The City of Public Housing

Singapore is a nation of public housing, being transformed from a city with slums and homeless in the 1950s to one renowned for its functional, effective city planning, cleanliness and lack of “visible” homelessness. In Radio National’s Rear Vision podcast, Annabelle Quince explores the history behind Singapore’s public housing phenomenon, and how it impacts the residents of Singapore today.

The Pinnacle at Duxton is a fifty storey, high density public housing complex that challenges the conventions of typical public housing (Architecture Lab 2010).

Public housing is an integral part of Singapore’s national identity, while also being a significant and dynamic contributor to the national economy (Chua 2002). In Singapore, around 80% of citizens live in housing built by the government, commonly referred to as HDB’s after the Housing Development Board, and 90% of these residents own their own homes (Housing Development Board 2017). This is an incredibly high figure for a city of Singapore’s population and density, however it has ensured widespread home ownership and housing affordability (Bin & Naidu 2014). Public housing in Singapore doesn’t just ensure affordability however, with many estates having food courts, shopping centres and other amenities built in therefore creating all-inclusive housing communities that have the ability to support themselves. Diana Chua, a heritage guide of Singapore, states that “You don’t even need to go to town, you have everything you need just in this one street. You have the banks, you have the fast foods, you have photo development, you have shops. That is what the housing estate’s all about” (Quince 2008).

Because the majority of housing is managed by the state, the process of choosing and owning a home is dictated by both the financial class of the applicant and the availability of the flats themselves. Low income applicants are prioritised for the more affordable flats, whereas higher earning applicants are not and are instead encouraged to invest higher cost flats, Chua stating that “there is probably a kind of a ceiling for higher level salaried people. They don’t get the first priority to buy the cheaper flats. So that will protect the lower income groups and give them a better choice of flats” (Quince 2008).

Bukit Batok HDBs
An example of conventional HDB architecture in Bukit Batok (Vaidya 2008).

The Housing Development Board was established in 1960 in order to deal with the growing population of the city, the board stating that “home for the majority of Singaporeans was a rented cubicle or a hut in a squatter settlement” (Housing Development Board 2017). This process of creating mass public housing was incredibly effective in coping with the population growth, however the continuation of this program has led to the gentrification of many areas and thus a loss of cultural heritage and identity in these districts. Established in 1966, the Land Acquisition Act gave the Singaporean government the ability to acquire any land for public use (Bin & Naidu 2014). Eng Peng, a Singaporean filmmaker, was subjected to the result of the public housing scheme, being relocated from her village that was cleared to make way for public housing. After relocating to the development in 1987, Peng states “We felt quite trapped I think, because we were living in like a box in the sky, and we were facing four walls, just a ceiling on top of us” (Quince 2008). Due to this forced relocation, Peng also records people from her village committing suicide, jumping off the balconies of the development – an overlooked, unrecorded consequence of such an aggressive redevelopment scheme.

The public housing scheme in Singapore has ensured widespread, universal housing for most citizens and is one of the most successful housing initiatives in the world – transforming the city in the space of fifty years. However, the psychological impacts on earlier citizens roped into such an aggressive initiative cannot be ignored, perhaps calling for the government to offer some reconciliation to citizens who were forcibly relocated.

Reference list:

Architecture Lab 2010, Pinnacle @ Duxton / ARC Studio Architecture + Urbanism, Toronto, viewed 26 January 2017 <>

Bin, T. S & Naidu, V. L. 2014, Public Housing in Singapore: Examining Fundamental Shifts, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, viewed 20 January 2017 <>

Chua, Beng-Huat 2002, Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society, Routlege, Abingdon, viewed 26 January 2017 <>

Housing Development Board 2017, Public Housing – A Singapore Icon, Singapore Government, Singapore, viewed 26 January 2017 <–a-singapore-icon>

Qunice, A. 2008, An apartment in the sky – the story of public housing in Singapore, audio podcast, Rear Vision, Radio National, ABC Radio, Sydney, 28 October, viewed 26 January 2017 <>

Vaidya, G. 2008, Bukit Batok HDBs, Flickr, viewed 26 January 2017 <>


History Facilitating Creativity: The Reinvention of Cockatoo Island

Elizabeth Smith

Through its rich and diverse heritage, Cockatoo Island manages to encapsulate several different histories within the confines of its shores and has developed and its own unique purpose due to having such a multifaceted identity. While the conservation of the island is integral for us as the public to understand the history of the Sydney Harbour, the island has also developed a new, renewed purpose in facilitating contemporary installation art for special events.

The past of Cockatoo Island carries several different intertwined histories, each influencing the architecture of the island in a particular way. Initially, the island was used as a convict settlement, which then evolved into a girl’s reformatory with these earlier buildings using stone quarried from the island itself. The shipyards later added to the evolving landscape of the island, facilitating a demand for architecture that was vast and industrial in order to cope with the nature of the work undertaken. This period lasted from the early 1900s up until the Shipyard’s closure in 1991 (Sydney Harbour Federation Trust 2017), the island developing a variety of industrial architecture throughout time.

Figure 1: Cockatoo Island’s vast industrial spaces (Marchant 2013)

When the island reopened in 2007 its purpose was much different, allowing the public to experience and educate themselves on the island’s history though experiencing the diversity and atmosphere of the spaces themselves. It also became a space used by the Sydney Biennale, the event utilising the vast interiors of the shipyards and the characteristics of various areas of the island with the aim of “exploring how we perceive reality in our increasingly digitised era” (Biennale of Sydney 2016). These ideas of the relationship between space, physicality and experiencing alternative realities can be seen in the works during the biennale – and example being Chiharu Shiota’s installation “Conscious Sleep”. The work, pictured below, draws on the island’s heritage as a convict prison and girls refuge, the beds intending to “evoke notions of dreams, sleep, and memory, while the knotted threads can be read as bundles of nerves connecting the conscious mind to the world of dreams” (Forrest 2016). The work is a manifestation of both the artists own context combined with the complex heritage of the island, creating a work that forces us to actively engage with the immediate environment in a critical way.

Figure 2: Chiharu Shiota’s Conscious Sleep (ABC 2016).

Site specific installations are said to “shift the world around us, creating unfamiliar terrain in our everyday surroundings while forcing a reconsideration of history in light of the present day” (Frock 2014). With the Biennale being housed by the island since 2007, the site-specific installations held on the island have facilitated a more critical understanding of the heritage of the island. Cockatoo Island can therefore be used as a model for future reinventions – giving us an understanding as to how we can transform dilapidated, yet historically rich spaces into ones that encourage artists to build on that history to create engaging and provocative works.

While the circumstances and history shaping Cockatoo Island are certainly different to those we will encounter in Singapore, the transformation of the space from a derelict industrial shipyard and prison into one that provides an immersive, critical understanding of the island’s history can be a catalyst for future ideas we explore, especially regarding how we can both preserve the heritage of a space while reinventing it for a new audience.

Reference List:

Biennale of Sydney 2017, Cockatoo Island – 20th Biennale of Sydney, viewed 21 January 2017 <>

Cockatoo Island, Sydney 2013, photographed by C. Marchant, Flickr, viewed 21 January 2017 <>

Forrest, N. 2016, Video: Chiharu Shiota’s Surreal Sydney Biennale Installation, Blouin Artinfo, viewed 21 January 2017, <>

Frock, C. 2014 ‘Introduction – Site Specific Installation: Some Historic Context’ in J. Spring (ed.), Unexpected Art: Serendipitous Installations, Site-Specific Works, and Surprising Interventions, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, pp. 8-11

Om J.2016, Sydney Biennale: Past and future collide, ABC News, viewed 21 January 2016 <>

Sydney Harbour Federation Trust 2017, Our History – World Heritage List – Cockatoo Island, Australian Government, Sydney, viewed 21 January 2017 <>


Singapore: A Global City, A Designed City

Elizabeth Smith

Context defines the way cities are planned and formed – it must be adaptive, evolving the with the needs of the people, economy and environment from differing from place to place. As cites are living, breathing organisms (Kallidaikurichi, & Yuen 2014), they thrive not on long term, detailed planning but rather a combination of a long term trajectory and more immediate design responses that adapt and evolve with the ever changing social, economic and environmental climate of the city itself. The planning and treatment of Singapore as an ever evolving metropolis has led to it being known as one of Asia’s most forward thinking cities, however it is feared that gentrification of the city over the last fifty years and the value put on the external image the government wishes to portray has degraded the strong and complex cultural underpinnings that developed the foundation of the city itself.

To cope with Singapore’s rapid economic growth post-independence, the Singapore Master Plan was implemented in 1971, aiming to make the it a “thriving, world-class city” (Chew 2009). This plan was integral in the development of Singapore as a modern metropolis, conceptualising the “entire island as one single planning and functioning entity” (Beng Huat 2011) and thus developing a trajectory for the city over the long term. Liu Thai Ker, who worked with the Singaporean government for urban redevelopment in its earliest stages, stated that Singapore was their “urban laboratory” (World Architecture Festival 2016) –  allowing city planners to experiment and learn the fundamentals of city development through molding Singapore into their own vision of the future.  This constant planning and articulation however raises the question of whether Singapore is a city the responds to the modern needs of its population, or rather, it’s aspiring to respond to a much more postmodern ideology than a modern one.

Figure 1: Singapore’s 2011 Concept Plan (Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2016)

Certainly, from an objective perspective Singapore functions well – it’s the definition of a “liveable city”. Its geographic context has inevitably influenced the way in which the city has been shifted and evolved over time, the city’s success leveraged by the placement of industrial centres, amenities and infrastructure which allowed for strong population growth while retaining the economic benefits of the industrial sector. While it does lack the land resources of other nations, the designed layout of the city-state has allowed for an economy that thrives on the global market, while still being able to retain its own economy through industry as well.

While meticulous city planning has given Singapore the title of being one of the most liveable cities in Asia (Chua 2014), there’s a constant tension due to the gentrification resulting from high economic growth, and the loss of important cultural values and heritage creating a generational divide in the population. If Singapore wishes to cultivate its identity as such a global and liveable metropolis, it must conserve this cultural heritage, Kallidaikurichi, & Yuen (2014) stating that “Cultural heritage conservation can be an effective antidote the increasing ‘globalising sameness’ that is engulfing many cities in Asia.”. Through having a more homogenous relationship between generations, perhaps the city-state would open up a new channel for communication reinvigorate the desire for the younger generation to engage with its rich past. However, the class divide within the state prevents this, with much of the social and economic imbalances being hidden by the “visual homogeneity of the physical environment of public housing estates” (Beng Huat 2011).

While designed to fulfil the aspiration of being a prosperous economic state, Singapore is still a flawed model. The class divide and neglect of the aged perpetuated by the image of Singapore being a “modern metropolis” means that, without intervention, the cultural fabric of the city state will begin to fray. Therefore, the design of the city itself must respond to the social and cultural heritage underpinning its rich multicultural foundations, rather than disregarding it in favour of gentrification and economic growth.

Reference List:

Beng Huat C. 2011, ‘Singapore as a Model: Planning Innovation, Knowledge Experts’, in Ong A. & Roy A. (eds), Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Beling Global, Blackwell Publishing Limited, Hoboken, pp. 27-54

Chew, V. 2009, History of Urban Planning in Singapore, National Library Board, Singapore, viewed 20 January 2017 <>

Chua, G. 2014, Singapore is ‘fourth most liveable city’ in Asia, The Straits Times, viewed 20 January 2017 <>

Kallidaikurichi, S. & Yuen, B. (eds) 2014, Developing Living Cities: From Analysis to Action, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore

Urban Redevelopment Authority 2016, Concept Plan 2011 and Mnd’s Land Use Plan, 21 January 2017 <>

World Architecture Festival 2016, WAF Podcast – Liu Thai Ker (Senior Director – RSP)¸ audio podcast, viewed 20 January 2017 <>