Singapore’s government is pulling out all the stops to promote creative entrepreneurship in the city-nation.
In addition to studios, exhibition spaces, and a shop, Singapore’s National Design Centre is now home to three of the city’s public makerspaces, offering citizens access to digital fabrication machines, power tools, and electronics. Jeffery Ho, the executive director of the DesignSingapore Council, hopes that such prototyping labs will become as ubiquitous as photocopying shops once were. “If this is a successful model . . . we will go into the housing estates,” he says. “That is very relevant for us because we don’t have garages in Singapore.”
The DesignSingapore Council is an agency set up in 2003 when the nation began developing a creative economy. In just over a decade, it has nurtured a thriving design scene—Singapore was designated a UNESCO Creative City for Design last year—and is now set to forge closer ties with technology and entrepreneurship, in line with the government’s plans to turn the city-state into what it refers to as a “smart nation.”
As nations struggle to house their rapidly growing urban populations, Singapore offers a promising solution with its profusion of innovative high-rise, high-density housing “estates,” as is the local parlance. Today, over 80 percent of the city-state’s resident population lives in public housing.
Key to this success is the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the nation’s public housing agency, which was set up in 1960 to tackle the shortage of housing and clearly overcrowded slums. HDB has since evolved from resettling Singaporeans who once lived in overcrowded villages to catering to the lifestyles of its now 5.5 million inhabitants.
In the last decade, public housing has gone from utilitarian rectangular blocks formulated by faceless public servants to stylish complexes designed by top local architecture firms, such as WOHA Architects, which completed their SkyVille@Dawson in July. Containing 960 units of a variety of apartment types and sporting tropical landscaping and extensive communal spaces, the three-tower scheme humanizes the HDB housing blocks of yesteryear.
SkyVille@Dawson is just one example of HDB enlisting the private sector to create more distinctive public housing. “The concepts that we have tested out in Dawson are also being implemented in other new housing projects in different ways,” says Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, HDB’s chief executive officer. “Our new estates will be greener and more garden-like, to provide a more conducive living environment for residents.”
Against this backdrop of progressive public housing for low- and middle-income residents, Singapore’s developers have turned to starchitects to differentiate their profit-driven projects. Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Toyo Ito have all recently designed signature high-rise luxury residences. OMA and Ole Scheeren’s Interlace and Moshe Safdie’s soon-to-be-completed Sky Habitat offer further examples. Yet, Safdie is discerning: “Very few countries at this point are building housing by the government for the people as Singapore does. I don’t think there is any country like that.”
Chye Seng Huat Hardware used to be a neighborhood hardware store in Jalan Besar. Today it serves Third Wave coffee. This conversion is symbolic of how rapidly this industrial area has changed. Together with the design-store-cum-craft- workshop space The General Co above the café, the building has become a landmark of Jalan Besar’s retooling by Singapore’s emerging creative economy.
Just two metro stops east of Singapore’s historic center, City Hall, or a 15-minute drive from the picturesque Marina Bay waterfront, Jalan Besar was swampland that developed as the former colonial town expanded in the late nineteenth century. First home to mills, abattoirs, and brick kilns, the area evolved in the twentieth century with an industrial community that built rows of Art Deco shop houses still standing today. Many have now been creatively repurposed.
Since Chye Seng Huat (which means “to flourish”) opened two summers ago, the neighborhood has percolated with a slew of cafés and creative outfits. Affordable rents at the city’s edge are the draw, but so is the history, culture, and grit. New establishments are nestled amid traditional kopitiams (coffee shops) and workshops left over from Singapore’s yesteryear. At night, the neighborhood features a lively mix of supper spots and dodgy karaoke bars—Little India’s 24-hour Mustafa Centre shopping mall is just a short walk away.
Flanked by the four-lane Jalan Besar (Malay for “big road”) and Rochor River, this neighborhood is a kind of drip-coffee cone, filtering a creative brew into Singapore’s commercial and cultural center. Will it last? By the end of the year, Lavender Food Square Centre, Jalan Besar’s iconic late-night food emporium since the 1980s, will make way for a commercial development that real estate agents are already promoting as “hip.”