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Rhyme And Reason - A Literary Series

Stayin' alive... in the face of hostile architecture

Sometimes, a city's architecture can be designed against you - think metal rails to prevent children playing ball in void decks and London's anti-squatting spikes. What's a human to do in those instances?

A city can be designed for you just as well as it can be designed against you.

When you are designed against, you'll know it. You'll live it. If you don't feel or see anything of the sort, then you are lucky enough to be in a socio-demographic stratum, be it by age or health or economic bracket, where you're currently part of the continuum being designed for. In this case, you can only experience being designed against when you happen upon someone being designed against experiencing it.

I was taking a late-night walk near the canal by Dakota Crescent when I saw an uncle sleeping on a bench. I looked twice because his head was resting on a very high stool that he'd evidently brought on his own, whilst his body was on the bench.

Perplexed as to why he would have gone to the trouble of bringing a stool to prop his head on when surely he could have just rested it on the edge of the bench, I looked closer as I passed. In the middle of the bench was a metal divider, designed for the express purpose of making it impossible for someone to recline in full.

Whilst there are micro-urban- planning measures like these in other metropoles - the infamous anti-squatting spikes in London - it was quite sobering to see hostile architecture in action in my own backyard, and to feel how quiet and present, but stark in contrast, hostile architecture is, to the warm-hearted and communal-centric rallying statements so beloved by those in power, that we hear so often: Gotong royong, kampung spirit!

When you use a word, ought there be an invisible right you have to earn to say (or continue saying) it? For, after all, how can it be that one worships at the altar of kampung spirit in the day, and then by night sees fit to construct metal rails in void decks to prevent soccer from being played by neighbourhood kids, further fortified by spikes on walls to puncture their rubber balls?


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

State rhetoric cannot trade on the emotive force of feel-good buzzwords, whilst disappearing their seemingly inconvenient bits, in practice, by action.

So if we are going to hear in Parliament about fences against migrant workers, if we are going to call them walking time-bombs but only apologise for the metaphor, perhaps we should stop hearing about inclusivity and diversity because they make for inconsistent juxtapositions.

I do not mean this facetiously or petulantly, nor am I picking on words or being so naive as to think that power, in any place and time, can be devoid of generic slogans, but I would only like to point out that, in time, inconsistency festers inadvertently into impressions of hypocrisy, and that such disjunctures might lead to faultlines in the emotional architecture of a city.

ARCHITECTURE THAT DISCRIMINATES

Is there such a thing as an emotional architecture of a city? I think there must be, and that the architecture of a city can be felt in many ways: physical, social, pedagogical, cultural, political .

Urban-planning augments social stratification when parkside and waterfront land is regularly parcelled out to private developments, creating gated communities that ensconce the rich, a clear example being Sentosa Cove. On the other end of the spectrum, when Housing Board blocks are planned and built by typology - whole blocks comprising one-room rentals; others devoted to executive maisonettes - design continues to reinforce classist hierarchies even in public housing.

Spatial use and urban zoning can of course be highly politicised. Without delving into macro issues of, for example, the way voting constituencies are demarcated, but taking up instead micro-space use: whilst People's Action Party Members of Parliament are able to hold their Meet-the-People Sessions in air-conditioned premises of PAP Community Foundation kindergartens, opposition MPs have had to make do with scrappy, makeshift conditions. For 27 years, Mr Chiam See Tong's "office" for his Meet-the- People Sessions was a table and chair in a corner of a void deck in Potong Pasir, partitioned for a semblance of dignity and privacy with thin aluminium panels.

 

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    Amanda Lee Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore and a 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa.

    She is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the short story collection Ministry Of Moral Panic, which was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

    Currently based between New York and Singapore, she is working on her first novel.


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    Ministry Of Moral Panic (Epigram Books, 2013)

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Urban design, as orchestrated by the state, has to accommodate the greatest good, yes. But that greatest good should not be calculated at a premium whose counter cost, at times, dehumanises its ordinary denizens; nor should it beat down less privileged groups, seeking to exclude them in civic life whilst merrily exploiting their labour; nor should it be complacent in its power, wielding blueprints and permits to showboat political opponents instead of levelling a fairer playing field even in the smallest of ways, which I think would in fact be commended and appreciated by both the state's supporters and critics alike.

FACELESS BUREAUCRACY AND HUMANS

Bureaucracy, policy, architecture is faceless. We on the other hand are not. We are human. It is incumbent upon us to remember to be human, and to interact with all facets of the city's architecture as a human being, not just an employee or a bureaucrat or a citizen or a student or an artist or a hawker. Who is our city really for? If we look around and we are no longer sure if it is for us because the perfume of neoliberalism cloys, then let us, in our own small ways, try to remind ourselves that it is still ours.

Singapore has certainly come very far. She has come so far and she is still coming; we look at how far she has come and hope there will not someday be a point of no return - where she ceases to be who we knew and know her to be.

And when we look at her I think we should also try to see her secret, perhaps the secret of every city: the city depends on us being human to herself stay human.

Mr Chiam with his flimsy metal divider at Block 108 Potong Pasir knew this.

The migrant workers who used to play cricket on Sundays on the plot of land where Marina Bay Sands now stands knew this.

The sleeping uncle in Dakota Crescent knows this. Now, this article is really not meant to be the rumination of a privileged young person who has a bed anytime to go home to, romanticising an old man's having to spend his night out in the open on a park bench.

He did not look homeless and it seemed a one-night situation (I often ply the route and have never seen him before nor ever since), but whatever his reasons, by choice or necessity, he was prepared to do what he needed to get what he wanted, even if he found himself designed against.

Seat gets uncomfortable if one lay there too long? He had lined the metal slats with a thick white towel. Town council built a steel divider to make it impossible for him to recline on the bench? His head was perched jauntily on his high stool, one leg hiked above the metal divider, the other under it, and he was snoring quite peacefully.

Rising quite majestically to a banal situation, he had, for now, overridden hostile architecture that was meant to overwrite him.

He'd insisted on remaining human in the face of the larger machinations of an organisation or a design, on stayin' alive, on holding fast to the tiny pockets of agency and ingenuity we all have within us.

And, as they slept together, the city was a little more human for it, too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Stayin' alive...in the face of hostile architecture'. Print Edition | Subscribe