Speech by 2M Indranee Rajah at the Opening of the Singapore Institute of Architects’ (SIA) Conference 2021

Oct 12, 2021


Welcome everyone and I want to start by welcoming all the speakers joining us from Singapore and beyond as well as the local and global audiences who are dialling in not just today but over the next three days. We can’t meet face-to-face but technology has made it possible for events like this to proceed and that’s very important because this is an area that we need to connect, we need to build back and we need to be able to redesign the future. We can’t do that unless everybody is connecting with each other. So we hope that you’re going to have a wonderful Archifest experience.

Responding to the Importance of Design Evidence

Let me just say a few words on the thought-provoking conference theme which is responding to the importance of design evidence. Architects don’t just build. By the nature of what you build, you also shape lives, you shape behaviours and you shape communities. So today’s theme “Design Evidence” – in which the aim is to seek clear evidence of how architecture can shape our world in ways that are both tangible and meaningful – is a really good conference theme.

I just want to examine it from Singapore’s context and have a look at Singapore’s past to see traces of how architectural choices have left lasting impressions beyond the immediate space and time. There is of course a natural temptation to think only about eye-catching designs and soaring skyscrapers, all of which are wonderful, but it also lies in the ordinary, the seemingly mundane but hugely impactful. And one feature that is in Singapore, something which everybody recognises, is the ubiquitous Void Deck.

For our international friends tuning in today, the Void Deck is a uniquely Singaporean term. It refers to our public housing which comprises 80% of all housing in Singapore and refers to the open sheltered space on the ground floor. It’s supported by pillars, it’s an open space, people walk through and of course the flats on top are the residential areas.

Flats built in the early days of Singapore’s independence tended to maximise utility by having shops and homes on the ground floor. However, beginning in the 1970s, our urban architects have consciously designed all our public housing flats to have Void Decks on the ground floor instead.

The thinking was that we wanted to provide a sense of relief, space and greater porosity at the pedestrian level because we were having at the same time an increasing density of the city. Those who have been here would know how small the city is and how compact it is. And therefore, people just need that sense of space. The Void Deck provided a conveniently-located weather-proof communal space that could host social functions of a wide variety, ranging from weddings on one hand to funerals on the other hand. There were even points in our history when we saw community libraries and playgrounds located in the cool shelter of our Void Decks. Today, that is mostly no longer the case as our planners have found better dedicated spaces to house such facilities.

But the Void Decks continue to serve the evergreen function of being a communal space. And so they are host to planned and unplanned socialisations whilst allowing passers-by easy passage through our estates.

Today, they have become so ingrained in our shared memories and ideation of Singapore that it is almost impossible to think of our flats without them. In fact, as part of Archifest 2018, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up Void Deck for the Pavilion, paying tribute to the unique place that the humble Void Deck has had in the history of our urban architecture.

Diversity and Archifest 2021

Just by reflecting on this simple piece of urban architecture, I think it is clear just how great an influence design can have on our society. Nevertheless, we cannot think that all the design choices made in our past will remain relevant for our future.

As our societies evolves, our citizens’ needs will change and become more diverse. And so we must also ensure our architecture continues to evolve in tandem to appreciate and adequately design for this evolution and diversity. In this regard, I was glad to hear from the organising team that this year’s conference is one of the most diverse to date. A quick glance at the range of topics, events and designs on show suggests that this is indeed so.
Later today, you will have the opportunity of going back a few millennia to learn from megalithic architecture and consider how to apply those lessons to the future of building sustainably. Tomorrow, you will take a trip to Mars to experience NASA’s futuristic 3D-printed habitats and think of how those technologies could be used in our cities of tomorrow. And on Thursday, you will hear about ‘water cities’ during discussions on coastal resilience and the impact of climate change on our environment, a situation that Singaporeans must not only be aware of, but actively design for.

And this diversity is not just looking backwards and forwards in time. This year’s conference also brings together a cross-section of professionals from places as far apart as Melbourne, Shanghai, Cape Verde and Boston. Architects whose backgrounds, research and practices challenge the norm of what people traditionally understand as “architecture” broadly.

And perhaps that range of representation is itself a critical piece of design evidence; a microcosm of our holistic and inclusive approach to design. To push the envelope of what architecture is and what it can be, we must intentionally bring a diversity of voices to the same table, so that we can have complementary expertise to facilitate the design of a better world.

One tagline of the festival that had caught my attention was “Our events are as diverse as our audience”. To me, architecture is as much art as it is science, and art by nature is defined not just by the artist but by the audience as well. So I am heartened to see that this year’s Archifest touches on the many aspects of life that everyday Singaporeans experience daily such as urban farming, sustainability and food security.

I also want to commend the team for also putting together interesting events such as guided tours on pioneer satellite towns like Tanglin Halt and experiencing our mangroves by kayaking along our shorelines. I hope that all of you who are overseas will have a chance to come experience this yourselves in the not-too-distant future. These diverse topics and events will reach out to a diverse audience, bringing together the rich social and cultural fabric of our people to inform our understanding of design.

And this extends beyond just the scheduled events. I was intrigued to learn that this year, we have an official Archifest music playlist that has been curated by local artiste Joanna Dong with songs such as “The Girl from Katong”, which sounds a little like “Girl from Ipanema”, “Toa Payoh”, and “Lost in Sengkang”. As I listened to some of the tracks this past weekend, I was reminded just how much our physical spaces and urban environment feature in our cultural heritage. It is undeniable that the influence of architecture goes well beyond concrete and glass. It shapes the lived experiences and living memories of the people who inhabit its spaces.
Conclusion: Long-Term Plan Review

So just let me say a few more words in conclusion. As Razvan, the Festival Director said in his opening remarks, the “Design Evidence” theme of this year’s Archifest was not launched as an answer, but as an invitation to debate, discover and redefine the future together.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite all listening in today to join us in designing Singapore’s future.
We have just launched our Long-Term Plan Review that is conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore. What this does is we’re having a review to update Singapore’s long-term land use plans which is going to guide our development over the next 50 years. So it’s really a chance to shape what the next 50 years is going to look like. Even more so than in past reviews, we are faced with increasing uncertainties surrounding megatrends and competing land demands. So we are actively reaching out to as many stakeholders as possible to hear your views, your values and your ideas.

During tomorrow’s conference session, URA will be conducting a brief poll. I encourage everyone to participate and look forward to understanding your views, your thoughts and your ideas. If you wish to contribute further to our efforts, please feel free to reach out to my URA colleagues tomorrow or through any of our public consultation channels.

Of course, many of you have already spent years contributing to designing our city in your day-to-day work. And for this, I say thank you. Earlier, I alluded to the fact that our cities themselves can be viewed as the “Design Evidence” that showcases the importance of architecture. But perhaps it is not just the city but also the pride that our citizens have in it that is in itself the most profound form of “Design Evidence” that bears testament to the positive impact architecture has had on Singapore and its people. For that, I would like to express my gratitude to all of you who have in some way or another and are still contributing to designing the Singapore that present and future generations will get to enjoy.

So good health to everybody and have a great conference. I hope that you will have many fruitful discussions. Thank you very much.