Expanding Singapore’s Architectural History
2017/2018, Semester 2
School of Design and Environment (Architecture)
Modular Credits: 4
What has been written about Singapore’s architectural history? Why does it need to be expanded? What are the new modes of inquiry and the attendant intellectual toolkits that could be productively mobilized? How and where do we find the requisite sources and evidences? What can Singapore's architectural history tell us that other forms of history cannot? These are some of the questions this elective hopes to explore.
Using Singapore's architectural history as a subject, this module introduces students to recent historiographical approaches and methodological debates in the interdisciplinary field. Knowledge and skills acquired in this elective would thus be relevant to understanding architectural history at large, beyond Singapore’s built environment. Students will also step out of the campus to visit libraries, archives and buildings in various parts of Singapore to look at sources and evidences of writing architectural history.
The module ends with an assignment in which each student writes a research paper on the history of a building or a building type of twentieth-century Singapore. My hope is that this historical awareness and literacy of the built environment could inform the design enquiries of your design and thesis studios.
After this module, students would
Have surveyed and have a knowledge of the existing scholarship on Singapore's architectural history
Have learned about the latest historiographical approaches and methodological debates in the wider interdisciplinary field of architectural history
Be able to use their knowledge of the field to critique the existing scholarship on Singapore's architectural history
Have learned about the historical sources and evidences available in Singapore, and acquire knowledge on how they could be used to write critical historical accounts of Singapore's architecture
Class participation, reading responses and weekly presentation
Unlike a lecture course, a seminar is a student-centric form of learning that relies primarily on students’ active participation in classroom discussions, and their involvement and ownership in their own research and writing. As such, students are expected to come to weekly seminars having
read all the essential readings
prepared reading responses
. Each reading response should be approximately 500-word long and have at least the following two components:
A concise summary of what the assigned articles or chapters of that week have to say about the theme of that week.
A brief discussion of the methodological and theoretical strengths and weaknesses of each of the articles or chapters.
The class is to be divided into five groups of 2-3 students and each group is to choose a weekly theme to do a presentation and lead the discussion during the weekly seminar. Each presentation should not last more than 30minutes. On top of discussing and critiquing the weekly readings, each student within the group is to complete the weekly assignment and present it to the class.
The final and most important requirement of this module is a 3,500-4,000-word research paper. For the paper, each student is free to identify a building in Singapore built in the twentieth century alongside a topic of his or her interest and write about them. The only requirement is to articulate the significance of the building and topic.
Significance can be broadly understood in few ways:
An omission or gap –
in order to know what is significant, it is necessary to have a basic overview of the scholarship of the history of Singapore’s architectural history. A research paper does not just repeat what has been written. It should usually rectify a mistake or misreading, fill a gap or address a glaring omission in the current scholarship.
An exceptional building
– the chosen building is an outstanding example due to its unique architectural quality, technological innovation, social significance or a combination of these different factors. Depending on your topic, the exceptional building might vary but you should be able to clearly articulate the attributes that make your building exceptional.
A representative building
– some buildings do not necessarily stand out on in and of themselves but they represent broader historical trend or tendency. For instance, these buildings might belong to certain important types that were widely built and represent important facets of Singapore’s everyday modernism.
Innovative framework and compelling argument
– whether a building is exceptional or representative depends on the theoretical framework employed in the research paper. This is where an innovative framework with a compelling argument matter. When well-executed, they would also help to generate new insights to much-discussed and purportedly well-known buildings.
– Whether you decide to research a building that little has been written about or to provide alternative perspective of a more widely-written building, you need to be uncovering previously unknown or little-known facts. In order to do that, you have to discover and utilize new sources about the building by looking at various primarily or secondary sources. These range from oral history interviews with the architect(s), client(s), contractor(s), consultant(s) and/or user(s) of the building; archival materials, be it from private or public archives; and contemporary newspaper reports and/or journal articles.
There are three stages to the writing of the research paper:
, due on 5pm, 23/02/18 – 500-word abstract stating research topic, significance, research question and hypothesis.
, due on 5pm, 14/03/18, with presentation on 1pm, 16/03/18 – 2000-word draft elaborating on the abstract with a clear sense of how the paper is structured.
, due on 5pm, 06/04/18 – 3,500-4,000-word document with proper citations and attributions.
Class participation 10% of the final grade
3% will be deducted for missing one seminar without a valid excuse and 1.5% deducted for being more than 10 minutes late. Anyone who is more than 20 minutes late will be considered as being
. Anyone who misses more than 2 seminars will not be eligible to submit a final paper.
Reading responses 6% each x 5 weeks = 30%
Final paper 50%
Week 1 19/01/18. Introduction: Architectural History in an Amnesic Nation
Why should we bother writing architectural history of a nation that does not really look backward? How can we write architectural history in a landscape that is perpetually undergoing transformation? How can we write architectural history in a nation that has no architectural archives?
What are the architectural histories that have been written thus far? How do they respond to the contextual conditions of their production? These are some of the questions that we will discuss in this introductory seminar.
Introduction by CJH, discussion and sign up for presentations.
Week 2 26/01/18. Beyond the "Man-and-Work" Approach: Architecture and Heteronomy
This seminar examines the influential early works in Singapore's architectural history that has continued to shape recent accounts. Drawing on seminar sociological studies of the architectural profession, this seminar critiques the traditional historiography of "man-and-work" approach assumed in these works and lays the ground for further discussion in subsequent seminars.
Presentation by students and discussion.
Students who are presenting this week are to review two recent architectural monographs and assess whether they have adhered to or gone beyond the “man-and-work” approach. Please discuss your choice of monograph with me beforehand.
Seow, Eu-jin. "Early Architectural Development in Singapore” in
Rumah: Contemporary Architecture of Singapore
. Singapore: SIA, 1981, pp. 13-15.
A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience
. London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 21-50 (Chapter 1).
Larson, Magali Sarfatti.
Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 1-20.
Hancock, T. T. H.
Singapore: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1986 (1955).
The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form
. London: Routledge, 2009.
The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 1-34.
Singapore Institute of Architects.
Rumah 50: 50 years of SIA 1963-2013, the Story of the Singapore Architectural Profession
. Singapore: SIA Press, 2013.
Week 3 02/02/2018. Formal Analysis and its Problems: Looking, Describing and Contextualizing
This seminar examines the basic tools of architectural history -- formal and visual analysis. It looks at the different forms of formal and visual analysis, how they have been deployed, the insights they could yield and the oversights they might produce.
Prior to the seminar, there will be a site visit to
Jurong Town Hall and Singapore Science Centre on 31/02/18 (time tbc). In addition to reading responses, the two students presenting on this week’s reading are each to present a short formal analysis of the buildings.
Black and White: The Singapore House, 1898-1941
. Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2006, pp. 1-9 (Introduction).
Chattopadhyay, Swati. "Blurring Boundaries: The Limits of "White Town" in Colonial Calcutta."
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
59, no. 2 (2000): 154-79
Mumford, Lewis. "House of Glass." In
Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
, edited by Alexandra Lange, pp. 21-28. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.
Lange, Alexandra. "Skyscrapers as Superlatives." In
Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
, edited by Alexandra Lange, pp. 29-44. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.
Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 61-106.
Week 4 09/02/17. Alternative Approaches and Sources: Oral Histories and Visual Sources
Implicit in any discussion of historiography are the questions of sources and evidences. How do we know about the past? Very often the types of sources we have access to shape the history we write. It is therefore important to know what are the types of sources about the past and where can we find them? Upon locating these sources, we have to ask how do we interpret and use them? To what extent do they constitute as evidences? And what kind of evidence?
Prior to the seminar, we will visit the National Library on 07/02/18 (time tbc) to look at its collections. There will be two talks during the visit: one by NLB Librarian Lim Tin Seng on the collections of the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore. Another by me on my own research experience with primary sources in writing my book.
The students presenting this week are to each to pick examples from a type of sources from the National Library and Archives to discuss during their presentation. These sources vary from old newspapers, building plans, old maps, photographic collections, and special collections such as Denis Santry collection, Lee Kip Lin collection and Kouo Shang-Wei Collection.
Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence
. London: Reaktion Books, 2001, pp. 81-102 (Chapter 5).
McGowan, Abigail. “Domestic Modern: Redecorating Homes in Bombay in the 1930s.”
Journal of Society of Architectural Historians
75, no. 4 (2016): 424-446.
Gosseye, Janina. “Editorial. Lost in Conversation: Constructing the Oral History of Modern Architecture.”
24, no. 2 (2014): 147-155
Loh, Kah Seng. "History, Memory, and Identity in Modern Singapore: Testimonies from the Urban Margins."
The Oral History Review
36, no. 1 (2009): 1-24.
Lai, Chee Kien.
Through the Lens of Lee Kip Lin: Photographs of Singapore 1965-1995
. Singapore: National Library Board and Editions Didier Millet, 2015.
14/02/18 (note the date change, tbc).
The Typological Approaches
This seminar explores a historiographical approach that focuses on a building type or the notion of typology rather than an isolated "masterpiece.” But what is a type and what constitutes a typological approach. This seminar looks at three ways of writing a typological history and discusses their relevance to Singapore.
The students presenting in this week are to draw on the essays by Anthony King and Imran Tajudeen to discuss how their methodologies might be applied to study modern building types in twentieth-century Singapore. In the discussion, please refer to the types of sources that could be used.
King, Anthony D.
The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture
. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 , pp. 1-13.
Imran bin Tajudeen. “Colonial-Vernacular Houses of Java, Malaya, and Singapore in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” in
11 (2017). Available online at
Seng, Eunice. “Temporary domesticities: The Southeast Asian hotel as (re)presentation of modernity, 1968–1973.”
The Journal of Architecture
, 22, no. 6 92017): 1092-1136.
Lee, Kip Lin.
The Singapore House, 1819-1942
. Singapore: Times Editions, Preservation of Monuments Board, 1988.
Week 6 23/02/18. No seminar. Abstract for research paper due.
500-word abstract must be uploaded onto IVLE folder by 5pm, Friday, 23/02/18.
Week 7 09/03/18
Urban Histories and Ordinary Landscapes
The ordinary landscape approach is another historiographical approach we review. Besides the field pioneered by JB Jackson in North America, we will also look at two other examples of history from below or social history of the built environment in Singapore.
Site visit to Taman Jurong on 07/03/18 (time tbc). Students presenting this week are to each to discuss a different approach of writing about Taman Jurong using the insights drawn from one of the essays by Lee, Groth or Yeoh.
Lee, Kip Lin.
Emerald Hill: The Story of a Street in Words and Pictures
. Singapore: National Musuem Singapore, 1984, pp. 1-14.
Groth, Paul. "Frameworks for Cultural Landscape Study." In
Understanding Ordinary Landscapes
, edited by Paul Groth and Todd W. Bressi, 1-24. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Yeoh, Brenda S. A.
Contesting Space: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment in Colonial Singapore
. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 85-135 (Chapter 3).
Week 8 16/03/18
Presentation of Research Ideas. Outline due.
Outline of paper must be uploaded onto IVLE folder by 5pm, Wednesday, 14/03/18.
The class will present their individual research outlines for their final papers on this day. Each student’s powerpoint presentation should last 15minutes (not more than 2,250 words).
Week 9 23/03/18 Discussion of Final Paper I
We will meet during the usual seminar time to discuss your final paper.
Week 10 28/03/18 (tbc) Discussion of Final Paper II
As the usual seminar timeslot falls on a public holiday, please make appointment in groups of 3-4 students with me to discuss your final papers.
Week 11 06/04/18 Final Paper Due.
Final paper must be uploaded onto IVLE folder by 5pm, Friday, 06/04/18.