The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

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

DSC_0961~2
A typical void deck

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.

DSC_1021~3
Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

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.

10108322783_66161d45df_o
The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

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.

DSC_0964_3
Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

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.

IMG-20181113-WA0002
Void decks perform many roles for residents

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.

The Romantic City

London

by Francesca Perry

As it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s think about love. Or more specifically, how do urban forms – if at all – affect and even shape attitudes towards and behaviours surrounding love, sex and romance? I’m not seeking a claim of outright environmental determinism, but I do think it’s interesting to consider possible connections. Romantic and sexual behaviours are part and parcel of social practices – something that most agree the built environment plays a significant role in. How we live our public lives, in the public realm, is coordinated by how a city is built and organised. The ways in which we work and play, in which we come together or separate ourselves off – the city both reflects and perpetuates this.

A fascinating article by Abigail Haworth, exploring the current social phenomenon in Japan in which young people seem to be decreasingly interested in sex and relationships,has long stuck in my mind. It is well known that Japan is a conglomeration of mega-regions – which is to say it is a country of endless cities. For me, then, this social phenomenon seems to be a particularly urban one. Haworth cited the pressured economic and work culture as primary reasons in this attitude shift. Her mention of urban conveniences-for-one, however, particularly grabbed my attention. In a city like Tokyo catered towards the individual, where apartments are tiny, density is high, products are sold individually-wrapped and visual stimuli is excessive, is the notion of togetherness designed out or made unappealing?

I often quote Georg Simmel, whose seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in 1903 suggested that the busier our cities and the greater the level of stimuli in our urban environments, the more likely we are to retereat into ourselves and adopt a blasé attitude to the external world. I am not saying that Simmel’s extreme conclusion is what is going on here, but it is an interesting psychological context to consider.

This got me thinking about other cities, other romantic practices. Paris may be known as the city of love, but beyond tourist rose-tinted glasses, what is the reality of romance there? From both first- and second-hand experience, it seems to me that some romantic attitudes are as stuck in their ways as the obsessively-preserved architecture. In this snow globe of a city, where the real diversity of modern life is pushed out beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, one can find very male-dominated traditional attitudes that result in an imbalance not palatable to any feminist. Monogomy is rare; men peacock around the metropolis, as sure of their virility as Paris is of its legendary status. Paris in its elegant beauty certainly encourages romance – but it is often a fleeting act, an ongoing merry-go-round that sparkles as brightly as the Eiffel Tower’s light show, and burns out just as quick.

London

In London, we can’t help but feel that the sprawling size of the city plays a role in our romances. When it can take as long to travel to a (potential) partner’s house as it would to fly to another country, does the sheer dispersed bulk of London form a barrier to sparking – and sustaining – romantic connections? What, then, will happen when tube lines are opened around the clock in 2015 – could transport infrastructure be the facilitator of love? Prague seems to have taken this one step further, with dedicated ‘flirt trains’ which encourage romantic connections. In London, whilst our public spaces become ever-more privatised, and our social spaces ever more commercialised and unaffordable, our places for pursuing romance seem to become increasingly restricted – perhaps flirt trains are next on our agenda too.

Can a city’s form be more ‘intimate’? Think of Barcelona, where in the close-quarters of the central Gothic Quarter, life is certainly lived more in the public realm: togetherness is enabled, encouraged, celebrated by every square and every pedestrianised street. Does it follow, then, that facilitating social interaction affects romantic connections? Or is this rendered meaningless in an age of digital encounters via dating and hook-up apps?

In dense, concentrated cities, apps such as Grindr and Tinder are more successful. The more people in your immediate location, the more options and opportunities there are to you. Perhaps facilitated or reflected by this, the high-density city of New York seems to be known as a ‘dating’ city, with a culture of hook-ups and romances that seem to be yet just another activity slotted in the queue of consumption. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can pretty much get it in New York, whether it’s a hamburger delivered to your door, a person to walk your dog in the middle of the night, or a hook-up (or all three).

What of the city of sex? Whilst some define Amsterdam by its Red District and associate it with sexual indulgence, the real picture is a more wholesome – but happily liberal – one. As a city, Amsterdam is low-density, low-stress, open-plan, beautiful and with generous and inclusive public spaces. Fitting, then, that a life-long resident (and friend of mine) should call it ‘tolerant, progressive and liberal’ in terms of sex and romance, with a focus on equal and settled partnerships: ‘the culture is just quite open, practical and sober about sex, it isn’t something taboo or forbidden so there’s no ‘exciting’ cultural fixation on it.’ IMG-20131006-02351

Of course, I have somewhat set myself up to fail. Urban form cannot dictate sexual and romantic activity – culture, economy, social norms, even laws will always play a more dominant role. In Singapore, a single person is not eligible for a HDB (public housing) flat until they’re roughly 35, meaning most people in their twenties still live with their parents – or have to get married in order to move out and achieve any romantic privacy. A culture of dating, as you can expect, does not blossom under such circumstances. And it can get even more extreme: in Purwakata City in Indonesia, unmarried couples are forbidden to be seen on dates after 9pm – and as the (reported) story goes, those found to be defying this law are forced to get married ‘on the spot’. Yes, seriously.

Whilst, then, other factors are more critical, as urbanists we must always consider how the design of cities enables or hinders social interaction. And social interaction, of course, is the start of it all. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Zurich Nottingham

This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published on this site in 2014. Thank you to some truly wonderful women who helped me with this piece: Anna Berezina, Zing Tsjeng, Natasha Lennard and Rosie Haslem.