Almost Void Deck – HDB Serangoon © Übersee

‘Void decks’ or the vacant space on the ground level of each block became an architectural feature of HDB residential blocks from the 1970s onwards – as the ‘sheltered space in the ground floor’ of most blocks [Ooi and Tan, 1992], designed to fulfil a number of different functions. It has been described the space as ‘a point of departure to work, school and market, a waiting or meeting-point, a games area (e.g. chess, table tennis), and an informal gathering-place, particularly for the elderly and for housewives’. They also referred to HDB studies, found that void decks ‘have become one of the important settings for common life in public housing estates’. This simple  flexible  space  formed  the  first  social  space  deliberately  left  empty  for  the  use  of residents to be booked for weddings, funerals or social gatherings, a sheltered play space, serving the national agenda for ‘harmonious living’ among the various ethnic groups.

Since 1982, Void decks and playgrounds have been “linked” together into “precincts”. A tool to demarcate a territory with which residents can identify, as well as a setting which, through the use of common facilities, will increase social interaction and community spirit. This is constituted by a cluster of apartment blocks, comprising 500-750 units arranged to give a semi enclosed space; this enclosed space itself serves as a well defined focal point and is repeated in 200m by 200m clusters.

In the 21st century, as precinct public space became increasingly symbolic in the fostering of notions of exclusiveness and privacy. These are now major concerns in a society, such as contemporarySingapore, with high aspirations to move away from public to private housing. Public Spaces shows an increasing containment of rather than their linkage with the larger spatial field of the new town. Punggol 21 had been heralded as a pedestrian-friendly new town, suggesting perhaps a continuing emphasis on the building of local community links. Yet the main means of linkage is to be via the light-rail system, designed to be no further than 300 m from every household. This sets a premium on efficient transport and may well reduce the extent of pedestrian engagement with the local environment, all of which can be equated with the increasing prestige associated with privacy. A common design approach is also used in the “new estate planning model” in Punggol also involves a precinct with buildings enclosing the open space on a raised podium level above 2–4 storeys of a multistorey car park. The elevation of the precinct space above the road level means that the space is removed from the public space network of streets and links to other public spaces. Residents thus have the option to bypass the precinct open space on their way down via the lift lobbies, so these spaces might no longer form part of the daily route or ‘corridors of activities’, nor allow the emergence of a ‘community of users’. All of this is further evidence of the gradual demise of the well-linked public space at the residential level.

On top of which, structural  models  by  new  town  planners  accordingly  created  an  increasing abstraction  of  space  in  a  reductive  process,  In other words, space was divorced from context, evident in the increasing trend to fragment space into enclaves that had weak linkages to the wider new town. The public spaces provided by the  HDB  tended  to  be  hierarchical  by  size  and  evenly  distributed  in  their  location.  This contrasts with more widely conceived studies of public space, which stressed the importance of creating networks and linkages between spaces based on everyday use by residents. ‘The public  space  network  which  includes  roads,  pedestrian  paths,  open  spaces  and  public facilities  of  different  kinds,  is  the  physical  skeleton,  the  main  function content  and  the symbolic meaning of urban life.’ [Tzamim, 1979]

With activities, such as football and cycling, were banned in the void deck spaces and signs  prohibiting  such  activities from happening,  the  weak relationship between the planned public spaces in public housing estates and residents’ need for  such  spaces is disjointed.  The further “prohibited”  accidental meeting, which these spaces initially set out to achieve, “to promot social cohesion” altogether disappears. The planners, although with good planning, forgotten that the use of these essentially  depended  on residents’ familiarity with the spaces, the community using these spaces and the activities possible within these spaces. This involved  the  everyday  routines  of  residents  and  the  places  (and spaces) to which these routines bring them.

Image by Philipp Aldrup