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Meaning of HDB Landscapes

Woei Qing originally wrote this pictorial essay for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student of the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning.

 
Figure 1: Photo of Playground Near Sengkang Blk 275 (Lai Woei Qing, 2022)

The above HDB landscape is in the north-eastern part of Singapore, catering to more than a thousand HDB units.


Why did I choose this landscape?

I have chosen this landscape because it is near my house, and I have visited and passed by frequently. What I like about the landscape is that it is simple, spacious and fitted with sufficient outdoor sports and leisure amenities, such as fitness corners and resting areas, that make the place more liveable. To me, it is a piece of landscape that is aesthetically pleasing.

(Left to Right) Figure 2: Trellis with Seating; Figure 3: Fitness Corner (Lai Woei Qing, 2022)

HDB flats are public houses promoted by the government in the 1960s, allowing Singaporeans to own their flats. It was promoted with the aim to resolve the severe housing shortage issue in Singapore. Today, about eighty percent of Singapore citizens live in HDB flats, including myself.


I remembered living in my old house, which is an older HDB estate of 30 years. The landscape there is quite different as compared to a newer HDB landscape. During the course of this module, I understand that there is a misconception of landscape architecture in the past, where landscape design focused on simply just adding amenities and planting to make the place look nicer. This led to the discussion of the risk of losing meaning in a piece of landscape.


In “Home, Truly 2020” Lawrence Wong states that “to plan, build, and continually improve public housing…homes are beautiful in both function and form.” (HDB, 2020) From this phrase, we may infer that HDB landscapes are planned with a focus on beautification, functionality and form. Meaning of the landscape is not defined here, so what exactly is the “meaning of landscape”? Designing a landscape retaining certain historical and cultural values?


Figure 4: The Sang Nila Utama Garden at Fork Canning Park (Begum, 2019)

I came across a landscape imbuing synthetic meaning at, for instance, The Sang Nila Utama Garden at Fort Canning Park. It is a historical garden that is designed to bring visitors back to the setting of 14-century palaces. It is a great example of instilling synthetic meaning in a landscape because what the landscape meant in the past may not mean the same to us now. The rebuilding of the garden may seem superficial to a certain extent. Historian Marc Trieb shares, “Meaning accrues over time; like respect, it is earned, not granted.”I agree to a certain extent because meaning can be subjective and hence the significance (or earned meaning) matters more than the (granted) meaning.


We should not limit what “meaning” means, where Susan Herrington says that we should “allow a more generous understanding of the meaning of garden” by seeing things from multiple perspectives. (Herrington, 2017)


Over the past 60 years, HDB has moved beyond just providing a roof shelter over residents’ heads. They evolved to build homes and communities.


Figure 5: A Screenshot of “Home, Truly E-Book” (HDB, 2020)

“Many future generations of Singaporeans will continue to grow up in HDB… their collective experiences will continue to be a major part of our national identity,” (HDB, 2020) expresses Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong.


From this sentence, we may infer that the significance of the HDB landscape is to build community with shared memories and experiences.


According to Herrington, “Duration is another factor.” These shared experiences can be built over time through the communal HDB spaces which eventually instill meaning in the landscape. She also expresses that “sensory experiences are a necessity… for our conceptual knowledge and foundations of meaning” and since the outdoor landscape is composed of sensory elements, it can be a great sensory environment that makes meaning available to users.


During our term break, the class participated in "The Meaningless Contest" where we shared photos of landscapes that felt meaningless. Receiving the most number of votes, the top photos demonstrated high levels of irony through a lack of design consideration. For instance, a road leading to a dead end (Figure 6), and artificial plants underneath a building (Figure7). There is an absence of design intent. With Figure 7, the landscape is created just for the sake of filling up or greening up the space and the proportion of the artificial plants is awkward.


(Left to Right) Figure 6: Top Voted Photo of The Meaningless Landscape Contest (Kwan Shu Jun Josephine, 2022). Figure 7: 1st Runner Up for Meaningless Landscape Contest, Photo by (Tee Shu Zie, 2022). Figure 8: 2nd Runner Up for Meaningless Landscape Contest (Kaena Sutanu, 2022)

To a certain extent, I disagree with James Corner’s perspective that a landscape that is practical, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing is often empty without depth and qualities (except for functional quality). (Corner, 2014) I believe a practical landscape is the dominating criterion in most of the world’s landscapes, be it human-centric functionality or biodiversity functionality for example. The practicality of a landscape is often used to determine the landscape quality, whereas meaning can only be made available when one is physically or emotionally attached to something.

Figure 9: Landscapes of Form Without Content (Lin, 2022)
Figure 10: Other than Forms, Amenities and that it is Aesthetically Pleasing, what others can you tell from this photo? (EstateJio, 2020)

According to Corner, “Form lingers, replacing content.” It can be acceptable to design without any meaning, if a certain level of design consideration is applied, especially in today’s world where landscapes or gardens are part of our daily lives. The meaning of a particular landscape will be instilled differently to an individual as they experience the landscape.


When I first moved into my new house, everything was new to me. I frequently visited the landscape, running my dog, meeting new neighbours, and brisk walking with my family after dinner. Now, the landscape no longer seems empty anymore as it is filled with memories and provides a recreational space for residents like me. The landscape and memories are important to me which eventually makes the landscape meaningful. So, to conclude, I believe it is totally fine for landscape architects to design just for functionality, form or aesthetic as long as the landscape is comfortable and pleasing to users: meaning of the landscape will generously accrue overtime.

 

Lai Woei Qing is interested in exploring sustainable landscape design. Furthermore, she has a passion for scenic photography.


Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong.

 
References

Begum, S. (2019, May 27). Garden hopping in Fort Canning Park takes visitors on a journey through history. Retrieved from THESTRAITSTIME: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/garden-hopping-in-fort-canning-park-takes-visitors-on-a-journey-through-history?msclkid=63214d6fc7ac11ec8352a917d4043453

EstateJio. (2020, Oct 26). Nearby The Verandah at Matilda Amenities To Better Your Life. Retrieved from EstateJio: https://blog.estatejio.com/verandah-at-matilda-amenities/

HDB. (2020). Home, Truly. Singapore: HDB.

Lin, E. (2022). History and Theory of Landscape Architecture. Retrieved from LumiNUS: https://luminus.nus.edu.sg/modules/4793ecc2-2ba6-4fdf-8c2a-2f43bbce8805

Main Board. (2022, Feb 27). Retrieved from Miro: https://miro.com/app/board/uXjVOXGRJyI=/

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