Haw Par Villa’s old mermaid pool among projects at exhibition ‘to gather’ people

The mermaid pool is featured in an exhibit showcasing portions of Haw Par Villa that no longer exist. PHOTO: ERNEST GOH

SINGAPORE - Built in 1937 by businessman and philanthropist Aw Boon Haw, Haw Par Villa's gardens are known for fantastical depictions of Chinese mythology and philosophical stories.

With limited purpose-built recreational spaces available in pre-independence Singapore, the gardens became an important site for public education, leisure and cultural history.

It was for these reasons that conservation specialist Ho Weng Hin and his team decided to centre their work on Haw Par Villa when responding to an open call for projects to represent Singapore at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in the Italian city last year.

The 16 projects representing Singapore fell under the theme of "to gather".

Professor Ho Puay Peng, head of the National University of Singapore's Department of Architecture and curator of Singapore's submission for the exhibition, said each project was placed on a table resembling one found in a hawker centre, a quintessential gathering space for Singaporeans where diversity is showcased.

The projects will be on display to the public from Saturday (April 2) at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Centre's atrium as part of an exhibition titled To-gather: The Architecture Of Relationships.

The exhibition is presented by URA and the DesignSingapore Council.

Mr Ho, co-founder of conservation specialist consultancy Studio Lapis, said that with the many changes that Haw Par Villa has undergone - including housing a theme park for about a decade in the 1990s - different generations visiting it would have had different experiences in it.

He hopes his project will spark conversations on these varied experiences.

Together with artists Eugene Tan and Jerome Ng, Mr Ho's firm put together an exhibit showcasing portions of Haw Par Villa that no longer exist - a mermaid pool, a changing room and a villa that stood at the top of the hill compound.

Second Minister for National Development Indranee Rajah, who officially opened the exhibition on Friday (April 1), said it helps people to reflect on what it means to live together, and to examine the architecture of Singapore's public spaces.

Among the projects that spotlight oft-forgotten elements of spaces is one titled An Ode To Smell, by Hyphen Architects, Mr Brian Khoo and Ms Mary Ann Ng.

Mr Khoo said that one's sense of smell has an underrated impact on the way one perceives spaces - something the project hoped to demonstrate.

The team had intended to produce eight scents of everyday places in Singapore for the public to smell, capturing olfactory experiences in locations such as Boon Lay MRT station - where people can sometimes catch whiffs of cocoa from a nearby chocolate factory - Lau Pa Sat and the Pan-Island Expressway.

While Covid-19 restrictions meant that the team eventually could not allow the public to sniff these scents, Mr Khoo said the recent lifting of mandatory mask-wearing in outdoor spaces has proven the importance of scents in people's experience of places, and hopes that the project prompts visitors to consider this.

"I have seen others on social media commenting on how they never realised the importance of smell until now," he said.

Another project invites visitors to imagine a future where buildings could be built using a mix of concrete and timber. This could be more environmentally friendly than fully concrete buildings if the timber used is sourced sustainably.

Singapore University of Technology and Design Assistant Professor Michael Budig, whose research includes building with renewable materials, led a team from the university on the project.

He said their exhibit considers how timber could be used in future high-rise mixed-use developments as walls.

Being lightweight and relatively movable, these timber walls could allow for spaces to reconfigured, making future buildings more flexible, he said.

The 16 projects will be on display until July 8 at the URA Centre, which is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm.

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