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

[ID:1937] A "more public" public space


Singapore. A crowded city. A society that yearns for privacy. A city of not-so-public public spaces.

We are a city that is essentially the product of meticulous urban planning. In turn, we find ourselves living in a city of systems and rationalism. We know exactly where to go for entertainment, for shopping and fine dining in this urban matrix, so often that we find ourselves ending up in the same places. Everyone can be seen crowding in the same malls, walking with rapid paces that are so much in sync with one another. Our city has become predictable and we never question it. There is little or almost no sense of adventure in us as we blandly accept that our public spaces lack surprises. Our public lives have been turned into a form of clockwork rigidity. Amidst this constancy, there is no place for the displaced who are constantly out of sync with the rest of us. We are too fast for them to catch up.

When we fail to question, we start assuming. We are so used to our overcrowded city that we conveniently assume that it is too small to provide for a healthy mix of public and private lives. To us, privacy means distance but sadly, our city cannot afford us this distance. Come to a compromise, you may say, but the fact is we are not ready to lower our minimum threshold distance for privacy. We still feel uncomfortable with the stranger beside us. We do not want our private lives to suffocate by bringing others closer to us. Thus, we lock our private lives behind the doors of our homes. When out in the public, we simply merge into the masses and take on a new public front. The public space is impersonal. We are without an identity. Public and private lives become discrete entities that are incompatible when put together. It is almost as if we have to live two lives in parallel.

Our public and private lives have been thrown into an extreme imbalance. It has become an either-or condition in which the in-between is nowhere to be found. Our housing environment has inevitably shaped this dichotomy between what should be public and what should be private. Most of us have been staying in high-rise apartments all our lives. As a country with a population of nearly four million people and land area that is only slightly more than six hundred square kilometres, it is little wonder that high-density housing serves as our only solution. When we need more homes, we simply build higher. Community life has to suffer due to this practicality. Common corridors alongside our homes saw a dwindling in size from a spacious three-metre one to one that can barely allow two persons to pass through at once. Conversely, the number of lifts per apartment block increased over the years with building heights. It is also not helping much in promoting community interactions by making lifts that used to serve only specific floors stop at every floor now. The probability of a chanced encounter with our neighbours is greatly reduced. Even if we do meet, one may just choose to wait for the next lift, simply out of an effort to avoid the awkward silence that may surface when commuting in the same lift. This distance is what we think personal space is all about. Perhaps, we cannot be more wrong.

But, this is what we feel comfortable with and we do not question it. When the displaced contradict our notion, we question them and not ourselves. We cannot see how they can treat public spaces as homes which are supposedly private domains. Why have their private lives trespassed into our public lives? Why must we let our previously well-planned public lives suffer as a result of this conflict? Maybe we should not. So, we set up barriers to prevent them from sleeping on public benches and make our public buildings more exclusive. We redefine the notion of the public and we leave the displaced undefined. Our public spaces have become, as such, not so public after all.

The displaced should not be seen. They do not fit into the image of Singapore as a clean and green garden city. We must work to preserve our picture-perfect image. Thus, the displaced should hide. They are loopholes in our system. They should already be glad to find a place in the city where they would appear less conspicuous and hopefully be more accepted. Perhaps the displaced are satisfied with this arrangement. But, are there enough leftover spaces for all of the displaced in our city? Probably not. Singapore has been overly planned in the name of image and progress. We have become so overly conscious of our small size that we use it as an excuse for every practical step we take. We cannot let our lands be wasted. No space should be leftover. Where can the displaced go then?

We are confused. We do not wish to eliminate the displaced but we clear their homes. We do not wish to discriminate against them but we shun away from them. This is the greatest paradox that we can have and must address. But, we do not know how to. We end up labelling certain districts as being less developed and convince ourselves to be more tolerant of the displaced here. If they were found in the places where we shop, dine, work and play, we can hardly be as sympathetic. This brings to question the very notion of the term 'displaced'. Is it, in any ways, a detachable label? Can people be displaced in a district but not the city? Or can they be displaced in the city but not a district? I am afraid our contradictions with ourselves have only worsened.

The problem of the displaced is multi-faceted. Depending on the context, economic, political, societal and architectural solutions serve varying appropriateness. Architecture, though relevant, is and will never be a standalone solution. An architectural solution for the displaced is not one that involves building houses for all of them. This is too much of a utopia. Such solutions would only prove to be economically straining and temporal. Architecture is more than a building process. It is a medium that expresses and shapes the way we live. However, it cannot be offered as a one-off solution. Just as the problem has evolved from a long-term urban process, the solution cannot be direct and immediate. Architecture, as a solution, is a function of time. It does not and cannot attempt to revolutionise society. It can only serve as a point of departure.

Architecture should never become a form of elitism. We are not building for architects, but for the public. The city is not a showcase for the architect but a living vessel for all. The architect or the urban planner should also learn to distance himself from his profession and return to be the layman, to see things as they are, unfiltered by any acquired knowledge. Then, he would not over-design or over-plan. He would leave sufficient space in our city for the unplanned because he would know that we are not living programmes like that of The Matrix. We need some surprises. We need some mistakes.

Why do we only care to develop architecture for the shoppers and the tourists? Why not attempt to design for the reader, the artist, the dancer, the park-goer or the music-lover? Many of the public spaces we have here are popular but monotonous. We need variety. But before that, we have to make alternative options appealing first. If we bother to put in much thought into designing our shopping malls, I believe we can do the same for our libraries, museums, arts centres and parks. The result would have a domino effect. Our public spaces would present us with new alternatives for us to step out of our haunts. Our city, in turn, gets de-intensified. The concentration of people in particular places becomes diluted. We realise the truth that we have more space than what we think we can actually afford. Our public spaces also do not have to be homogenous. They can be individualised and distinctive. Against this backdrop, there seems to be a place for our idiosyncrasies. Perhaps, the public domain does offer a chance of survival for our private lives. Perhaps, we do not need to separate it from our public lives. The displaced, then, are like us after all. They too are trying to strike a balance between their private and public lives. But, they do not have the luxury of living two lives in two separate domains. In fact, this is not needed. What we need is a gradation from the private to the public. We need to make our private and public lives more in tune with each other.

The definition of a public space to us has been somewhat twisted. We do not seem to understand that the public involves everyone, the displaced included. Public spaces have turned into territorial spaces. We can sit on the public benches but the displaced cannot sleep on them. This is strange. Maybe we should call our public spaces 'selectively public spaces' instead. But we do not need to deal with this issue in such a reductive and deterministic manner. Have we not wondered that perhaps the displaced are more conscious of our acute stares than we are of their presence? If so, they would probably hide themselves away even before we try to exclude them. Maybe we should not worry so much about how those public benches must be used. People have their ways of locating and relocating themselves in response to their environment. The displaced need not be forced to leave. Let our public spaces have a chance of remaining public.

Buildings can also become more permeable to public lives. Interactions cannot only occur at the private level within the building, totally enveloped by its fa

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