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Editorial: Revolutions mean mass housing – and should mean good design

WOHA’s public housing in Singapore is a revolution in mass housing design

The propensity of 20th-century revolutionary leaders to become mass murderers, a historical phenomenon which, amazingly, still has apologists, inevitably sours any celebration associated with the Russian Revolution of October 2017. Recent revelations about Stalin’s deliberate policy of starving to death four million Ukrainians help to explain the instability of that country and its region – and of Ukrainian attitudes to Russia itself. Trying to find silver linings in these dark clouds almost sounds frivolous. 

However, one of the long-term global consequences of the 1917 revolution was the provision of millions of homes across the world built using Soviet (or DDR) concrete construction systems. None would win architectural awards, but their impact was difficult to overstate, especially in countries themselves undergoing profound economic change. This programme itself raised questions about the relationship between the individual and the collective, about the possibilities of variegated communities living in endless replica blocks.

Skyville pbh 025 copy

Skyville pbh 025 copy

WOHA’s SkyVille@ Dawson’s rooftop skypark, open 24 hours a day, incorporates a 400m running track under pavilions capped with photovoltaic panels. Photograph: Patrick Bingham-Hall

That represents an architectural challenge which tends to be addressed in countries that have passed the first flush of technological and/or political change. The most interesting example of this in recent years has been the programme of the Housing & Development Board in Singapore. For despite being a free-market commercial trading nation, about 80 per cent of its citizens live in state-developed apartments. This does not mean that tenants are deprived of any ownership rights, but it does mean that ultimate control rests with the state – with the HDB one of those organisations where responsibility and power are in reasonable balance. 

Singapore’s own revolution, independence from the former colonial ruler, Britain, took place in 1965; the housing conditions of most of the population were appalling by today’s standards, and the early years of the country were spent developing a mass housing programme which put almost all the population into something decent within 30 years. If there was an architectural price to be paid, it was the problem of monotonous repetition, partly mitigated by a luxuriant landscape and the possibility of outdoor living.

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Skyville pbh 086

 The 960-unit 147m development is entirely precast and prefabricated, with modules rearranged to provide variety; interiors can be designed to allow for differing lifestyles including home/office and offer future flexibility. Photograph: Patrick Bingham-Hall 

More recently, however, HDB has accepted some near-revolutionary thinking about how to combine density, amenity and community, in the context of a booming economy and a population whose anticipated 21st-century growth figure had been reached after only a decade. Linked blocks with community facilities incorporated at height emerged in the competition for the Pinnacle@Duxton development in 2007/8, but that basic proposition has evolved, particularly in the SkyVille@Dawson project by Singapore-based WOHA, a major winner in the 2016 President’s Design Awards.

Here, 960 units in three linked blocks are arranged as a series of ‘vertical villages’ of 80 units, each of which has shared external public space. So a sequence of collective spaces rather than just one, though there are shared facilities at ground and roof level which are open to all. The density and height of the project allow for provision of generously landscaped park space at ground level. This is a riposte to the intense proximity of market-based housing in Hong Kong, for example, and offers a more sophisticated approach to that of most private housebuilders in Singapore.

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Skyville pbh 040

Large double-volume veranda spaces, with park views, act as ‘community living rooms’, while pavilions for weddings and funerals, plus play and fitness areas, courts and lawns, are bordered by a 150m bioswale. Photograph: Patrick Bingham-Hall  

In respect of individualisation of apartments, there are three plan variations possible in each size of unit, none of which is interrupted by beams or columns. Most residents so far have decided against installing air conditioning because of the breezes attracted or created by the design, which has won Singapore’s highest environmental rating, the first public housing project to do so.

This housing development is an example of high aspiration being put into practice, and could act as an exemplar for similar development across Asia, where routine uninspired construction is so often the order of the day. That aspiration was best expressed by the Russian Modernist émigré architect, Berthold Lubetkin, who once declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.

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Skyville pbh 029 copy

SkyVille@ Dawson has shared external spaces, interwoven through the cluster of towers from ground to roof, which residents of 80-unit ‘villages’ overlook or use as they move from lift to apartment. Photograph: Patrick Bingham-Hall