Nostalgia versus Progress – The battle for the Singaporean psyche

As I watched the series of video interviews at the Singapore 1:1 exhibition it struck me how the older generation of architects, especially those outside the bureaucracy, displayed a deep longing for nostalgia. On the contrary, the bureaucracy’s planners being pragmatic, lived in the present and looked forward to the future. It was set up such that the story of the development of Singapore’s landscape hinged upon this overarching battle of nostalgia versus progress.

It made me reflect on my own fascination with the past. A friend once said that it would be very sad if we only lived in the past because what would the future hold then? I do not feel alone in my love for nostalgia and I think many other young Singaporeans seek out this country’s past because it moves so fast. We are fascinated by the discovery of abandoned places like Woodneuk House, because it is like an oasis that resisted the rapid pace of urban renewal.

Places that do not change stick out like a sore thumb. From a planners perspective, it only accelerates their desire to carry out urban renewal, and from my perspective, it means I better document it before another one bites the dust. Again, we seem to return to this age-old battle that has remained in the crux of Singapore’s development.

So this battle wages on, and the nostalgia camp has come up with various tools to further their case:

The nostalgia film and assorted media
This topic is common fodder for local film-makers and photographers who want to project their love for nostalgia to others. Seletar Airport: Singapore’s Secret Garden and Diminishing Memories are two films that come off my head right now.

Flea markets and the rise in retro fashion
It’s not common to see young Singaporeans decked out in attire paying homage to an era gone by and trawling the flea markets, buying memories of the older generation.

Taking part in policy-making
When it was announced that the old National Library would be demolished, many Singaporeans wrote into the newspapers and started initiatives to try to resist the decision. The recent opening of Old School also seems to have nostalgia in mind, taking over the premises of  a former secondary school and re-converting the space to a design haven. Apparently within the building, there are elements that integrate the building’s history to the current premises.

What is the golden ratio for conservation and development? I’ll say enough of the past so that the present has some bearing of their future. As I’ve quoted Kohei Sugiura, a Japanese designer, some time back:


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