Friday 25 October 2013

Rethinking society, architecture: What it will take to design for resilience

By Kim Lee, Published TODAY, 21 Oct 2013

Many young Singaporeans expect a rewarding career after years of schooling. Mr Tay Kheng Soon graduated like them, and saw himself as an architect whose most important purpose was to design good buildings.

After 40 acclaimed years in architecture, he sees that it is not good enough.

Tay, still a practising architect and currently adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Architecture, believes Singapore’s youth must change their approach in preparing themselves for an uncertain future.

Architects, for example, need to design for total environments that address well-being in the broadest sense.

The world has seen social, economic and ecological shifts since you became an architect in 1964. How has this redefined your work?

Architects have to become social and environmental activists taking on issues and synthesising new design strategies. This means that they have to have much more knowledge, ability to empathise, and to collaborate with a wide range of people to shape the human and natural environment.

An example of my own professional change is my involvement in designing and realising the Mechai Bamboo School in Thailand, an experimental school for 180 students in Buriram, the poorest province in Thailand.

The classrooms have a tall two-tier roof with the lower roof serving as a large overhang, eliminating the need for walls. An open classroom is thus created, surrounded by greenery. The children love the atmosphere so much that they want to come to school even when it is shut over the weekends and holidays!

The architecture resulted from the school’s teaching philosophy. Students learn through projects, not textbooks. Students elect projects that help their families improve their livelihood. They do not take exams. They learn by doing community work, working in small teams to help slower learners. Students participate in teacher selection and the school’s purchase meetings. This is empowerment!

The Thai Ministry of Education insisted on testing the students and were surprised that they ranked in the top 10 per cent of all Thailand! The school has since been host to a stream of visiting teachers wishing to learn from it.

Mechai illustrates the new ideas about architecture. I have become a co-conceptualiser and catalyser of projects and ideas … no longer merely a consultant architect, but a designer in the new comprehensive sense that the changing world needs.

How did you learn to appreciate the natural world?

I spent my childhood in the Cameron Highlands during World War II. My family lived in a little house within a vegetable farm at the foot of the Boh Tea plantation. It was idyllic. I remember applying compost with my bare hands onto chilli plants. I plucked raspberries, climbed guava trees, caught dragonflies ... I guess all these experiences awaken deep natural propensities embedded by evolution in every human being.

Thus, I am concerned for young Singaporeans growing up in a concrete environment, deprived and therefore fearful of natural things. I fear they deprive themselves of developing instincts that would serve them well, directly or indirectly.

If these natural impulses are present, people will see things more holistically, rather than as separate entities which make them easily dictated to by the imperatives of today’s urban industrial culture — like being strapped to jobs they don’t enjoy, tied to heavy mortgages, stressed out by children’s school woes, and needing distraction through lots of retail therapy.

Paradoxically, resentment is growing in people against the impoverishment of their lives even as their material conditions improve.

You have travelled much and learnt much. How has that changed your work and life today?

As I see the challenges of development everywhere, I ponder what “development” should be. I am increasingly critical of development defined only in material terms, patterned on the Western Industrial Consumption model. Clearly, this is the cause of the social disparities and selfish values which cause environmental and social degradation wherever disparities get out of hand.

In my visit to Chinese villages, I was appalled by the human degradation of children left behind to be minded by tired old grandparents among neglected fields and unkempt village houses. I am equally appalled by the slums of Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, et cetera. I have stopped being enamoured of slick glass-box architecture. Indeed, I find them repulsive, even immoral!

But feeling this way is not good enough. What should one do about it?

I had to rethink everything I knew and felt about architecture.

You have been a keen observer of Singapore as it grew into independence. How do you feel about the country as it progressed?

In the early days, the genius of the People’s Action Party was to balance the population’s needs with the needs of international business. Social protection got the votes, the cheap public housing programme stabilised their power while also serving as wage subsidy and, with suppression of left-wing labour agitation, it created the investment climate for economic growth.

Emancipation of the human initiative is now Singapore’s key challenge, if it wants to prepare its people to meet the unexpected, which the future will inevitably throw up. Resilience and creativity have to be nurtured, but there is fear it may get out of hand and erode the preeminence of power. The will to change is restrained. There will be dithering as Singapore emancipates its people. Old reflexes and mindsets are at stake.

The 2011 General Election and the recent by-election are indicators. The hotly contested Presidential Election also showed a new interest in public matters. Once the lid is lifted ... old grievances come up. Some will urge that the lid should never be lifted while others want it lifted judiciously. My feeling is that the tide of history cannot be thwarted and the speed of lifting the lid will be propelled by events possibly beyond our control.

What Singapore values do you think we need to change, to learn?

My pride is tinged with disappointment. Disappointment because it can do so much more.

Even as I acknowledge Singapore’s great administrative achievements, I regret the lack of internalised values. The streets are clean not because people take it upon themselves not to throw rubbish, but through punishments and employment of cheap labour to pick up the mess Singaporeans leave everywhere.

For self-pride and identity to form, there must be belief in the goodness of people. This is a sea change from the dim view of human nature that underpins the rules, regulations, incentives and disincentives that make up everyday reality.

Do you think social responsibility has a future in Singapore?

The next generations are navel-gazing. The Singapore story has failed to ignite any idealism in them. Until it does so by word and deed, the young will continue not to raise their sights.

Yet, all my students constantly talk about creating community — that mythical state of togetherness they yearn for but eludes them. They do not have any idea what it really is nor how to engender it. Singaporeans know about the issues of human rights and sustainable living, but lack the ability to imagine how to take action.

One of my students who did a dissertation on co-housing formed this dictum: “Community only comes only from successful sharing.” If society is merely consumers of government agency, then there is no need to share the work and no real need for community. Conversely, unsuccessful sharing will destroy what little community spirit there is!

I would, therefore, say that if Singapore is to become a resilient, creative and cohesive society, then the new generations have to successfully create community through exercising common purpose.

This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the coming edition of SINGAPORE magazine published by the Singapore International Foundation.

S’pore architect’s solution to the urban slum
By Kim Lee, Published TODAY, 21 Oct 2013

In an interview with SINGAPORE Magazine, veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon described a visit to study the slums of Manila with his urban design students from the National University of Singapore. He came to the conclusion that simply helping the poor was no solution -- to resolve the phenomenon of the urban slum, the solution had to be sought in the countryside.

He came up with one such idea for this, which he termed “Rubanisation.” In his own words:

I coined the term “Rubanisation” to describe the concept of rebalancing the disparity between the city and the countryside. It offers a different idea of “development” where more resources are diverted from cities to the countryside.

Failure of the countryside results in the drift towards the city. As long as rural poverty is not addressed, all efforts towards the urban poor are a drop in the ocean of poverty and degradation.

Rubanisation provides the context to work, live, learn, play, farm and heal in new urbanised rural settlements.

It serves the 99 per cent, while the city serves 1 per cent.

Like all new concepts, it takes time to sink in. The situation also has to be right. The global economic crisis signals the need to rethink the big city, export-oriented, developmental model. A more equitable model needs to come about. Thus Rubanisation, which has been incubating for seven years.

A Memorandum of Understanding has already been signed to do four Ruban settlements in northeast China. I have just returned from Sri Lanka this June where, at the invitation of the Ceylon Institute of Builders, I presented the keynote on Rubanisation and its relevance to Sri Lanka ... Right now, what is exercising my mind is the establishment of a “Ruban Bank” that mobilises crowd-funding to finance uplifting of rural areas everywhere.

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