empty spaces in cities have traditionally been sites waiting to be built on. These undeveloped lands are usually seen by its owners as a loss of income, or even worse, seen by the state as a sign of a city decaying. ZERO, is a new project by Professor Thomas Kong that challenges these negative values, and argues for a more positive one instead. Citing Asian philosophies and art theories, Professor Kong zeros in on sites in Beppu, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore, to produce what he calls the “new attitudes in a post economic bubble age”.

ZERO challenges the traditional role of architects by looking at why there are empty spaces in a city, and how people make use of them. “…We have been trained as architects that the only thing we could present to society is a building, to fill the void again,” writes Professor Kong. But, he questions if this is feasible in a time when “the myth of continuous economic growth is shattered”, and capital for development can no longer be taken for granted.

In Singapore for instance, I helped him document how students make use of the airport to study. The vastness of the airport and its temporal nature of use opens up this space for students to reclaim and use it in other ways. Reclaim Land’s stories also easily fit into ZERO as they happened on spaces that are empty, and ‘open’ for appropriation.

Through this project supported by the 3rd Jaap Bakema Fellowship, Professor Kong is using ZERO to call for the return of the “commons” as an alternative to private property ownership. Instead of commodifying spaces and clearly demarcating them as public or private, there should be collective ownership. Along with this new ownership structure, he has listed out ten new attitudes on how we use spaces so as to keep them fluid and open for possibilities. The project is a fascinating read that challenges our ideas of empty spaces and suggests that we should look at it all over again — starting from ZERO.

…This is home truly
where I know I must be
where my dreams wait for me
where that river always flows…
Kit Chan, Home


The Singapore river may feature prominently in the nation’s history and our daily lives, but will you be able to sketch out its shape? This was the struggle that led artist Debbie Ding to embark on \\: The Singapore River As A Pscyhogeographical Faultline, a month-long exhibition that is running at The Substation till 26 September 2010.

More than just the place to party in town or once the heart of Singapore’s economy, Debbie’s project looks at the river as a psychogeographical faultline, a site where our personal memories interact, merging and coming apart with time. She attempts to bring these out with two interactive installations in the exhibition.


Just as cartographers often leave an imaginary element on the maps they draw so that they will be able to identify its as theirs, Debbie has created a board game around this idea. People who come to the exhibition are invited to leave a recollection of the area around the Singapore river on cards and mark them on top of a 1.5 metre x 3.75 metre hand drawn map of the area. This could be a personal memory or entirely fictional, and it is left to others to assess whether they believe it or not by pasting stickers on your card. Since the exhibition started, Debbie has also begun documenting the recollections left on this website.


Debbie, who is also an interactive designer, has also created a map installation. Unfortunately, it was not working when I visited. I was told that it is a map of the Singapore river that changes shape according to how you move some circular pieces over it. I’ll definitely go back to see it again. If you’re interested in the mechanics and how it was created, see Debbie’s site. She is quite a geek.


Finally, the catalogue for this exhibition is a little flipbook that contains Debbie’s illustrations of how the Singapore River has changed over the years and her impression of its future. Inside this limited edition catalogue designed by Asylum is also Debbie’s write-up on the project. You will also find an essay by Tania De Rozario that succintly explores the place of the Singapore River in our art scene and the significance of Debbie’s work.

In a city like Singapore that changes so fast, the aptly titled documentary, Old Places, is a pill of relief for the nostalgia-stricken people who have grew up here. This documentary by Royston Tan, Victric Thng and Eva Tang recently debuted on okto channel to celebrate Singapore’s 45th birthday, and it was so popular that it was re-run today.

Shot over 10 days, the film features just under 50 locations in Singapore that have been around for some time. These include, old cinemas, kopitiams, playgrounds, shops and even a bus stop! More importantly, these places meant something to a Singaporean. They were picked from a list contributed by Singaporeans who listed their favourite spaces and stories about why it mattered to them. So, even though many of the locations were run-down and even closed, one is still captivated by how these places transcended their physical form to be a memory box for a Singaporean.

In an interview with Civic Life, Royston said: “Singaporeans still love Singapore in their own special personal ways. Maybe not in the big picture, but everyone has their own favourite little haunt, their own little space. And because we have so little space, it matters so much more to them.”

While Singapore prides itself on building a city of great physical infrastructure, we often take up the space for personal memories too. Yet, it is these memories that make a city ours — a feeling one gets while watching Old Places. In the film, one never gets to see the famous Singapore skyline that frames our corporate brochures and tourist postcards, yet one can can recognise it to be Singapore.

This is the power of a city built with your memories, it is truly Your Singapore.

Posted on: 28 June, 2010 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

I was recently asked to contribute a blog post to Civic Life, a project that is documenting Tiong Bahru estate in a film and website. Read my post on my dream to live in this charming little neighbourhood one day.

Posted on: 05 June, 2010 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

This project had a category of “reclaiming” that we had planned for, but never explored — virtual reclamation. We saw that many Singaporeans were creating spaces online to do things that were harder to do in the physical Singapore. For instance, having forums to discuss very niche interests and blogs to broadcast alternative perspectives. It’s easier to do these virtually because it is cheaper (often, free) and hassle-free (no need to apply licence or find suitable location).

Looking back today, there seems to be two stages of development in how virtual space has been reclaimed. At first, it was just about creating spaces that could not be created in the physical world. Now, it’s about recreating extra dimensions of the physical world, like its past, online. Here are three examples:

i is a National Library initiative that attempts to document historical events and changes on to Singapore maps of past and present. It looks a little overwhelming at first, but play around you’ll find it is actually quite impressive to be able to compare physical changes side by side.

Civic Life: Tiong Bahru is documenting a unique residential district in Singapore. Tiong Bahru houses a unique neighbourhood that were built by the British administration instead of the present day public housing authorities. The project is also partnering with two UK film makers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy to create a community film about the area. The pair have done several such films where they invite local residents to take part in the process of making a film about their community, including acting in it as well!

A Map Of Our Own — Kwun Tong Culture and Histories is  a Hong Kong example, but it is very relevant to Singapore. The site is archiving this district in Hong Kong that is undergoing a massive urban renewal through images, sounds and videos. In Singapore, the city changes so fast that perhaps we should seriously consider something similar. Maybe, the Urban Redevelopment Authority can consider doing a project like this everytime a space is undergoing massive change.

The Singapore’s Economic Development Board is sponsoring a series, Singapore Sessions, that publishes views from one professional working in Singapore and three others around the world in response to a question related to their field of work. These bite-sized responses have appeared in top magazines like Monocle, Wired and The New Yorker.

In the latest session found in Monocle’s June issue, the question asked was “Where will people congregate?”

The CEO of our Urban Redevelopment Authority represented Singapore and her response, was not surprising:

Therefore, through careful planning on all scales, we strive to make Singapore a greater sum of its distinctive districts and neighbourhoods, and create a city that is enriching, lively and enjoyable for all.

Yes, planning on all scales, that’s Singapore for you!

In contrast, the only other urban planner in the session, Jamie Lerner gave a much shorter response. He said that good cities have to deal with sustainability, mobility and socio-diversity. How so?

if you want creativity, cut a zero off your budget; sustainability, cut off two; if you want solidarity, make your identity count while respecting diversity.

Or, urban planners should do less for more.

Sembawang Town Council has introduced an interesting initiative to handle door-to-door flyer advertising…

I’m not sure if it has cut down the number of flyers outside resident’s doorsteps.

On another note, it would have been even more interesting if the town council had branded this as a “Community Corner” as well to encourage residents to post interesting snippets about residential life. While most posts would still end up being advertisements, perhaps residents would be encourage to post a poem? Photos? Complaint letters?

Lucky Plaza, Far East Plaza, Far East Shopping Centre and Tanglin Shopping Centre are four shopping malls in Orchard Road recently identified by The Sunday Times as malls in need of upgrading

Unlike the glitzy malls around them, this quartet from the 1970s stick out with their plain facades. Shopping inside is also a different experience : A hair salon next to a chicken rice store, bargains being hawked next to electronics and gizmos, a jewellery store next to a 7-11 convenience store — an eclectic mix of neighbours that seem to make no sense.

It turns out that who owns the malls makes for the very different shopping experiences. Unlike most malls today which are owned by one developer who dictates the mix of tenants, these four are strata-title malls. As individuals own each shop unit, this model means “minimal management of the mall”, explained Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon to the newspaper. This worked in the past, said the marketing professor from NUS Business School,  “You went to a place because you knew the owner of the shop, not because the mall was nice or there were other shops there that would be attractive to you.”

But, is such a model no longer relevant today?

Interesting Malls
Without central planning from a developer, these four malls have acquired an interesting mix of tenants. The developer-owned malls, however, stick to a formula that brings in the most profits and traffic, resulting in standardised layouts filled with the same big brands. This makes the old malls stand out even more relevant because they provide a diverse shopping experience. After all, not everyone wants to squeeze with crowds and when it’s time for coffee, not everyone wants a Starbucks.

Malls with Interests
Also, these older malls, being spared the constant redevelopments of others because it can only happen if a majority of tenants agree, have actually developed their own unique identities. Lucky Plaza is known as a Filipino enclave, Far East Plaza is popular with teenagers, Far East Shopping Centre is for golfers and Tanglin Shopping Centre is place for art and antique. This is something the other malls can hardly claim because they often try to provide everything instead.

Whose city is it?
More importantly, these malls answer in some ways the question of how space is used in Singapore. We can see for ourselves the different results in letting a major developer dictate land use and one where individuals come together and create a shopping mall. The former is no doubt more profitable but also breeds a sameness and thus a constant need for upgrading. The latter may make no ‘shopping sense’, but it nurtures communities because shops stay around longer too.

While most Singaporeans will be in favour of these malls going through facelifts, let’s pause to ask why, and what we may be losing. At least, let’s not just get just another shopping mall.

URA is conducting a public consultation on how land will be used in Singapore in the next 40 to 50 years. You can let them know what you think in a 10-minute online survey where you get to tell them what you’ll love to have in the space around you and how they are faring in the moment. We think it’s a good opportunity to “reclaim” back your land, so have your say!

It was great to read about people making full use of ‘State Land’ in Singapore for casual community use in today’s Sunday Plus. In fact, this policy to open up spaces for public use should continue and even be expanded.

Such help develop communities and a sense of ownership as the people who use them will take the initiative to maintain it. More importantly, space should be ‘open’ to all races, ages and walks of life. Too often, spaces here are built exclusively for those of a certain age group or class, such as shopping malls. The zoning of spaces for residential and commercial use also limits space to just a single use. What is built is then a city of communities divided by interests, age, class; and hardly any interaction amongst them.

By ‘opening’ up space, people can come together in a more casual and coincidental manner. Just like how we make land developers create spaces for greenery and the arts in their buildings, there should be a law to have public spaces too. These spaces should be kept open to all and there is no need for any expensive furniture except some seats and tables — let the people fill in the rest. This will no doubt be a more messy environment as things are less planned, but the interaction of different people in an open space will help build a more tolerant and creative society.

What happens when a generation of Singaporeans used to communal living in kampungs are relocated into modern public HDB housing estates? Sidewalk Easement is an on-going photography project by Song Nian in a search for the ‘kampung’ spirit in the HDB environment.

In these initial seven photos, he documented households that had placed their personal belongings in the common corridor outside their apartments that is a public area. This, he said, highlighted the blurring of personal spaces in the communal area of public housings.

“This series started off as a study on the relationship between people and their surroundings, and through our intervention on our immediate spaces, the affect that we impose on landscapes and vice versa,” said the photographer who is currently pursuing a degree in photography at the University of the Arts, London.

Through his explorations for this series, Song Nian has seen how little interventions by households have changed their modern living environment. “A lot of these households have actually made these spaces into an inviting communal area that encourages interaction between neighbours and others who’re staying in the vicinity,” he said.

In his images of sidewalks stacked with religious artifacts, plants and furniture, Song Nian also hopes the invite viewers to question the background and story of each family. “This is especially important to me when I’m making my work because i believe that art should be throwing questions, and not providing answers.”