by Anmol AhujaSep 17, 2021
In a time when our semblance of "normals" and "regulars” have been vastly altered owing to the pandemic, Singapore’s national representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 presents a particularly interesting picture. Perhaps the most allegiant to Hashim Sarkis' curatorial question: How will we live together, Singapore’s answer to it through its national pavilion commissioned jointly by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and DesignSingapore Council (Dsg), and curated by the National University of Singapore (NUS), is sought in the country’s already rich and constantly transforming architectural landscape. As a nation too, Singapore has been at the forefront of architectural and building innovation, pioneering green architecture and urban co-living, not just in South East Asia, but in the world, thus living up to its moniker of the Garden City.
What then particularly stands out about the Singapore Pavilion is that it presents not one, but 16 projects as part of its curation. Covering nearly the entire architectural and design gamut, varying from a collection of materials with strong essences on a table-top, to revamping full neighbourhoods through urban regeneration projects, the works on display engage different senses, inspiring conversation. Coming off of a literal play on the overarching theme of the Venice Architecture Biennale, the exhibition is aptly titled to-gather: the Architecture of Relationships. To probe answers into this seemingly intangible relationship between architecture and interpersonal relationships, and the wide variance in scale, sensory experience, and media, STIR engages in a stimulating academic conversation with Prof. Dr. Puay-peng Ho, head of the Department of Architecture at the NUS, and curator of the Singapore Pavilion, to gauge his curatorial process, and how these projects represent the very best of Singapore.
Profiling local architects and home-grown design talents on a global stage through the Biennale, to-gather indeed becomes a national celebration of how Singaporean culture stems from its spaces, both public and private, and the multiple activities those spaces facilitate. Located at the precipice of daily life, and societal interaction that gains renewed prominence in a post-pandemic world, I struggle to find a more holistic representation of a country’s architecture and local culture than a celebration of its ‘togetherness’: not just of the people, but also of a conglomeration of its best design practices instead of just one. All 16 projects travel to Venice, either through scaled models, drawings, books, augmented reality/virtual reality experiences, or in essence or part, to create a visually resplendent “Singapore” that the visitors can tangibly engage with in an attempt to understand the intangible “architecture of relationships”.
The 16 projects combine built and speculative architecture, art and design projects across genres and typologies that are reminiscent of the city-state’s urban context comprising mostly of public housing in which majority of the city’s population resides, community hubs, green recreational spaces, void decks, and sky gardens, forming an inseparable part of its being. Across the “variety”, a semblance of collation is found in the themes that bind these typologies. The projects are thus brought together under the umbrella of four themes: Communing Relationships, Framing Relationships, Uncovering Relationships and Imagining Relationships.
In architectural relationships, we should not be dictatorial. – Prof. Dr. Puay-peng Ho
Communing Relationships looks at our genesis through age old structures and customs, including a favourite public edifice: the hawkers’ centres in Singapore, highlighting an informal yet essential part of Singapore’s urban life as presented by Lai Chee Kien, along with traditional wooden Malay settlements on the island of Pulau Ubin by Studio DO: Pulau. The second, Framing Relationships, looks at establishing new relationships in the realm of public and urban architecture through recent developments that embody Singapore’s current spirit, including the Kampung Admiralty by WOHA and Our Tampines Hub by DP Architects. Uncovering Relationships, synchronous with its name, looks at projects that uncover existing relationships that may be lost, and implicates us to look at them in a new light. Both Sides, Now by Drama Box, ArtsWok Collaborative and Forest & Whale that uses artistic processes to normalise end-of-life conversations in public spaces and an acceptance of the afterlife, and An Ode to Smell by Hyphen Architects, Brian Khoo, Mary Ann Ng, a personal favourite, collates scents from materials across eight different locations in an attempt to tap into Singapore’s tumultuous relationship with its weather are part of this curation. Making it perhaps the most interesting thematic of the four, HABIT©AT by Atelier HOKO, studying these spaces through the perspective of cats and examining the sharing of such spaces between animals and us, rounds up Uncovering. On the other hand, the final theme, Imagining Relationships, looks to the future with a hopeful gaze to gauge solutions to Singapore’s most pressing problems, and proposes methods of co-habitation, embodying a distinct sense of, and leading to a close, the all-round temporality of to-gather.
With much to absorb from the exhibition and the talk, Singapore’s impressive, collective display of togetherness is perhaps best summed up by a quote by Donna J. Haraway from her seminal (and academically dense) book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, gathered from the curatorial note itself. Her statement on Sympoiesis in urban systems happened to guide the process of curation all through, putting a rather wonderful lens and exciting twist on urban processes underlying to-gather. It states, “Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means, ‘making-with’. Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organising. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company.”
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.