Through a lens of social and architectural histories, the book uncovers the many untold stories of the Southeast Asian city-state’s modernization, from the rise of heroic skyscrapers, such as the Pearl Bank Apartments, to the spread of utilitarian typologies like the multi-storey car park. It investigates how modernism, through both form and function, radically transformed Singapore and made its inhabitants into modern citizens. The most intensive period of such change happened in the 1960s and 1970s under the rise of a developmental state seeking to safeguard its new-found independence. However, the book also looks both earlier and later, from between the 1930s to the 1980s, to cover a wider range of histories, building types and also architectural styles, expanding from the International Style and Brutalism and into Art Deco and even a touch of Postmodernism.
➜ Read more about this book I co-authored with Chang Jiat-Hwee and Darren Soh
The National Museum of Singapore may want to consider renaming itself the “Nostalgia Machine of Singapore”. The on-going “OFF/ON” exhibition on everyday technology that changed everyday life in Singapore between the 1970s to 2000s is really a gallery of stage sets for reliving yesteryear.
Youths banged furiously on typewriters older than them while Tiktoking away. Families queued up for portraits to be reproduced in a “dark room” that was just a digital simulation. As I overhead yet another adult squealing “I remember that!”, I wondered if the exhibition was actually about how wonderful technology was in recreating the past.
I get it that the museum wants to offer interactive experiences to entertain—which they undoubtedly achieved. But so do theme parks! Despite the rich histories of the everyday technologies on display—typewriters, pagers, computers, cameras, video games etc—I emerged (escaped) hardly learning anything. The curatorial wall texts were light on details, and a challenge to spot. It’s as if the museum feared any suggestion of education might disrupt the Instagrammable tableau?
Unlike the technology showcased in the exhibition, this nostalgia machine cannot simply be turned OFF/ON. So if you fancy a blast from the past, you will get more than that. Don’t forget to come with fully charged phones.
Home to more than 100 ethnic groups who speak hundreds of languages and dialects, Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. It is also rich in natural resources, with its 4.5 million-square-kilometre area supporting a fifth of the world’s plant, animal and marine species. But despite this bounty of treasures for craft and design, the region has long been overshadowed by its surrounding creative capitals, including India, Japan, South Korea and China.
A change is underway, however, with the emergence of a new generation of Southeast Asian designers. Mostly born after the 1980s, they grew up in a time when the region prospered through trade and investment; this was the outcome of decades of post-war industrialisation precipitated by territories seizing their independence after more than a century of colonial rule. It remoulded a region that had for centuries been a vital hub in the spice trade into a major exporter of diverse materials for manufacturing as well as an attractive manufacturing base for international companies.
Along with Southeast Asia’s growing, globalised economies came a wave of modernisation and cultural globalisation that utterly transformed the region. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, McDonald’s expanded from its first outlet in Singapore into Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. In 1995, MTV began broadcasting an Asian edition throughout the region. Skyscrapers rose across the rapidly growing cities, with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur claiming the title of world’s tallest building in 1998. This arrival of modern ideas and cultures in a region steeped in tradition created a melting pot of cross-cultural interactions that have only been accelerated as the region has hooked up to high-speed internet and the increasingly globalised world.
Emerging from life between the local and the global is a new kind of Southeast Asian designer who desires to participate in creative culture that is unbound by conventional geographical boundaries. Not satisfied with their local design education, which until recently focused on equipping designers with the technical skills to serve manufacturing economies, some are going on to study in more design-forward places such as Europe, Australia and the United States, where they are encouraged to develop their creativity. And after graduating with top honours and going on to work for leading global designers and companies, some are returning home to Southeast Asia to ignite change in their local design scenes.
➜ Read the four essays in the EMERGE publication