Between Now and New

We all got here under different circumstances. You may have charted your own path to this point, you may have been washed up here by the waves, or you may have woken up one day and inexplicably found yourself in this strange place. This my friend, is the space between the now and the new. 

As you stand at the doorway of these two places, you can’t help but wonder what lies behind it. Through the gap underneath the door, you get a glimpse of what lies beyond. It sounds like peace, and it smells like joy. It seems greener on that other side, like a vast expanse with an abundance of all that you have been seeking. You know that it has its own version of bullshit that is fertilising the land, but it still seems better than the now.

I have no way of telling you what lies behind that door, but it is probably not what you are expecting. It is also probably going to warm your heart and break it at some point, but that’s okay because that is what being human is all about. All we can do is to be graceful and grateful in not knowing what is behind it. 

At the threshold between these two places, you may have questions like I did. Am I stepping into a good thing, or am I stepping out of it? Am I coming back to myself or am I going away to discover a new part of myself? Is this starting over or is this the next chapter? As I discovered later, there are no wrong answers because there were always other doors in the new place for me. Doors that would lead me to places that I would never have seen if I didn’t walk through that first one. Doors that would lead me to the people I never knew I needed to meet. And doors that would lead me to lessons that I needed to unlock the next one. It is all in the wisdom given to us in Qur’an (2:216), “You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something, although it is bad for you”. And how do I know that there is another door to walk through? I am still alive. 

Take it from this strange man with calluses and scars that you need to be careful with what and who you bring along on this journey. Be full, but be light. Know the difference between a weight that will keep you grounded and the weight that prevents you from soaring. Know what gives you strength or takes it away. Explore the contours between moving forward and leaving things behind. Decide what to keep and how to keep it. 

Then at some point, you will be on your own. The white space you will encounter on the other side can be both a canvas or a vacuum. It is exciting and uncomfortable and in the fervor of filling it up, don’t forget the breathing space that you craved for in the first place. Fear and shame will want to follow you through the door but only you get to decide who to let in. But I know you will be brave and confident with the knowledge that “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear” – Qur’an (2:286).

These words of mine came from the path that I’ve been on. Yours is and will be different and you will write your own words for others someday. Be on your way now. I’m just going to be hanging out here for a bit more to catch my breath before I continue along. Till the next time we meet, or we don’t, be kind to yourself and others. I pray that you will have the audacity to choose love and hope despite knowing that disappointment will still find you on this side of the new. I also pray that you be given the guidance to make good decisions, and the wisdom to see and choose it when it comes your way. It will all be ok. As the wise saying goes, “What is destined will reach you, even if it be underneath two mountains. What is not destined, will not reach you, even if it be between your two lips”.

○ ○ ○ ○ ○

Prompt of ‘Possibilities’ was given by ELEVEN magazine, a student-run publication produced by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society (NTUMS).

Morning Intervals

There is a space in between the start of my day, and the start of the work day. In this space, I wake up to the city around me as it too stirs to life. I paused to ponder and wonder at it.

—————

5:30AM

Hushed. The call of the koel birds have not yet begun, and one can barely make out the polite rumble of vehicles. Considering the number of people living in close proximity with me, it seemed unnatural that I could not hear any conversations or crying children.

A cool breeze was blowing and I walked over to widen the window and let some of it into the apartment. It was still dark outside, leaving the vibrant greens of the tree canopy in the neighbouring precinct reduced to an indeterminate bushy carpet with some blocks protruding out of it.

Looking out, I saw that the sky was a scene of perfectly blended shades of black and deep blue. The lack of stars in the scene above the horizon contrasted with the glowing veins crawling across the ground below me. A constellation of light spots pepper the ground: red, amber, green, white, and the distinctive shade of orange-yellow. I wonder if people call it “street-light orange”.

The arteries of the city were still unclogged and the few drivers on the road were enjoying the smooth and easy drive. That could change very quickly in the coming hours, beginning with the appearance of service vehicles that will be preparing the city for the day ahead. But for now, the late sleepers and early risers get to enjoy the abundance of time and space in their city.

I consider the idea that some people enjoy a city that never sleeps. But I much prefer it when it does, and when it still is.

—————

6:30 AM

The water shimmered from the rays of sunshine that was emerging from behind the high rise apartment blocks. Although still, there is both a warmth and a coolness in the air, making it one of the best times to step out for one’s morning exercise. With kids and their parents too busy chasing the morning commute to school, the running path was occupied by middle-aged individuals, couples, and seniors who could afford to fit a jog in their morning schedule. It felt like every fifth person that I came across the route was wearing a singlet which proudly announced that he or she has been a “Finisher” in a marathon.

I was struggling to catch my breath; partly because I have not gone for a run in a long while, and partly from seeing the scene in front of me. The lush trees that lined the canal offered a buffer to the industrial buildings that lay right behind it. It was a perfectly crafted illusion of nature in such close proximity to the warehouses, machinery, and facilities behind the strip of green. An expressway cuts across the horizon with queues of delivery trucks and passenger vehicles on it, but all of it seemed distant from the ground where my neighbours and I were jogging at. The air was fresh, the urban sounds were faint, and the family of otters greeted us on the banks of the canal. It still amazes me how this city have adapted and reimagined its drainage system into a continuous strip of constructed nature across the island.

—————

7:30 AM

The void-deck was living up to its name. The blue, perforated metal chairs were empty. Four of them, fixed in position around a metal table that has also been bolted to the ground. Chained-up bicycles, mostly rusty and in various states of dismantlement, line the wall. A few bicycles from the bankrupted bike-sharing companies remain strewn behind the pillars, remnants of a time where this city thought these services were a good idea. But other than that mess, the floor and walls of the area was clean. In fact, sterile.

There was a hint of human life at the other block. A group of seniors were gathered around the stone furniture with walking sticks leaning against the chair, plastic bags filled with their morning shopping on the table, conversations in dialect going strong. I do not understand what they are talking about but I imagine that this must be their morning huddle before they retreat for their TV dramas, naps, and individual schedules for the rest of the day.

A few meters away at the other segment of the void-deck was a signage that read “Study Corner”. A few sets of benches and tables similar in design to the other perforated metal furniture were provided for in that area. Wifi and power sockets were not provided, but it was quiet and rather breezy. Unsurprisingly, no one was studying there for school was in session, but an elderly man was sleeping there.

This was his spot. The place where I would find him in every morning, but not in the evening. Lying across the bench that was too short for him, the man would prop his leg on the dividers of the area. He had a haversack at his pillow, and another tote-bag overflowing with things lay on the floor beside him. A styrofoam box, possibly of his recent breakfast, would often be left on the table. He slept with his arms across his body, hugging himself to sleep.

I’ve always wondered about his story. Is he taking a snooze after a late-night shift before heading home in a while? Is he homeless? Why did he choose that bench, in that block? What does he dream of? Is this city doing enough for him?

○ ○ ○ ○ ○

The text above is an excerpt of my contribution to SPACES, an editorial project by Sali Sasaki.

‘SPACES’ gathers visual narratives, interviews and stories about the ways in which spaces are created, experienced and lived in both urban and rural areas. It reveals the complex dimensions of physical and symbolic spaces through a range of related topics including cultural expression, identity, movement, landscapes and natural resources. A particular emphasis is made on the flexible adaptation of local cultures in the global era, as well as the creativity of “non-creative” environments.

For more information and to purchase the book, visit sali-sasaki.exposure.co/spaces

Small projects for big impact

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.

Over the past years, I have grown inclined to another line of thinking, one that approaches urban revitalisation as a series of smaller projects focusing on placemaking — an organic, people-centred approach of developing the character and quality of a place. Guided by a general trajectory, each development acts as an experiment to better define the next move, each intervention calibrated for maximum impact at minimum risk, and each initiative created in collaboration with the community to become a vehicle that catalyses further action.

The limited size and impact of these small-scale projects may seem counter-intuitive, but this limited scope is valuable in offering low-risk opportunities to prototype ideas that may hold the key to revitalising spaces at scale. This is not a new idea and is in fact the foundation of the Tactical Urbanism movement founded by Street Plans Collaborative who have been bringing large scale urban improvements beginning with one small project at a time.

Applying this approach to a tropical Asian metropolis like Singapore, my placemaking studio, Shophouse & Co, carried out tactical interventions at Telok Ayer Park on one lunchtime in January 2017 to test ways that parks in the CBD can be made more inviting during lunch hours. Ideas such as a mobile bicycle pit-stop for delivery cyclists, portable tables to be used at lunchtime, and many other interventions were tested by the community, who provided real-use feedback. Through these small-scale urban experiments, we were able to gather valuable user insights that could then inform resource-intensive infrastructural improvements in the future.

Beyond risk-management, small interventions also offer the potential for revitalisation efforts to become more inclusive by enabling collaboration amongst stakeholders of all sizes. As the saying goes, “You can’t become what you can’t see”, and the relatively small scale of the project enables individuals, groups and companies to visualise themselves making a tangible difference to the project. By being able to project themselves as part of the revitalisation process, the community feels emboldened and empowered to contribute assets, resources and insights — strengthening their sense of belonging to both the process and its outcomes. As a result, not only would the hardware of the neighbourhood be revitalised, its heartware also gets a boost.

This spirit of commnuity involvement was inherent in the process when Shophouse & Co took over a commercial unit in transition at King George’s Avenue in 2013 to prototype new ideas to revitalise the space. As we shared our vision for it to become a hybrid retail-workshop-communal space, various entrepreneurs, artists and creatives came forward to offer their support. We received sponsorship of hardware improvements such as fans, artificial turf and even a kitchen carpentry unit, while creative practitioners conducted programmes such as silkscreen printing workshops and even pizza-making session to activate the space across eight weeks. This collective approach empowered the community to take ownership of the intervention and instilled a sense of pride in the project. One of the partners eventually ended up taking a long-term lease to the unit, continuing the revitalisation process with a new concept featuring a bar, restaurant and creative workspace.

What is perhaps most potent about a small-scale intervention in the grand scheme of things is its ability to catalyse other projects for sustainable urban revitalisation. Like a spark that catalyses a movement, small projects offer tangible evidence to the community that positive urban change is achieveable. Granted, some of these ‘catalytic projects’ may end up as nothing more than a fizzle, but those that register as ‘quick wins’ can start to trigger a reaction. Stakeholders begin to believe in the revitalisation process, and a groundswell start to form to become a sustainable force of change. One famous example is the pedestrianisation of Times Square in New York. After its initial six-month pilot programme in 2009, the DOT reported reduction in pedestrian injuries, booming business for merchants, reduced travel time for cars, and an improvement in public perception of the area; and this visible impact was key in overcoming the stakeholders’ initial scepticism to garner enough support for the city to make the transformation permanent in 2010.

E.F. Schumacher was referring to economics when he wrote Small is Beautiful, but maybe we should look at small-scale urban interventions the same way too. Urban revitalisation schemes don’t need to take the form of mega projects but can manifest as intentionally smaller projects that are nuanced and calibrated to the context. As a more responsive and inclusive process, it offers a stronger and more sustainable impact in rejuvenating urban areas, but this can only happen if we start to look beyond committees and into the power of the community in improving our city.


The original version of this article was first published in Issue 12 of Urban Solutions, a biannual magazine published by Centre for Liveable Cities. This version has been edited to better articulate key ideas related to the theme.

The Silent Unplugging

It was sometime in late October when the urge for a retreat started to arise. Perhaps it was the overwhelming year that has passed and a certain anxiousness of what may lay ahead, perhaps it was the cumulative tiredness of running my own company for 4 years, it could also have been the realisation that it has been a full decade since I’ve graduated from university, or maybe, it was about turning 35-year old which inexplicably felt significant. Heading for a silent retreat had been on my mind for a while but has always been a ‘someday’ kind of activity, but at that moment, it felt like a thing that I must do.

Continue reading “The Silent Unplugging”

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.”

Either way, a heaviness hangs in my heart as I watch the city change. I recognise its impermanent nature and its perpetual incompleteness, but I struggle to cope with the pace that it is happening. A little bit of my heart cracks with the shattering concrete of a building that has reached its time, and yet I stubbornly search for meaning in between the cracks.

As the surrounding earth gets excavated for new infrastructure, and new neighbours move in, the buildings that still stand know that it is a matter of time. Being able to witness the passing of history all these years has been a privilege and this is inevitable. They are just biding their time; all of us are.

Just like the phrase ‘mono no aware’, it is in this relentless change that a curious appreciation of the city arises. In the midst of not knowing what to make of what’s left of the city we once knew, every pause in the city becomes more valuable, and every moment savoured deeper. We try to prolong the existence of the spaces and buildings in our memory through words and images. We create archives of stories that we may one day retell ourselves and our children. We construct meaning out of all this meaninglessness.

It is in that moment, even for us whose relationship with the building is from a distance, are deeply moved by its inevitable passing. If nostalgia is a dirty word, we allow ourselves to be the most vulgar of beings. If sadness is a gloomy thunderstorm, we gladly get drenched in the rain. If love is a thorny rose, we allow ourselves to bleed in order to enjoy its beauty. In the moment that we do not recognise our own city, we are once again in touch with our human emotions.

The city is constantly changing. The buildings that mean so much to many will cease to exist. But if we can bring ourselves to embrace its transient nature, we may just end up not mourning its passing, but rejoicing in its once glorious life. In the face of constant change, it is human to wish we have more time to connect to the built environment around us. But perhaps we can seek the poetic beauty in all this, for it is the absence of connectedness that has brought us all here.


First published in April 2016 for the publication, VIRUS by Fable – For the full tactile print experience featuring the photographs and other essay contributions, get the publication at the VIRUS website or at BooksActually. —

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.

Instead, there were unused pockets of beautiful spaces, human-less lushly landscaped parks and vast roof surfaces as carparks. The renderings with vibrant activities manifested as empty beautiful spaces.

While many identified creative programming to be key, a lack of contextual relevance of what was proposed and resources to execute the good ones, has often led it to remain as latent spatial potential and many, including myself, have been looking for ways to harness this.

Today, we see acts of urban activation attempting to get closer towards fulfilling the potential of our built spaces. For example, the Experience Market during Archifest 2013 (which I was directing) is an attempt to turn an uncharacteristic and lifeless gravel area at Dhoby Ghaut Green into a vibrant marketplace under the canopy. Elsewhere, in the backlanes of Bangsar and Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, community gardens and resident-led parties by the likes of renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San and architect Ms Foo Hui Ping, attempts to bring relevance into these often forgotten but highly intimate spaces. Some ground-up and some empowered by intelligent organizations, projects like these are what reinforce my belief that photogenic spaces is only half the answer to creating a successful piece of architecture or urban space and it is the ability of people to use it meaningfully that makes a difference.

Space on its own, no matter how well made, will always be lifeless until we, the urban citizens, bring our own into it. In a way, the heartbeat of our places is actually ours. When we live our richly complex lives in these spaces, are empowered to participate in it and encouraged to take ownership of it, we tap into this latent spatial potential to make something magical happen- turning a mere space into our own place.

Call it placemaking or urban activation, they point to the same thing- allowing the space to fulfill its potential by imbuing the hardware with some heartware, and perhaps it is time we reconsider our definition of what makes a successful piece of architecture. As Lao Tzu was quoted as saying in The Book of Tea, “The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made.”


— First published in CUBES Magazine (Singapore), April/May 2014 | Cover photo: Experience Market at Dhoby Ghaut Green, Singapore. Archifest 2013. Photo by Shophouse & Co —