Everyday Modernism (2023) – A Review

I named this website the Serangoon Review because the neighbourhood’s high-rise flats, ever-expanding network of sheltered carparks, and spongey playground floors are what I grew up with, and where I continue to write from. As time unfolds, I continue to acquire the language and lenses to think about our surroundings more deeply: how it is the tower-block, not slab, that recurs here amidst the prevailing national typology of HDB flats, the political constituency system that has assimilated this neighbourhood into Marine Parade, the strange postmodern design language of the local stadium and swimming pool.

It should be little surprise that I love Everyday Modernism: Architecture & Society in Singapore (2023). Chang Jiat-Hwee, Justin Zhuang, and Darren Soh have created a fantastic book that attempts to catalogue – with no pretenses about its non-exhaustiveness – not the spectacular and heroic specimens of Singaporean modernist architecture, but everyday modernism in Singapore. In their own words, this is the ‘quotidian and taken-for-granted modernist built environment that surrounds and structures our everyday lives’ (67) here. Amidst the passive, third-person biographies contained in the 32 entries, and Darren Soh’s signature from-afar architectural photography, there is nothing but passion and sincerity. 

Purchasable here (Epigram Bookstore)

This book is an intervention in both the academic and public consciousness about modernism. National icons like People’s Park Complex or Jurong Town Hall undoubtedly occupy Singaporean architectural canon – historiographically, aesthetically, (un?)popularly. The book’s team consciously position their book as not simply occupying the other half of a public-private, iconic-ubiquitous dichotomy, rejecting this binary with good reason. Architects often crossed the public-private sector divides, national icons relied on talent drawn from private practices (and I add, were often the outcomes of nascent localized programmes in Singapore Polytechnic or the University of Singapore).

Instead, six thematic sections are used – Live, Play, Work, Travel, Connect, and Pray. Most pieces run between four to six words, meaning the opening piece on ‘Public Housing: The Many Shapes of Home’, receives roughly the same attention as the ‘Former Singapore Badminton Hall: Financial Gymnastics and Sporting Venues’. Dedicating the same space to these entries is a respectable editorial decision – the Badminton Hall a tiny, bygone monument to Singaporean sporting ambition and public financing – even if it necessarily compresses the writing at points. It is hence better to consider these categories not as rigorous analytical ones, but broad, largely self-explanatory relationships between architecture and its user-inhabitants.

For largely practical considerations, Everyday Modernism’s 32 entries are sandwiched by beautiful full-colour spreads at the start and end of the book, with the written content resting in pink-tipped, black-and-white pages. Reading the book from cover-to-cover makes for an interesting exercise – largely decontextualized, yet storied images are followed by a whirlwind of entries in the next section, which outline a myriad of topics from the ‘podium tower’ of People’s Park Complex to recreational sports facilities, parks (of the industrial, East Coast and car- variety), and tertiary education campuses.

Archival images capture disappeared buildings, and are joined by snippets from contemporary newspapers and magazines, public service posters, and the occasional interview. By situating these buildings and structures in the wider context of socioeconomic and cultural trends, the book offers an excellent entry point into thinking about Singapore at large. Too often, attempts to write the history of Singapore utilize political (or even politician)-heavy approaches, but remember: Singapore is an ambiguous referent. Country, city-state, city; a fragmented view of the city can help us see Singapore synecdochally. The story of mass transit lies in commuter nerve centres, just as consumable multiculturalism and a developmental capitalist social compact materializes in hawker centres, or anxieties about death and lebensraum collide in questions about cemetery/crematorium.     

At a NUS book session, a glimpse at the team’s OneNote reveals an early, bolded-in-red author’s comment concerned that the book lacks a strong conceptual lens. Ultimately, the team arrived at an understanding of everyday modernism against the post-independence, development state, in particular a high modernity fixated on industrialization and socioeconomic development, alongside projects of ‘squatter resettlement’ and self-sufficient, dispersed ‘satellite towns’, and a ‘tabula rasa’ approach towards urban renewal and urbanization.

While excellent scholarship has been produced about the ideology and intended purposes underpinning such urbanization and architecture, as well as the oft-unexpected actual use, inhabitation, and evolution of these buildings, where Everyday Modernism therefore shines is in its approach of using a ‘building biography’ in the vein of Neil Harris, Donald McNeill, and Kim McNamara (73-74). Beyond wielding an impressive eye for chronology and detail, the book’s team has generally succeeded in opening questions about what is often the final chapter in the life cycle of a building. This is, of course, ever-present threat of silent neglect and deterioration, or dramatic demolition, as exemplified in the en-bloc sale of Pearl’s Bank Apartments.

At the time of writing, the echo of Pearl’s Bank still-unrealized holographic, glitzy successor is a reminder of the stark difference between the logic behind the triumphant form of urbanization decades ago that produced such architecture, and the financialized impulses governing the destruction of buildings today. Limitations in space and scope, unfortunately, preclude a wider range of sources that could have productively filled in some gaps in understanding these sites. The authors, conscious as they were of the state-dominated discourse surrounding architecture’s design and intended use, could have turned to oral history or even the wide array of Singaporean literature. These far more kaleidoscopic, and often ambiguous memories and texts, can complement, if not interrogate these national narratives. (And even reading newspapers can be deeply instructive! Gregory Clancey (former at NUS’s Asia Research Institute), has produced a fascinating paper on guerilla-esque uses of chewing gum in HDB lifts, seemingly preempting Daniel PS Goh’s comment on the lift as a site of conflict at the book’s discussion).

Brick and concrete do not escape the winds of change, and it is unsurprising that the book discussion at NUS – with the authors joined by sociologist Daniel PS Goh and urban theorist/architect Joshua Comaroff –  later turned to talk of preservation and conservation. Buildings of the ‘everyday modernist’ variety are impactful due to their ubiquity, but it is precisely this ubiquity that diffuses efforts to rally against the destruction of a single building or structure. This book is no manifesto, instead envisaged as a “useful reference for this growing conversation [on conservation and heritage documentation], and acting as “a resource for understanding how Singapore’s reputation as a modern global city today was built upon the progressive ideals and ideas of those who came before.”

Nonetheless, the most intriguing reminder at the book’s discussion came from Comaroff –  everyday and heroic modernism alike were premised on erasure. HDB flats rest on the ashes of pejoratively-categorized ‘squatter settlements’, farms and villages, while much of the city’s downtown exists on ‘reclaimed’ land (the adjective a red herring for the destructive transformation of coastline). Harbouring an uncritical nostalgia for the modern does not just aesthetically or theoretically privilege one chapter of Singaporean history: it closes off other conversations about the processes of transformative destruction and erasure that recur in Singaporean history.

Treat this book as a reference. Its detailed exposition and description of a multitude of these buildings and structures is a treat to understand how the urban and social interlace, or to uncover new stories and the longue(ish) durée of familiar sights.

Treat the book as a springboard. Its footnotes are a wonderful tour through some of the most exciting writing and prepositions, from Asia and beyond, surrounding architecture and the urban in Singapore.

Treat the book as a guide. No, really. Flip through the pages. Pick a new place, find the time, and head down. Beautiful photographs and grounded storytelling are a poor substitute for experiencing the city for yourself. A sense of wonder and a sense of history are irreplaceable in building a sense of place.   

Everyday Modernism is the first comprehensive documentation of Singapore’s modern built environment. Through a lens of social, cultural, and architectural histories, the book uncovers the many untold stories of the Southeast Asian city-state’s modernization, from the rise of heroic skyscrapers, such as the Pearl Bank Apartments, to the spread of typical utilitarian buildings like the multistory parking garage. Buy here (Epigram), or here (NUS Press). I purchased my copy myself.

Ernest, Feb 2023







One response to “Everyday Modernism (2023) – A Review”

  1. Lady Shurelia Avatar
    Lady Shurelia

    A wonderful review that has given me cause to buy the book. (Ernest actually invited me to the book release but I was busy on that day :P)

    As Ernest writes, Singaporean history is indeed often approached from a political/economic lens that glosses over the rich cultural history of the early Singaporeans. My parents are around 50 years old, and even they struggle to remember a Singapore that was not flats and shopping malls popping up everywhere, and my grandma has long but erased the time before flats and factories from her memory.

    Development will continue. We will shed tears when an older building falls and a new one springs on it’s ashes, because not every building deserves to take up space forever. Documenting the places where we once lived, cried, ate and slept is the quiet requiem we can give to their memory, as we and our children move on and develop bigger and greater things to fill up our little red dot.

    I hope this book does me justice and gives me the feels I had writing the above paragraph…it would be really embarassing if it didn’t…

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