An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore
The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.
It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.
The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.
Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.
Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.
Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.
Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.
It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.
However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?
Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.
Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.