FIELD REPORT: Filling In The Void

The HDB void deck, a venerable feature of Singapore’s public housing architecture, has enjoyed decades of unhindered building implementation since its first introduction in 1969. Popularly accepted as a rational design solution to high-rise tropical living, the void deck is often viewed as an architectural necessity and public good.

Firstly, as an open space constituting the ground floor of a HDB public housing block, the void deck is sheltered yet un-walled to facilitate the through-flow of tropical breezes, thereby enabling winds to circulate in an otherwise densely built-up estate of high-rise buildings. Secondly, as an accessible and functional space, the void deck is an area of mundane daily operations—where refuse is disposed and cleared, mail delivered and collected, and children picked-up and dropped-off to/from school. Thirdly, as a social gathering space, the void deck acts like an outdoor living room for rest, socialization, and gatherings ranging from the celebratory (weddings) to the melancholic (funerals).

The void deck is an institutional expression of design pragmatism, functional living, and social engineering—all coalescing in an ordinary space. Yet, over the last decade, the void deck has received a surge of public interest and is fast becoming a subject of nostalgia. Recognized as an integral hallmark of public housing architecture and way-of-life, the void deck is experiencing an urban renaissance.

Source: RSP Architects Planners & Engineers

Source: RSP Architects Planners & Engineers

RSP Architects Planners & Engineers

Source: RSP Architects Planners & Engineers

The award-winning Pinnacle@Duxton, for example, has elevated the void deck skyward, punctuating the 50-storey high-rise public housing with a skybridge for residents on the 26th floor and a public observation deck on the rooftop. Similarly, for the rejuvenation of Dawson Estate, two HDB projects—Skyville and Skyterrace—will feature gardens and terraces integrated in the upper floors of these high-rise blocks. Such efforts to reimagine and reconfigure the void deck are largely taking place in newer developments. And so, it was by happenstance when, on the bus commute to work one morning, I caught a passing glimpse of a makeshift ‘pop art gallery’ at the void deck of an aged HDB block.

The following weekend, I returned to the site at Block 8 Holland Avenue. There, I encountered wall after wall and column after column of graphic murals in the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein. The whimsical interpretations, which include merlions, kopi cups, and Ayam brand soup cans, inject an indisputable local flavour. Indeed, this void deck does not hide its attention-seeking tactics. Launched in 2012, the mural project at Block 8 was a joint collaboration between Buona Vista Grassroots Organizations and Social Creatives (a non-profit social enterprise).

In this pop art gallery, one momentarily forgets the space occupied is a void deck which, in all other respects (exposed pipes, electrical wirings, rubbish bins, and so on) is still very much in keeping with the fundamental utility of a void deck. But, in that moment of wonder, the void deck is anything but a void deck—it is an artscape, playscape, and dreamscape. With open views framing the adjacent garden and playground, the pop art gallery generates possibilities for quirky dialogue between observers outside and gazers within.

Despite its novelty, as seen through the eyes of a first-time visitor, this void deck á la pop art gallery appears to have exhausted its charm with residents. During my one-hour visit on a Sunday afternoon, I observed passer-by after passer-by walk through the space without the least bit of an enthusiastic glance. Perhaps the absence of communal seats and tables has contributed to the lack of activity. Or, as Cairns et al (2014) suggest, beneath the surface of the long-institutionalized void deck are deeper structural issues:

“It is clear that, for all their openness and availability for appropriation, void decks have become gradually more programmed and carefully managed. But the managing, programming and even building out of void decks, has not resolved matters, and void decks remain contentious spaces in contemporary Singapore” (p. 83-84).

A rethinking of the void deck is necessary not only in terms of design and function but also ownership and management. The pop art gallery at Block 8, though well-intentioned, may have lost its essence with residents; after the paint has dried and the dust settled, it is still unclear for whom the void deck serves.

Image Credits: All images are the property of Su-Jan Yeo unless otherwise stated.

References

Cairns, Stephen., Jacobs, Jane M., Jiang, Yingying. Padawangi, Rita., Siddique, Sharon., Tan, Eugene. (2014) ‘Singapore’s Void Decks’, in: William S.W. Lim (ed), Public Space in Urban Asia, pp. 80-89. Singapore: World Scientific.