Is there room for a sense of place?
I realize that I've grown up in a country that plans its urban development along Corbusian lines. Le Corbusier's notion of the Contemporary City, which was later refined into the Radiant City, a zoned plan for three million inhabitants, featuring skyscrapers set within park-like green spaces. What I found especially fascinating were drawings of these skyscrapers in parks, such as the one below, which bear a striking resemblance to the public housing estates in Singapore.
According to online statistics, up to 82% of Singaporeans live in public housing. While they are developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which is a government-linked statutory organization, they aren't quite the equivalent of project housing or council housing in the US or Europe. HDB apartments, known colloquially as 'HDBs' came into existence after Singapore faced dire housing shortages shortly after gaining self-governance in 1959, and began as the ruling political party's major priority to provide low-cost housing for rent. It soon evolved into a home ownership scheme to help citizens buy homes - something which was aided by the fact that people could use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions (a compulsory savings plan akin to Medicare/Social Security) to purchase HDB flats. Today, HDB flats are still highly relevant, and serve as the primary form of home ownership in Singapore.
Le Corbusier's conception of housing zones involved pre-fabricated apartments known as Unités
that function as vertical villages with a variety of facilities in common spaces - including laundry, kindergarten, recreation areas. Furthermore, he emphasized maximizing natural light and greenery through parks that would separate these Unités
HDB housing estates bear much resemblance to the Unités
that Corbusier described. These high-density estates are located around the core city centre and business district and were built 'starting from zero,' as a rejection of retrofitting what was already in existence (which wasn't quite that much by way of modern housing). Tampines New Town, for instance, won the United Nations World Habitat Award that recognizes innovative and sustainable solutions to housing needs that can be scaled and transferred for implementation elsewhere. A description of the demarcation of spaces in the housing development, as Corbusier envisioned, is as follows:
"The largest proportion of land in Tampines New Town is set aside for housing and about one third is used for roads, utilities, industrial and commercial developments. The rest is reserved for schools, institutions, sports facilities, parks and gardens. High-rise housing is juxtaposed with low-rise schools, neighbourhood centers, large institutions and parks."
Aesthetic similarities abound as well. The ground level of HDB apartment blocks are designated as void spaces for community mingling that resemble the Corbusian pilotis
space, with columns that bear the load of the structure. The free façade and the horizontal window that forms two of Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture are also prominently featured in a functional, simple design that is consistently scaled throughout all housing estates in Singapore.
Yet I can't help but wonder how having over 80% of the local population living in industrial Corbusian housing estates impacts a national sense of place. Singapore is at a crossroads at this time, when there is a simmering discontent with a complex web of issues - politically from a disillusionment with a single ruling party that has governed since the very start of Singapore's independence, to a growing dissatisfaction in the middle class who feel trapped out of rising costs of living, to an alarming rise in racial tension as Singapore gets increasingly cosmopolitan but yet is unable to integrate newer immigrant communities.
It is a common complaint to hear that Singapore lacks a sense of rootedness and culture, and in a bid to allocate housing units by family size as efficiently as possible the government has failed to articulate the clearly meticulous and deliberate thought that has going into its urban planning. It is truly a pity that a more frank retrospect and discussion to the cultural and historical roots of its urban plan - including its global and architectural/artistic influences - is not a part of the collective consciousness.
Perhaps this is reflective of the larger problem on hand - a country remarkably well-run on all fronts, by a government that has not yet figured out the best way to engage its citizens and make its communication and public relations efforts more relevant to this era; in a way its people can more personally relate.