Small projects for big impact in urban revitalisation

Think about urban revitalisation in Singapore and large-scale, government-led initiatives come to mind.

Since the island’s independence, public agencies have led the city’s urban revitalisation projects which includes the monumental multi-agency clean-up of the then-polluted Singapore River in the 1970s and the Housing & Development Board’s Remaking our Heartland programme to renew housing estates in 2007. These government-driven programmes often aim for large-scale physical change, are capital intensive, and require a long timeline to unfold, thus necessitating masterplans that are usually crafted by a select group of politicians, policymakers, planners, investors and other major stakeholders of the urban area in question. Although led by experts in their respective fields, this approach is inherently exclusive as it places the power and responsibility over the urban area in the hands of a few individuals. Also, like many grand projects, it is an approach that can be susceptible to a single point of failure if redundancies and room for evolution is not built into the plan.

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Heart to Hard

During my formal education in architecture school, I was taught to learn how to read and manipulate the formal design languages of geometry and tectonics. In the academic studio, we spoke about materiality and ephemerality, skin and structure, and was told to ground it in history, theory and context. We were assessed on spatial quality and aesthetics and told that these qualities separated a building from a piece of architecture.

On most occasions, we were expected to answer the brief and on others, challenge it, and we did. My classmates and I imagined great plazas with impromptu urban life, streets filled with spillover activities, artworks to be discovered at backlanes, and rooftop film screenings. But we would soon discover that not many of these would materialize.

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The poetic beauty in loss

Sometimes, when I look at the city that is evolving before my eyes, I am reminded of the Japanese phrase ‘mono no aware’. Its exact definition eludes me, but so are many profoundly amazing things around the world that defies my limited vocabulary. My unrefined understanding of the phrase defines it as the tender melancholy that surrounds the deep appreciation of a transient beauty and its inevitable passing — after all, nothing ever really lasts. However, an article by the Suntory Museum of Art in Japan offers an alternative: “Use of the Chinese character for ‘sad’ to render the Japanese word aware associates mono no aware with sad or fleeting experiences. That nuance is however not intrinsic to the phrase, whose essence is the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that may include joy and love, as well sadness.”

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