Modernism and the vernacular: Transformation of public spaces and social life in Singapore

Chua, B. H.

Chua, B. H. (1991). Modernism and the vernacular: Transformation of public spaces and social life in Singapore. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 8(3), 203–221.

Singapore is a multi-racial island nation. The three main ethnic groups are Chinese, Malays, and Indians in respective descending numbers. Prior to the extensive provision of public housing, they lived in either of two forms of housing: timber houses with roofs of "atap"—a form of palm leaves, corrugated zinc plates or asbestos sheets, or rows of shophouses of more permanent materials, such as brick and mortar, and later concrete. The shophouses were found almost exclusively in the central area, while the former was found in ubiquitous semi-rural Chinese villages "kampongs"—the Malay word for village—or urban squatter.

Main finding
The author finds that the modernist environment of high-rise neighborhoods engenders social life quite different from the vernacular structure of both Chinese and Malay villages. While public spaces in the villages developed as consequences of everyday life, those in high-rise neighborhoods were intentionally planned and stratified. The long corridors inside the apartment buildings stand in contrast to the permeable aspect of village homes. The open spaces at the ground level of high-rise neighborhoods rarely attracted gathering and only when they faced actively used space. New economic and social opportunities in these developments created relationships based on interest and class homogeneity rather than residential proximity and mutual dependence. A small, generalized sense of community in the village was replaced by small groups among a larger population of strangers. To increase community potential and socialization, the author suggests high-rise neighborhoods locate public spaces along frequently used routes to essential services.

Description of method used in the article
The author uses an ethnographic methodology to observe social life of Chinese and Malay residents in villages and in high-rise public housing apartments after relocation.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Performance/Cultural Expression
Physical types
Geographic locations