To the provocative question of what future lay for architecture, the responses from this year’s Archifest conference were surprisingly measured. Invited speakers Kerry Hill, Professor Waro Kishi, Professor Li Xiaodong – with the exception of Wong Mun Summ – offered moderate answers to the theme of “What Future?” set by the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) for its annual festival this year. While acknowledging the profession is now in an “age of uncertainty”, the first speaker of the conference, the 72-year-old architect Kerry Hill, quoted the late English actor Arthur Wing Pinero and declared that “The future is only the past again, entered through another gate.”
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.”