Architecture & Design Publishing from Singapore: Some Hard Truths

I was invited to speak on the topic of local publishing at Allscript x Comman Man Coffee Roaster’s “50 Titles” event last weekend. Yanda of Do Not Design selected for this event 50 examples of contemporary local books and magazines. Below is my response, a presentation on some of the titles and what we can learn about designers expanding their role in Singapore’s publishing scene.

I recently moved back to Singapore from New York. One of the things my girlfriend noticed was how difficult it was to pack my collection of architecture and design books into shipping boxes. Anyone who buys them knows how this genre of books come in all shapes and sizes, and seldom fit neatly into a box. In a sense, design books tend to emphasise a quality of difference, and I hope to explore this element in my presentation on contemporary architecture and design publishing from Singapore.

A few years ago, I fully immersed into the subject of Singapore design when I was commissioned to retrace the history of graphic design in this country. This resulted in my book, Independence: The history of graphic design in Singapore since the 1960s, which chronicles the evolution of the profession over the last five decades.

As a journalism graduate, one thread that attracted me while researching for this book was the rise of independent publishing in Singapore. From the mid to late 2000s, designers were putting out a trickle of local books and magazines, including Underscore, Brckt, The Design Society Journal, and kult. The periodical Singapore Architect had also just undergone a revamp under Kelley Cheng of The Press Room. Incidentally, this issue (#287) is her last as there is a new team coming on.

Designers who traditionally came at the end to give form to a publication are now creating the content, either by themselves or commissioning writers. It isn’t entire new nor unique to Singapore, but there is certainly a new generation of local designers who are putting together niche books and magazines all by themselves instead of trying to convince big name publishers to do them. With designers expanding their roles, what differences have they brought to publishing in Singapore?

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Picturing Home, Wherever We May Be

18 of the 20 TwentyFifteen covers. Designed by Jonathan Yuen of ROOTS.
18 of the 20 TwentyFifteen covers. Designed by Jonathan Yuen of ROOTS.

Wherever we go, we carry pictures of home.

Framed up, wedged in a wallet, on a phone, shared online, etched in our minds—we hang on to these references that remind us of where we’ve come from.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Singapore. Away from home, all I’ve had apart from my own pictures are those from the news and what friends and family share online—snapshots of how home has grown through the lenses of my fellow citizens.

Marina Bay with its iconic “integrated resort” has overshadowed the Singapore River’s line of shophouses and skyscrapers as the shorthand for the nation’s success. Our list of old places has matured beyond colonial relics to include modernist complexes and even the iconic dragon playground. The index for the city’s pace of development is no longer the skyline of towering cranes, but how crowded our trains and streets have become.

The frames Singaporeans use to look at their home are changing. It shows in the subjects we picture, but also in what photography means to us today. Is picturing a Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian still the quintessential portrait of Singapore society? When did photographing and shaming online become our way of handling outrageous acts we encounter in public? Should photos of our nation’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew be restricted from public use?

These questions capture some of the issues Singapore faces today. Pictures of home are not just illustrations but also reflections of who we are, projections of how we see the world, and symbols of our community. A photograph’s flat surface belies its third dimension: as a platform for discussions on the people, places and things that matter to each one of us.

This social element is what defines contemporary photography. Making a picture is not just framing a subject and pressing the camera shutter (or in today’s case, tapping a screen), but also sharing it with others—a process that envelopes pictures with meanings beyond just the photographer’s point of view.

This is how our pictures of home are made: through the conversations we share about what we see, what we remember seeing, and even what we hope to see. While the realities depicted in pictures will one day fade or even be challenged, the meanings they hold for each one of us is what helps us see home clearly, wherever we may be.

A essay written for the upcoming TwentyFifteen.SG The Exhibition at Esplanade.

In Singapore, Emptiness is Full of Meaning

An empty piece of land is not something that will catch our eye as we go about our daily lives, but for photographer Darren Soh, it sparked his on-going project that documents the building of Marina Bay Sands. Presenting at the inaugural PLATFORM, Darren showed a full-house crowd at Sinema his “progress pictures” of the integrated resort since construction began some four years ago. The photographer, who has made several photo collections of the Singapore landscape, said this island is one big construction site and that makes emptiness in Singapore’s landscape significant and something worth documenting.

Indeed, living in a country where everything is so transient, Singapore’s landscape has been extensively photographed. However, most works on it that I’ve seen focuses on the death of landscapes and its decay. It’s become a knee-jerk reaction for photographers living here — just look at the number of photographers who have been flocking down to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station now that it’s future is in limbo. Darren’s project responds to this Singapore condition from a different time frame — its beginning and birth. More importantly, his project freezes the never-ending construction work that we are seemingly surrounded with and allows us to reflect, and even marvel, the building of Singapore.

Coincidentally, I recently had the privilege of helping do some background research for an architectural project that looks at the conditions of emptiness in Singapore. The findings of architect Thomas Kong’s project will be presented in ‘Zero’: Alternative Scenarios for Architecture in a Post-Bubble Era on 16 June in Rotterdam.

As a number, zero is neither negative nor positive but we often assign a degree of negativity despite its neutral meaning. A vacated site similarly lies in a liminal state with potentiality. However, architects have been taught that the only thing they could present to society is a building, to fill the void again. But what can they learn from the way in which individuals and groups appropriate empty sites in towns and cities? And in broader perspective, what can zero offer as we live through the Great Recession, when the myth of continuous economic growth is shattered, the assumption of ready capital for development can no longer be guaranteed and architecture students are taught only one mode of survival as a professional?