Flying the state flag in half-mast is how countries have traditionally symbolised the passing of a national figure. Since Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday, state flags on all government buildings have flown at half-mast, an act no different to when other Singaporean leaders—including Ong Teng Cheong (2002), Wee Kim Wee (2005), Goh Keng Swee (2010) and Toh Chin Chye (2012)—passed on.
But this time around, there was also mourning online. Not only was a website Remembering Lee Kuan Yew set up within hours, many government organizations also turned to “greying” or “blackening” their typically colorful websites and logos on their social media accounts.
While not every organization did so—indicating it probably wasn’t a coordinated whole-of-government directive—all of them referred to the Remembering Lee Kuan Yew campaign in some way.
Could this become a new digital tradition in how states mourn? As governments expand their digital presence to stay relevant to citizens, new practices like this come to play. For one, the government building is not the main medium of interaction between the state and its citizens. Particularly today, it’s often websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts that are the communication channels citizens hear from, which makes the logo akin to the flag on the mast of a building for the online audience.
In reaction to the digital mourning, many Facebook users interacted liked the change in logos and even commented with condolences. In contrast, it’s harder to imagine someone saluting the state flag in half-mast today.
In one non-government case, the media organisation ChannelNewsAsia was even slammed for making the change a day late. While a logo was once seen as static and fixed, there is almost an assumption that it will morph with the times—just as what AirAsia did when its airplane crashed last last year or how Google does almost daily to commemorate anniversaries.
A government-led initiative to encourage ground-up ownership of public spaces is ironic, but very Singapore. Such was the reception of many when the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launchedPubliCity to “involve the community to celebrate good public spaces and to enliven public spaces through good design and programmes.” A year on, PubliCity has unveiled a variety of projects, including adopting the worldwide movement “PARKing Day,” which was first piloted at Archifest 2013. We speak to the PubliCity team on the work that they have done thus far and what’s coming up next.
TellusaboutthePubliCitycampaignandhowitsitswithintheURAsetup. Launched in November 2013 by URA, the initiative aims to guide the development of new public spaces in Singapore, as well as rejuvenate existing ones. Through this initiative, we hope to engage and work with the community, private sector, stakeholders, as well as other agencies, to activate and make better use of our public spaces.
A PubliCity team was formed within URA to realise this vision. The team is made up of a group of enthusiastic architects and planners across the various departments who share a common vision and passion for place making.
Whythisinitiativenow? Over the years, URA has safeguarded sites for public spaces island-wide. In 2003, we identified parks, open spaces and water bodies that would provide the public with space for rest and recreation through the “Public Spaces and Urban Waterfront Master Plan” and the “Parks and Waterbodies Plan.” We have recently completed environmental improvement works for a number of the major public spaces identified in these plans including the Southern Ridges, Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade, Woodlands Waterfront, and Punggol Promenade.
We launched PubliCity in November 2013 to continue these efforts with a new focus on smaller spaces and ground-up initiatives to make better use of our public spaces and to activate and programme them with activities.
Thewebsitestatesthattheinitiativefocuseson“theelementsthatmakeourpublicspacesmoreenjoyable forthecommunity.”Whatwouldtheseelementsbe? There are a range of elements that contribute towards making public spaces that are well used and loved by the community. These can be as simple as providing basic amenities like seating and shade, or an element of fun/play to encourage the local community to stop and enjoy a space. And of course, the elements for the public spaces should be designed and provided to respond to the local communities’ needs.
Whyisitimportantfortheauthoritiestoundertaketheseplacemakingprojects? We see our role as one of demonstrating the possibilities of what can be done and of fostering community participation and ownership of our public spaces through ground-up projects like PARK(ing) Day. As the initiative evolves, we would like to encourage everyone to explore opportunities to improve, activate and create public spaces in their own communities.
Doyouthinkengagingthe‘ground’asagovernmentagency,makestheprojectanydifferentifthese interventionswereinitiatedbyanindependentcommunity?As a government agency, it is inevitable that we receive a different kind of response compared to an independent community group. In the long term, we would really like to see our role being taken over entirely by the community. But for now, I think we have an important role to play in lending our ‘official’ support to projects such as PARK(ing) Day to encourage the community to think outside the box and hopefully through our close working relationship with other agencies, help facilitate approvals needed for such projects.
Youmentionedthattheteamengagesthecommunity.Canyoushareexamplesofhow this has been done and what the results were? PARK(ing) Day is a great example of community engagement and participation. We owe a large part of its success to working with the groups of people from SUTD and COLOURS. While we helped to get the necessary approvals and opened up participation across the island, these groups actively engaged the community in Jalan Besar and created their own Jalan Besar PARK(ing) Day group. They had one of the most visited locations on the day.
We have also been working on a series of other community engagement projects. An example would be our first pop-up project, ‘Picnic In the Park – Under the Gelam Trees’, which was inspired by one of the submissions from the ‘Your Ideas for Public Spaces’ competition launched last year.
Couldyousharewithussomefactsandfigures? For instance, what was the participation and response to PARK(ing) Day, and what kind of budget were you working with? We were delighted by the overwhelming interest and participation for PARK(ing) Day. We saw 58 PARKs created, of which 41 PARKs were by members of the public. URA and other agencies, such as NParks, LTA and NHB took the opportunity to also participate by creating a number of PARKs ourselves.
Generally, there was a good turn-out at each PARK, and we are heartened by the positive comments that were received from the public.
We aim to deliver all of our projects based on the ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper’ principle by using low-cost materials, and working with the community and property owners to deliver smaller scale projects. For PARK(ing) Day, the interventions were created by the participants themselves. There was no budget allocated to the participants.
We aim for our projects to be simple and affordable to implement so that property owners and community groups can see the potential and implement their own changes.
Whatistheroleofthelargercreativecommunityandthepublicingeneralintheactivationofourpublic spaces?Andalso,howcantheycontribute? By their very definition, public spaces are community spaces and “belong” to the public. We hope both the creative community and the community at large will be inspired to contribute to the making and activation of public spaces, and share with us their ideas on using and creating public spaces.
WhatisthedefinitionofsuccessforPubliCity? At the end of the day, we hope to create more awareness of the importance of good public spaces and the role these spaces play in the built environment. Success is also achieved when the community demands for more of these spaces, and when we receive more ground-up ideas to either create more public spaces or make use of existing ones.
At the end of the first year after the launch of PubliCity, we are happy with the results and have received great feedback from participants and communities where we have run projects. In some cases, we have received requests for a return of our pop-up projects or for more permanent interventions.
Whatkindof“support”fromthecommunityisneededtokeepthisprogrammegoing? Given the early stage of this initiative, the most valuable support we can receive right now is feedback from the community on both the projects that we are undertaking and their ideas on what they would like to see in the future. Over time, we hope to see more ground-up projects being put forward. We would like our role to change to one of supporting the community, rather than the community supporting us.
INTERVIEWED BY ADIB JALAL
EDITED BY JUSTIN ZHUANG
In the age of the e-book, this print publication offers a different take on “scrolling” through text. For her new book about the symbolic images of Hokkien architectural-style temples, designer Jesvin Yeo turned to ancient Chinese scrolls for design inspiration. Architectural Decoration: Negotiating Symbols Across Time and Place is a stunning 225 bamboo strips-long (4.35 meters) English publication examining the symbolic meaning of images found in three temples in Singapore built between the 18th and 19th century. Jesvin recently took us through her limited-edition publication (Only 40 were made and each selling at S$338) and her fascination with designing projects on Chinese culture.
How did this book project come about? The idea for this book derived from my experience of collecting data for my other published book, Choi! Touchwood!, which was in 2010. Through many visits to the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng, I discovered many unique and interesting symbolic images. When I researched further, it remained a mystery, and no one, not even the people who take care of the temple, could provide answers to the meaning behind some of these symbolic images. I decided to research and understand the meaning of these images through the lens of visual communication. Moreover, I am a Hokkien, therefore it is important for me to understand my own culture and roots. Especially, how my ancestors designed these symbolic images more than 1,000 years ago.
Why do a bamboo scroll book? This book is deliberately made in the format of a traditional bamboo scroll to:
1) Indicate the importance of these cultural images as bamboo scrolls were used to record the chronicles of ancient China.
2) Enhance the value of these cultural images as they display our ancestor’s expectations and pursuits of beautiful things. As the bamboo scroll allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative, the viewing is a progression through time and space.
3) Let our younger generation have a chance to read a bamboo scroll book — how fascinating!
What were some of the challenges in designing this book? I worked with a research team on this project with support from Nanyang Technological University and the Ministry of Education. The main members are Wong Wei Loong and Charissa Ho Jia En, with the help of others like Kent Neo and Kenneth Lim Zhi Wei. I start the project in February 2011 and we took over two years to take the photos, to archive and analyze, and to research on the meanings behind these symbols. The illustration, designing, and refinement took another year or so.
The main challenges in creating this book were:
1) Taking photos of the temples: some caretakers of the temples preferred us to send an email request before we shot and we were not allowed to set-up any equipment when photographing symbols on the roofs or ceilings. Of course, I totally understand this need for restrictions as these temples are Singapore monuments.
2) Researching on the meaning and mythology behind the symbolic images. I could not found any English books on the symbols of the temple then. Therefore I gathered information from Chinese references books and compared them with English articles written by scholars, especially on the name of the symbols and techniques used. At the end of 2011, I also went to Taiwan to interview caretakers of Hokkien-style temples too.
3) Illustrating the images: we hand-drew more than 150 illustrations of the symbols, and our eyes were seeing stars after a few images as they are very fine and detailed. Charissa started the first round and I continued from there and also refined all of them on computer later. It took us about eight months to finish.
How did you convince the client to commission such an unconventional book?
This is not the first time I have proposed an unconventional book form toBasheer Graphic Books. They also commissioned my other book, Choi! Touchwood!, which is made up of four parts and costs a lot to produce. LuckilyChoi! Touchwood! was well liked by readers, so Basheer was confident in what I could produce.
Was it difficult to find someone to manufacture this book? I checked with a couple of printers in Singapore and they were unable to produce the book as the bamboo material was a major issue. Moreover, their laser machines cannot achieve the details that I wanted. In the end, we had it produced in China by Neo Brands. But the Chinese printer did complain that the book was too time consuming as it involves hand work to tie the more than 200 bamboo strips to form one book and laser engraving is also done manually. They experimented with more than 10 different threads to find the right one to hold the weight of the scroll. Each book took about five days to complete.
You’ve designed several projects related to Chinese culture. Can you talk about your personal fascination with this subject? As a Chinese Singaporean, I am always very interested in symbol, totems and the visual culture of Singapore. I remember those fascinating stamp designs on the back of my T-shirts printed by Taoist mediums during my childhood. Studying and working in London allowed me to further realise and understand the value of one’s cultures and heritage. After returning from London, I came across a statement by Singapore’s founding leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who said that the digital age was making it impossible to evolve a Singaporean culture even in a few hundred years. I decided to explore this statement through experiments in design and cultures.
It’s interesting that this book about Chinese culture is in English. Can you talk about navigating between two cultures as a designer? As a Gen X, I understand both English and Chinese. Therefore, it is not too difficult to navigate between these two cultures.
The book is in English because one of my aims in doing cultural projects is to bring as much knowledge and value of our cultures to the younger generations. And we know that our younger generation prefers English and they are not really interested in print. Therefore, my projects have to be in English, easy to digest, unconventional and visually appealing to stimulate interest their interest.
A lot of your work is also about bridging modernity and tradition. How do you approach such work as a designer without falling into stereotypes and cliches? A good and difficult question. I am not too sure whether my work are stereotypes and clichés. I just know that I am interested in the dialogue between tradition and contemporary, old and new. Although I work with tradition elements, I create my content with our younger generation in mind. I believe that tradition and culture are symbols of thought and it is important to pass them down. Hopefully our young people can continue to preserve it. Moreover, I feel that a product is made up by a combination of effort from many people, so it has to scream and not just sit subtly.