Looking back to see the future of Singapore design
Dragons, those harbingers of growth and vitality, are twisting through Singapore once again. A design icon once ubiquitous in this city, the “Singapore dragon” is an angular, pixelated head with one octagonal eye. The rudimentary logo was conceived in the late 1970s, when the former British colony, having gained independence in 1965, was still conjuring an identity.
The dragon was designer Ean Ghee Khor’s response. Tasked to create “Singapore playgrounds” for the government’s massive public housing program, Khor sought to imbue them with the nation’s personality by employing representations of local fruits and animals throughout them. Over the next two decades, across Singapore, it was the lively dragon of Chinese origin that became the playground model of choice. Since the 1990s, however, all but two of Khor’s playgrounds have been replaced by uninspiring, modular plastic units made by multinational playground companies. But of late his serpent is reappearing in a variety of forms.
I’ve recently got myself involved in a series of work that revolved around the heartlands of Singapore.
AT OUR DOORSTEPS is a community project photographer Sam Kang Li started to get to know his neighbours better. He knocked on the doors of all the 44 units of the block he stayed in and photographed portraits of his neighbours at their doorstep. These portraits were exhibited in May at the void deck of his block and compiled to a block album I helped Kang Li put together.
On the left is the album cover, which took reference from the elements found in the block, including the distinct coloured tiles and the lift buttons.
Find out about At Our Doorsteps through this video he made in the midst of doing it, and another after the exhibition was held.
MEET THE PEOPLE is a collection of videos that Samuel He put together over a few days in the run-up to the recent by-elections in Hougang. He wanted to reflect the voices of the people in the constituency by “eavesdropping” into their everyday conversations about the elections. During the hustings, he walked the constituency of Hougang, approaching residents to get them to talk about the elections, often putting his camera in front of them and letting it run till they forgot it was there.
MOSAIC MEMORIES: Remembering the playgrounds Singapore grew up in is an e-book I authored that contains stories of four Singaporeans, including the designer Mr Khor Ean Ghee, and their memories of old playgrounds in Singapore. Inside, you will also find portraits of the interviewees by Zakaria Zainal and an illustrated map by Wee Ho Gai of where the remaining old playgrounds are still standing today. This was a publication commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project as part of their “Drawn from Memory” series.
This e-book is the third time I’ve produced a piece related to my fascination with these old playgrounds that were designed and produced in Singapore. It began with an article I wrote for Singapore Architect in 2009, which was updated with even more details and reference in my most recent piece for FIVEFOOTWAY. Mosaic Memories comes from a very different angle, featuring the playground users instead of the designs.
Finally had some time to review my research on Singapore’s old playgrounds, and I’ve updated my Google Map with the 19 that are still standing today. The designs of these playgrounds were done between 1979 and 1993 when the HDB took it upon themselves to create and build their own playspaces as part of the public housing estate. Many of the designs were inspired by local culture, and took on a secondary role of becoming visual icons for Singaporeans.
The playgrounds that came after, and have become what we recognised today, are imported from overseas instead. They are cheaper to build, easier to maintain, and generally more innovative in design because they are created by global companies who have the scale to invest in research and development.
I’ve also found images of other playgrounds designs that no longer exist and I’m trying to see how to piece all this together for some kind of article/book. Hopefully, I can get something out by the end of this year. Meanwhile, if you chance by any old playgrounds that I’ve not located on my map, please write to me!