JUSTIN ZHUANG is writer and researcher with an interest in DESIGN, CITIES, CULTURE, HISTORY and MEDIA. I run a Singapore-based studio In Plain Words and a recent graduate from the MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts, New York.
As more data centres are built to power the city-state’s digital transformation, the design of these high-tech boxes become ever more important.
What do “The Internet” and “The Cloud” look like to you? Even a Google search turns up nothing more than diagrams of seemingly invisible networks that connect the world’s computers, phones and devices. Well, stop looking up and start looking around, because the world wide web exists in plain sight across Singapore. Inside buildings known as “data centres” are the racks of computers that form part of the network which we increasingly depend on in our everyday lives.
They are alongside motorists as they travel down the Ayer-Rajah Expressway—between the flyovers at Buona Vista and Portsdown. One is a neighbour to residents living in the public housing blocks along Serangoon North Avenue 5. Another greets students across the road from Corporation Primary School. These data centres are where information is collected, stored, processed, distributed and accessed, and they are all part of a web of similar facilities connected around the world via fibre cable and satellite.
When a landscaped pedestrian mall was introduced along Orchard Road in the 1970s, it seemed like a perfectly good idea. A tree-lined retail boulevard would bolster Singapore’s then emerging ambitions to become a ‘Garden City’, and offer shoppers shade as they went from mall to mall. Today, the stretch (over two kilometres long) is invaded by thousands of birds. Roosting on the canopies of the Angsana trees, the birds poop on the mall, terrorise patrons at the alfresco cafes and declare their presence every evening with a deafening cacophony.
A greener environment has made Orchard Road ‘A Great Street’ (as its tagline goes) not just for people, but ‘pests’ too. As urbanscapes become increasingly designed with and for nature, such conflicts are sure to grow. Trees and shrubs are not objects designed for users. Nor are they simply another material on a mood board. These living organisms are part of an ecology that architects, designers, clients and users must become more aware of for us to truly live in works that embrace nature.
It has been two weeks since I returned to tropical Singapore. The sweltering heat outside makes me yearn for the cooler weather during my recent trip to Tallinn, Copenhagen and Helsinki. More than comfort, I find that living with the seasons makes one more sensitive to the environment. The daily need to respond to the weather — be it making plans or dressing accordingly — reminds us of how we relate to nature. But weather along the equator is significantly less drastic. In fact, I used to think we had no seasons until I attended a discussion on produce in Singapore last week. One of the chefs reminded us that different species of fish thrive in the seas around our island depending on the time of the year. But as few of us cook and shop in supermarkets selling only imported produce, we have lost such knowledge of how nature works…