There is an alluring quality to be found in the details of banality characterizing the mass of public housing flats that sweep over Singapore island. This curious yearning for the details displaying how others live (alike or unalike from us) is evoked, perhaps most strongly, when gazing at something so familiar and commonplace to the local psyche as the HDB housing typology. How do HDB dwellers transform their flats—identical in every architectural sense—into individualized homes? How are these individualistic expressions captured in the external (public) facade of HDB blocks? What does the multiplicity of expressions inform us about space-shaping, placemaking, and identity?
Singaporean photographer of architecture and urban landscapes, Darren Soh, has documented blocks upon blocks of various HDB public housing estates, casting these monolithic buildings in a fresh light that strips them of their modernist skin. Soh’s photography on the HDB residential form, whether intentional or not, exposes the human dimension of HDB-living—and, through this dimension, we see the ‘spirit’ of place emerge.
I recently attended an exhibition and presentation by Soh, which was sponsored by the National Arts Council as part of Singapore Art Week. Set within the gallery and rooftop at Objectifs (a non-profit visual arts centre on Arab Street), Soh’s two-part exhibition, entitled ‘Along the Golden Mile’, is a site-specific ode to the buildings and spaces found within the Kampong Glam/Beach Road district. In addition to HDB blocks, the exhibited collection also included iconic mixed-use mega-structures such as The Concourse (Architect: Paul Rudolph), Golden Mile Complex (Architects: Gan Eng Oon, William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon), and Singapore Sports Hub (Architect: Arup Sport, DP Architects, AECOM).
On the gallery level, Soh’s photography is supersized to wrap the interior space from floor-to-ceiling, which creates an intimate view of structures that are ordinarily seen from afar. In fact, the exhibition appeared to adopt a no-holds bar policy where visitors can touch (or, if the desire arises, walk and sit on) the visuals, thus enabling greater engagement and interaction with the displays. Despite the novelty in the exhibition design, I was in search of an ideological premise that might explain why and how the seemingly disparate images of long shots, close-up shots, and angled shots were brought together in the same room. From Soh’s presentation, we were told of the space constraints (both structural and M&E related) that resulted in the images selected. I suppose I was hoping for a little more je ne sais quoi…
Two levels up on the open-air rooftop, a matrix of 25 photos, centred around the perspective of a bird’s-eye view, is plastered on the floor. The placement of this particular set of images on the rooftop is a purposeful statement—indeed, a statement made more obvious than the gallery exhibition given the stylistic aerial theme of this collection.
From the vantage point of the rooftop, we see also with the naked eye many of the buildings that collectively form Soh’s exhibition—except, here, there is a greater sense of detachment that accompanies physical distance and separation. And so, the utility in photography is that it brings us in proximity to the subject. This closeness helps us to see the beauty in details that make everyday life on familiar HDB grounds all the more alluring.