The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1916] A Public Space, A Heritage

Singapore

A public space could be a reflection of its country, a microscopic extraction of her culture, progress and the richness of its history. It could be a heritage - a living presence of the past and as defined in dictionaries, it is a nation s mark of history and wealth to be inherited by future generations.

Seeking a public space in Singapore could be a problem as a constant struggle for both private and public spaces, exists on this small island crowded with a population of 4.2 million. So what makes a space truly public and distinguishes itself from the private in Singapore?

Inclining to the defination of a public space adopted from the architectural historian and critic, Roger Scruton(1984) : A "public space" is used to designate a location ii) designed, however minimally and ii) everyone has the rights of access, iii) encounters in it between individual users are unplanned and unexceptional and, iv) their behaviours towards each other is subjected to rules none other than those of common norms of social civility.

A successful public space in my opinion, allows the public to easily relate to it. It should have a high accessibility to the public physically and socially allowing people from all walks of life to gather. Like a vessel, it creates an opportunity for an array of activities to be carried out over time without being too large a scale, nor be extremely well facilitated.

The public space that left the greatest impression on me would be the corridors of shophouses, better known as the five-foot ways to the locals. Modern Singapore is a metropolis of skyscrapers, tall flats, flyovers, a sanitized and green landscape with endless rows of shopping centres. Many may wonder how would this corridor as mentioned earlier, be my choice of a successful public space reigning over sprawling shopping arcades frequent by thousands daily.

Perhaps it is its old world charms that characterised colonial Singapore in the 1960s. Perhaps it is where I grew up in. The five-foot way is a threshold that I experience daily, waving to the familiar faces, buying a simple meal along the corridor on my way home or standing by a crowd of elderly, battling out in a game of chess on the steps of the five-foot way.

Mundane and simple it may sound, but this is a space shared with hundreds of people everyday, yet I feel at home. Travelling past the five-foot way today, I could almost recollect the days when I squatted along these familiar grounds with all my neighbours after elementary school, holding matchboxes preying on spiders along the drains and on the corridor columns. Such memory of the five-foot way does make me feel attached to it, maybe such sentiments would also be shared with my neighbours and friends whom I grew up together with, along this narrow corridor I call my "home".

Shophouses lined the streets of Singapore as early as 1806 in early settlements like Kampung Glam, Telok Ayer and Chinatown. Simple sheltered corridor spaces, the five-foot ways were later extended from these shophouses in 1819 by Singapore founder and town planner, Sir Stamford Raffles. These five-foot ways caters a simple function-to shelter the commuters from rain in this tropical country often drenched in rain. They were a standard for almost every shophouses. Measuring literally five-feet from the entrance of each shophouse, these corridors had slowly evolved from a mean of circulation to a catalyst of social activities which would later project the microspace of Singapore, even till today.

In 1907 the government legally rendered five-foot ways as public spaces from privatised corridors belonging to the shophouse owners. Ever since, the five-foot way took on a life of its own. Threading along the five-foot way then, will witness hawkers from all races set up stalls selling food and dry products. Laughters and shouts of children playing hopscotch vied for attention with cages of live chickens fluttering in a poultry shop next door. Exploring deeper along this five-foot way unveils even more activities, the smell of Indian spices wafts into your nose camouflaging the stench of sweat from a pack of rickshaw pullers taking their rest at their headquarters next door. Their conversations, blared in their respective dialects, drowned the snips of the scissors from a makeshift barber shop. This wass just a typical scene witnessed along the five-foot way all over Singapore as early as the 1910s. People from all races and lifestyle congregate in this corridor for leisure and livelihood.

From the 1947 Report of Housing Committee Singapore(1948: 5), due to the rapid growth and development of the country, the shophouses and five-foot ways were so overused that the only voids available then, were the small air wells and the drain between the five-foot way and the main road. Naturally, these corridors became a point of gathering for many people. The extent of overcrowding along the five-foot ways became an alarming issue. By the 1950s, the five-foot ways were described as a "place of hideous overcrowding", an area marked by "labyrinth of mean streets and stinking drain choked with scraps, fruit skins and thousand stinks."

From 1970 to the early 1980s, shophouses were demolished leaving only 2 percent of residential dwelling, meaning the architecture which was essential to the Singapore street culture was destroyed. Street stalls and hawkers along the five-foot ways were also banned from 1983. These destruction, if I may label it, were to curb problems of public control, illegal activities, poor public hygiene from food vendors, uncleanliness as well as traffic accidents since the five-foot ways were just adjacent to the main roads. National concerns of slum and poverty eradication to create a garden city have had its toll on the colourful street life. It is inevitable that the country's interest should be placed as the priority especially when Singapore was in the midst of its economic boom. However, the nation's economical, political and social interest had replaced the beauty and vitality of Singapore's street culture by chasing out the inhabitants of the shophouses and five-foot ways. For the following decade, the remaining five-foot way became quiet, peaceful and not as picturesque. However it became the common meeting point for children seeking fun along the five-foot way and to the elderly and house makers, it was a place where gossips were shared over short chats.

The fate of these five-foot ways returning to its previous lustre were bleak due to the outflow of residence to the new districts and settlements. It was till then that the Urban Redevelopment Authorities gave the five foot way a new lease of life by carrying out an extensive process of conservation in historically rich places of Singapore. This plan was initiated in the late 1980s after Singapore has successfully acquired its 'clean state' image. Slums were replaced by skyscrapers and streets were cleared up. However, living traditions and communal spaces still seemed lacking in high-rise flats as the public had no common grounds for social interaction. Thus in an attempt to bring back the dynamism and the vitality which the older districts once had, the government budgeted 97.5 million dollars in September 1998 to restore the Chinatown district. Shophouses were protected and renovated en masse which meant that the five-foot ways would also be given a second chance. Shops were allowed to be setup along the five-foot ways in the condition that the vendors needed to attain licenses. I would agree that this was an appropriate respond to promote the sense of rootedness by keeping the spirit of the past which perhaps is missing from the public today. And this may also mean that the history of a place does promote a sense of belonging and identity, allowing the users to relate to easily and thus frequent this space of familiarity..

Today, the five-foot ways are slowly regaining the vitality they had half a century ago through a series of conservation. Gone were the days where the corridors were lined with illegal peddlers or littered with thrash. The new image of the five-foot way is one that is not only superficially restored, but retains the high level of interaction amongst the public, just like it did in the past. This is achieved by encouraging businesses like fortune telling, traditional food hawkers from all races and other trades which were lost or neglected over the past few years due to the over emphasis on economical and technological development. I would dare call this the "Revisiting of Old Singapore" where the public realizes the need to embrace the spirit of the past and their origins amidst the economical mad rush in today's society.

One successful example of conservation work would be the pedestrianisation of Pagoda and Trengganu Streets in Chinatown. The aim of this 1 million dollar project unveiled in 1997 was to bring back the bustling and festive street atmosphere for which Kreta Ayer, the traditional retail core of Chinatown, has always been known for. The asphalt road along shophouses are replaced with durable clay pavers and tiles. This allows a safe and direct access for the public to commute in between opposite rows of five-foot ways. There is also a "service vehicle access" period from midnight to 11.00am daily, when vehicles can enter the mall to deliver goods and services. This was an effective form of conservation to bring life back to the five-foot way as a form of spatial expansion allowing more activities to take place. These streets became indispensable to the five-foot way during festive periods. Just like the famous night markets in Temple Street, HongKong, hundreds of shops lined these five-foot ways and streets during the Chinese Lunar New Year where tens of thousand of people elbow through the busy streets at night basking in the shopping and food heaven filled with new year goodies. It is this interaction of the public with the five-foot way and its changes in relation to time that makes it an attractive place.

Stripping away the festive facade reveals a different perspective of the five-foot ways. Elderly meeting up in groups for chats, a game of chess or just laying down on the benches is another common sight along the five-foot way during the day. Attempts to bring the younger crowd into the five-foot ways were also carried out extensively. Chic Italian restaurants and expensive clubs were encouraged to operate along the shophouses. Five-foot ways became the threshold for the public seeking an exciting nightlife set in a nostalgic ambience. A common sight of five-foot ways today would witness a Starbucks cafe sandwiched between a traditional Chinese clog maker and an Indian spice shop. Such scenes may seem contrasting, but this projects the spirit of Singapore embracing the future, yet preserving her own multiracial and colourful heritage.

Such upgrades to the five-foot way by the government is of course commendable. However, there should also be a limit or guideline which governs the extent of renovation of the five-foot ways. Over renovation and restoration may lead to the dilution if not the lost of the spirit of five-foot ways. A danger which many five-foot ways face today is superficial restoration with conceptual deterioration. This defeats the purpose of retaining the vitality and historical sense of the place. The Bugis Junction, a shopping arcade at the Central Business District built in 1995 has won many awards for conservation. It features two adjacent rows of shophouses, totally enclosed in glass cladding. The five-foot ways are tiled with luxurious marble flooring and is fully air-conditioned. Expensive shops and boutiques occupy these spaces. Bringing ease and comfort to the public is indeed a considerate and direct method of attracting people to visit the five-foot ways. Extensive work is also done to bring back the Art Deco style of shophouses within the shopping arcade to so as to replicate the five-foot ways of the past. However, the experience of being encapsulated in air conditioning, soothing muzak and bright lights just did not comply to my memories of a five-foot way. Despite of the pain-staking facade built, it was still very difficult for me to associate the space to a traditional five-foot way. According to critics and local forums, this five-foot way is just a thematic style to enhance the interest level of the shopping arcade, and in harsher terms, a gimmick so as to distinguish itself from the usual multileveled shopping complexes. If the sense of hustle and bustle in a five-foot way is almost non-existent in this sculpted environment, can we still regard this a successful public space since thousands of people make use of these new spaces? Perhaps we can, but I would be inclined to think that what attracts the public is not due to any success in creating the traditional five-foot way ambience but perhaps the contents of the shops instead. As such, it is necessary to put in extra effort to conserve the five-foot way today in a cautious and sensitive manner to retain the original spirit of the five-foot way, avoiding material-values.

The future of five-foot way is indeed exciting with the support from the government and a growing acceptance of the past among the young generation. Allocating appropriate businesses and amenities at these places is crucial. Also there could be a possibility of bringing back residential shophouses such that the five-foot ways will not be a mere corridor of commerce but also a home to the next generation. Elongated museums could also be constructed along the five-foot ways depicting Singapore in different eras. In fact, the five-foot way itself is a living museum and with subtle repair works, documentation and placing information booths retelling the history of places, a stroll along these century old corridor would be both nostalgic and educational.

A successful public space could be as simple as the five-foot way, a threshold. However, due to its high capacity for activities and accessiblity, with layers of history juxtaposed onto one another, a place of heritage is being created. With this, brings along a sense of identity and belonging to the users allowing itself to withstand the test of time by taking on different roles to serve the public. It appeals to people of all ages and races as it functions as a place of commerce, festive or just a venue for contemplation and rest. Constant and sensitive effort is needed to maintain this space with an eclectic mix of races, trends and lifestyle that moulds the identity of Singapore. And it is through such uncontrived interaction between the old with new, such that the spirit of the five-foot way can be kept alive as a public space, a heritage to Singapore today.

Reference:

(i) "Public Spaces: Design, use and management", Chua Beng Huat and Norman Edwards, Singapore University Press, 1992

(ii) "Rethinking Chinatown and Heritage Conservation in Singapore", Kwok Kian Woon, Wee Wan Ling, Karen Chia, Singapore Heritage Society, 2000

iii) "Urban Redevelopment Authority Annual Report 2002.3", Public Relations Section, URA, 2002

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