The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1863] Good Vintage - Sustainable Architecture for an Ageing Society


“Age is opportunity no less

Than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Singapore is an affluent nation, a successful transformation from Third World to First. However, concomitant with this progress is the gradually exacerbating problem of an ageing society. The main culprits are the declining birth rates, attributed to a preference for quality over quantity that comes with the affluence.

Statistics reveal that 1 out of 12 Singaporeans are 65 years and above, and this will increase to a fifth of the population by 2030 – essentially the smallest but fastest ageing society in all of Asia. Singapore is projected to be the fourth oldest country in the world by 2050. While now these may seem to be just numbers with no real connection to the lives of most, in the near future we will be able to literally feel and see the effects more tangibly. The implications of these alarming figures press the need for serious remedies to an extremely far-and-deep reaching issue that will impact on every strata of society, regardless of age. It carries with it multiple potential problems that can affect Singapore, socially and otherwise. Socially it can lead to pluralism where an unaddressed generation gap between old and young will drive a dividing chasm into society. Also it may lead to a poorer quality of life for the elderly. Finally, if not properly catered for, an ageing population will be a heavy strain on both economic and social infrastructure in the long run.

The authorities have long realised the gravity of the situation and have already taken many small but collectively significant measures to tackle the problem. Just within recent years, a Ministerial Committee on Ageing was set up, as well as a centre within the design school of a local polytechnic that is focused on designing for the elderly. For some years now, gestures like providing more help for the elderly, pushing for a more widespread barrier-free design, and setting up the Studio Apartment scheme to provide affordable elderly-friendly flats, have all been targeted at addressing the ageing population problem.

While all these issues and measures are largely on a broader national level scale, an ageing society is something that effects every Singaporean on a more intimate and personal level as well. Like most Asian societies, familial bonds and ties are close-knit. Almost every family, nuclear or extended, will have elderly persons within. As such, the ageing issue is not just a national social problem, but rather one that is fundamentally close to our hearts. All of us, as fellow human beings, will certainly want our elderly loved ones to age gracefully and joyfully in a society that can well sustain them.

As such, one realises that dealing with the issues of an ageing society is not simply the government’s job, but a responsibility that each one of us as members of this society share a part of – similar to the government’s “Many Helping Hands” vision. We have to first change our notion that ageing is something unpleasant, a burden, the tail end of life that is of less value to society. Instead, like Longfellow in the opening quote, we must have the perceptive eyes to see that age is not inferior to youth, but an opportunity that expresses itself in a different manner, one that can be just as pleasing and beautiful, then we can respond positively and deal successfully with it.

While everyone has a role to play in dealing with this issue, we in particular, as architects and designers both established and aspiring, are instrumental in leading the way to create spaces, objects and ideas that embrace and address the ageing problem in tangible ways. Like the rest, the mindset and attitude that we need to have must be not to see it as a burden but rather as a challenge and opportunity to create new spaces and typologies that creatively respond to it. Then perhaps, we can truly call ourselves a bona fide First World country, where people can age gracefully and joyfully, in a society that can sustain and embrace them.

In the light of these, an effective starting point to address this social issue of an ageing society is through a design competition. Essentially a medium that will promote awareness, generate buzz and creative ideas, it is meant as a springboard and incubation box for design that is sensitive to the needs of an ageing population. Moreover, this competition is intended to be a hands-on opportunity for students to really engage with the elderly and through architecture and design, make a tangible positive difference to their lives.

Thus, this Singaporean edition of a “Social Art of Architecture Design Competition” rests its premise on the question of: “How can we, as designers, creatively respond to make ours a beautifully sustainable and robust ageing society?”

It will have 2 separate categories – one for design and architecture students; another that is open to students from non-design disciplines. This will allow for more formal proposals and well as refreshing proposals seen from the eyes of a design layman. The first category for design students will be further streamlined into industrial/product design and architectural works. Industrial or product design is fairly straightforward and thus open to interpretation; as for architectural works, the proposed schemes are to be within the domains of housing, public spaces and healthcare spaces. What the definitions of these domains or typologies may be, it is up to the ingenuity and creativity of the students to define. While this whole category is meant to generate more formal design solutions and proposals, by no means is this to curb creativity. Boundary lines can be questioned and redefined if they are relevant and effective in answering the question of the competition. Students can either work individually or in teams of up of four.

Of more interest will be the second category as it allows more widespread participation and moves beyond the conventional setup of design competitions. Essentially, it entails a one week design sketch exercise. It will first kick off with a series of design workshops over a weekend that will help those from non-design disciplines to embark upon their task more easily. For the rest of the week, students are to spend one of the days with an elderly person (family or otherwise), identify a challenge or problem in his or her environment, then respond with a creative design solution. This will be an individual effort. Here, the intention is to reach out to both non-design students as well as the elderly themselves to personally experience, participate and engage in social design in a fun yet directly relevant and beneficial way. It is hoped that the competition itself actually becomes a means of addressing the issue of a widening generation gap between young and old, a problem associated with the rise of an ageing society. It then becomes two-pronged in its approach – a medium that allows people to come up with ideas to address the issue, while addressing the issue itself in the process of formulating those ideas. No longer merely a design competition, it is additionally a socially-enriching exercise in itself.

Moving on to the more pragmatic aspects of the competition, these involve the deliverables and the time schedule. Deliverables for the first category include a maximum of four A3 panels of either hand-drawn or computer drawings – keeping it manageable for students and easily digestible for judges and viewers – models and a one-page write-up that presents the design idea, its expression and relevance to the question of the competition. As for the second category, there must be visual documentation of the day spent with the elderly person, by means of either a photo journal or videos. While the workshops are optional to cater to different schedules, they are highly recommended to ease participants’ forays into the competition. Other deliverables include a maximum of 2 A3 panels of either hand-drawn or computer drawings. Models are optional. Essentially, the key to the deliverables is to ensure that the clarity and completeness of the presentation is well conveyed to the judges.

While planning the time schedule of the competition may seem like a mundane exercise, it has to be carefully designed to closely tie in with both the school calendar as well as Singapore’s events calendar to ensure relevance to those directly involved as well as maximum exposure for the competition to the general public. Publicity to promote the competition should start around April, to prepare for the official opening of the first category of the competition in May, which is when the majority of the tertiary design schools close for the long summer break. This thus nicely allows the students the luxury of time that is free from the burdens of school to muse over ideas and articulate them into highly inspiring yet feasible schemes. They will be given three months to work out and produce their schemes before submission of entries close in August which is when the schools open again for the new semester. The second category of the competition will be held during the November/December period which coincides with the year-end holidays. More significantly, this is when both the Singapore Design Festival as well as the Active Ageing Carnival is usually held. The intention is to hold the design workshops, the one-week sketch design competition, and the prize-giving ceremony for both categories of the competition as joint events between the 2 major festivals. This is meant to reach out to both the design community and the rest of the society at large about the aims of the competition in actively addressing the ageing issue. Featuring in the Singapore Design Festival will give this ‘old’ social issue a much needed boost in the hip quotient, while straddling the 2 festivals will bring double the public and media exposure.

Next comes the question of the evaluation criteria for the competition. This can get tricky since the competition is composed of two very differently crafted categories. To streamline the procedure, the judging criteria will consist of four broad segments – relevance, originality, clarity and sustainability. Relevance refers to the facilitating of an active and secure lifestyle for the elderly, enhancing their health and overall quality of life, improving the integration of elderly into society and facilitating the care of the elderly. Architectural schemes should ideally address all four parts, while the industrial/product design schemes, due to their far smaller scale, need only address one of these issues. That said, schemes that manage to play dual roles will certainly stand out. With regards to the second category of the competition, relevance is evaluated in relation to the problem identified which the scheme is a response to.

Originality involves the notion of fresh perspectives and shifting the paradigm to address the issue in new and better ways, and also the creation of new or hybrid typologies, forms and products. Clarity is with regards to clear articulation of ideas and intent, as well as the presentation of the scheme in totality. Sustainability entails the notion of economic viability and green sensibilities that respect and add value to the environment.

The differentiating factor for the two categories of competition is then the weightage placed on each of the segments. Schemes in the first category for design students are evaluated with 40% going to relevance, 20% to originality, 10% to clarity and 20% to sustainability. For the second category that is open to students of all disciplines, 40% will still go to relevance and 10% to clarity, but a higher weightage of 30% will go to originality and a lower 20% to sustainability. The reason for this is that the second category has a far shorter time of design, so the thrust of that competition is to come up spontaneously with refreshing, new ideas, unencumbered by the formalities of a design education. Originality in actively engaging with the ageing issue while resolving a real life problem through design will be the key to success in that category of competition.

Prizes for the winning entries will be monetary in nature. For the winners in the second category, the elderly persons they worked with will enjoy the physical realisation of the design proposal through the provision of sponsors.

Now that the main framework of the competition has been set up, it is time to bring out the jury. They are carefully chosen to represent the different voices – designers, architects, politicians, the elderly and their caregivers - that are crucial in the success of dealing with the ageing society in Singapore through the vehicle of design. Thus the four invited jurors of choice will be Mr Moses Wong, director of the Temasek Polytechnic Design School and the “Greater than 60” Design Centre, Mr Wong Mun Summ of local architecture firm WOHA, Mr Lim Boon Heng, the Minister-in-Charge of Ageing Issues, and Ms Teresa Hsu, a centenarian who is also a social worker and nurse.

Mr Moses Wong, as both a design educator and incubator of new design ideas for the elderly, stands in an excellent position to evaluate designs and also to help winning projects develop further for tie-ups with industry players in the market. It pushes the competition beyond ideas into reality that can tangibly address the ageing issue. Mr Wong Mun Summ, as co-partner of the Aga Khan Award winning firm WOHA will lend design credibility and prestige to the competition, which is likely to draw the participation of many good students. Also his association with the competition can raise the awareness and profile of the ageing issue in the top tiers of the design industry. As Minister-in-Charge of Ageing Issues, Mr Lim Boon Heng will certainly be very interested in the possibilities of such a competition and his presence will do much to give political clout and support to the cause. Finally, we have Ms Teresa Hsu, a 110-year-old former nurse who till today still actively engages in social and charity work among the aged sick. Singapore’s own version of Mother Teresa, she straddles the dual roles of an elderly person and a caregiver. Effectively, she can ensure that the winning designs will be directly relevant and beneficial to the very ones they seek to serve.

The physical epitome of Longfellow’s verses, Ms Hsu exemplifies the possibilities and opportunities in old age, defying conventional notions of the elderly as burdens to society that are the main cause of this ageing population problem. Likewise, this Singaporean edition of a “Social Art of Architecture Design Competition” aims to overturn negative connotations of ageing, raise awareness of the issue in schools, in the industry and among the public, and provide personalised design proposals to the elderly, all this while supporting this social issue with tangible remedies and a certain cachet only possible through the means of design.

Faculty Contact: Dr Ruzica Bozovic-Stamenovic

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