conference at

NTU CCA singapore,

30 november 2019

The NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Photo: Moritz Henning

The conference Housing Modernities in Singapore was the closing event for the programme Encounters with South East Asian Modernism in 2019. During the first session, the issue of housing and architecture in Singapore was discussed. During the second part, the co-curators from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Yangon in Myanmar reported on their experiences with the SEAM spaces at the respective locations. Both aspects were concluded with a panel discussion involving the audience.

Before the lectures started, visitors were able to view the exhibition The Posthuman City. Climates, Habitats, Environment (23 November 2019 to 8 March 2020), curated by Ute Meta Bauer and Laura Miotto. The positions shown thematize an alternative view of the environment that is inhabited not only by humans but also by plants and animals. Against this backdrop, our event focused on the theme of modernity after independence in Singapore and on the experiences of the co-curators in the participating cities.

Ute Meta Bauer, the Founding Director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, and Professor at the NTU School of Art Design and Media, welcomed the guests and gave a brief introduction on why the topic fits into her own cross-disciplinary approach. Sally Below welcomed the guests on behalf of the curators from Berlin and explained the project Encounters with Southeast Asian Modernism.

After the introduction by Ho Puay-peng the contributors presented their respective topics. The presentations ranged from the activities of the Singapore Improvement Trust in the 1930s to the Housing Development Board after independence, and the position on architecture in a developing tropical region. The unique housing strategy of the city-state was illuminated by the explorations of how these programmes shaped the living environment of the inhabitants.
Wong Yunn Chii, Associate Professor of the National University of Singapore, spoke about “evil fruits” in the garden city of paradise. Wee H Koon, Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong, reported on the housing discourse that has accompanied urban development in Singapore. The various projects, discourses, and experiences led to constant adaptations that made the housing question the constituent element of the city-state. Weng Hin Ho of Studio Lapis from Singapore presented his own experience on how it is to live in a Housing Development Board point block. Through various moves into the always newest housing estates he could report very personally from his experiences. Shirley Surya, curator of design and architecture at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, spoke about the works of Lim Chong Keat based on the museum’s collection. The international network and the interest that went far beyond the discipline of architecture shaped his approach to architecture. Today, Lim Chong Keat is regarded as a key figure in the architectural history of Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s and 1970s. Ho Puay-peng moderated the discussion with Wong Yunn Chii, Wee H Koon, Weng Hin Ho, and Shirley Surya, which also included lively audience participation.

Photo: Moritz Henning

After the break the conference continued with the second topic, Curating Modernities, in which participants reported on their experiences at the SEAM Spaces in the respective cities of Phnom Penh, Jakarta, and Yangon. Christian Hiller moderated the following four presentations.

Sereypagna Pen reported about the SEAM Space in Phnom Penh, which he curated together with Lyon Vuth. Under the title Folding Concrete, the two established an exhibition as well as a two-month public architecture and research studio, which primarily enabled students to address the themes of modernism. Pwint presented the results of the study in Yangon, which she curated together with Win Thant Win Shwin at the Goethe-Institut under the title Synthesis of Myanmar Modernity. The results presented by Pwint showed that there is still some potential in Myanmar to uncover the historical context and make it usable for the future. Avianti Armand presented her experiences with the exhibition Occupying Modernism in Jakarta, which she curated together with Sediati Sopandi and Rifandi S. Nugroho. The curators invited artists to “occupy” iconic buildings from the time of independence and inscribe them with a new narrative. The artist Grace Samboh reported on her seminar series From, by, and for whom? held with ruangrupa at Gudskul, which dealt critically with the work of the artist Edhi Sunarso. The dioramas designed by Sunarso were analysed by students of the workshops, regarding their manipulative historical narrative and confrontation with today’s social and cultural situation in Indonesia.

The discussion, moderated by Christian Hiller, asked for alternative perspectives on the narrative of modernism, which shaped the period after independence with many positive promises, but which today, like its architectural testimonies, have been devalued by current trends in real estate development.

Ute Meta Bauer, Eduard Kögel, and Christian Hiller moderated the final discussion with Ho Puay-Peng, Shirley Surya, Grace Samboh, Avianti Armand, Moritz Henning, Pwint, and Sereypagna Pen. The discussion highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary and regional exchange. Each of the places involved has its own history and narrative that stands for itself and reflects the state of the current discourse. But every place needs critical reappraisal and re-evaluation to anchor the cultural and architectural legacy in the here and now. Although each local story has its own shortcomings, it is often necessary to develop a mutual understanding that challenges the dominant Western perspective with its own unique approaches.