In the high-rise living of Singapore today, there is a dilemma between the increased comfort, privacy and quality of living the new housing typologies provide, and the nostalgia for past living and social spaces. There is something about the spontaneous clutter present in old estates that is appealing.

The housing of the past was more friendly to the human scale and presented more opportunities to interact spontaneously with neighbours. Today, elements of social memory, such as void decks, frontal corridors, wet markets, down to earth hawker centers, small scale ma -ma shops, etc. are slowly disappearing / fading in new typologies.

This article explores how “Architectural Alchemy” could impact and bring back some social memory to future typologies of high-rise living in Singapore.



Upon studying 8house by BIG, a project that is a realization of Architectural alchemy, I have been intrigued by this term, and the value it holds.

As said by Bjarke Ingels, founding partner of BIG,

“Architectural alchemy – Traditional ingredients that would separately be just “normal this” and “normal that,” when you combine them, because of symbiotic relationships, you get much more out of the mix than if you were to leave them separate.”

“8 House is our second realized example of architectural alchemy – the idea that by mixing traditional ingredients, retail, row- houses and apartments in untraditional ways – you create added value if not gold. The mix allows the individual activities to find their way to the most ideal location within the common framework – the retail facing street, the offices towards northern light and the residences with sun and views to the open spaces. 8 House is a perimeter block that morphs into a knot, twisting and turning to maximize the life quality of its many inhabitants”.

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These are not empty words, as the project 8house really seems to embody this. At first glance, the mixed-use housing development seems to be a foreign new housing typology, yet when one looks closer, it is a combination of many qualities extracted from familiar places, such as the feeling of neighbourliness as one cycles past their neighbours’ gardens, the familiarity of long Italian staircases on the streets, and the presence of spontaneous meeting places throughout the project. This new hybrid combination of existing successful qualities from other places is fresh yet familiar, a positive canvas for a community to grow in the three-dimensional neighbourhood created.

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Toa Payoh Vista BLK 62  Corridors

So what does this mean in the Singaporean context?

Singaporean life has evolved a lot since the 1960s, we seek a higher quality of life, amenities and housing, yet still covet after the warm feeling of the past: strong kampong spirit relationships. Some also want to preserve the characteristic elements of public housing: void decks, corridors, wet markets, etc. as well as the social memories and meaning they hold.

What is worrying is that these old elements are disappearing slowly in new typologies like Treelodge @ Punggol and Casa Clementi. For example, more functions are added to originally void, void decks and precinct pavilions replace them. Corridors are narrowed to avoid fire hazards from residents’ items and there are no longer frontal open corridors; resulting in the character of the block and the residents within slowly becoming concealed.

These elements contribute to the identity of Singaporean public housing and to community bonding within the neighbourhood; and it is a pity to loose them.

Here is where “Architectural Alchemy” may be able to come in.

“Architectural Alchemy” in Singapore would then be to extract qualities from places where we hold our social memories: void decks, corridors, hawker centers, wet markets, and reinvent or rearrange these elements back into in our new housing developments in an innovative manner to suit and blend into today’s evolved society and high-rise living.

8house is an example that spontaneous meeting places can be present vertically across floors, with a vertical focal point that connects all levels of residences; overcoming the floor-to-floor barrier the high-rise presents. It also presents success in bringing desirable qualities from other neighbourhoods and streets, to create a familiar new estate.

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Perhaps “Architectural Alchemy” would work for us too, as in 8house. Instead of leaving out those characteristic yet fading social elements, we could think of untraditional methods to integrate them back in. We could distill the successful and neighbourly qualities of the old estates and pull it together with our new lifestyles and high-rise living, to create a new hybrid entity that still holds the desirable qualities from the old estates.

Image credits:

8House, BIG for rendering, base drawings

8Tallet – Copenhagen Ørestad

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