Singapore / Modernism, Public Housing & National Identity

The introduction of modern architecture in Singapore was done on a relatively large scale by its public housing. In 1936, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built the first large-scale public housing projects – the Tiong Bahru Estate – in Singapore, using modern materials such as reinforced concrete, with minimum decoration and rationalised forms, which allowed mass production and kept construction costs down. Simplicity, rationality, and beauty are the main characteristics featured in SIT designed apartments. They are a blend of imported and local styles, reflected by simple, clear lines and planes found in the design of the estates, which are precisely the elements of the Art Deco and the International style. The styles were prominent in Europe during that period, and British and local SIT architects took inspiration from public housing in British New Towns like Stevenage and Harlow. [1]

Every stair a sculpture; a feature in pre-war Tiong Bahru SIT flats.
Every stair a sculpture; a feature in pre-war Tiong Bahru SIT flats. Source:
Post-War Tiong Bahru SIT flats with the "rounded balconies" where the staircase is located.
Post-War Tiong Bahru SIT flats with the “rounded balconies” where the staircase is located. Source:

After succeeding the SIT, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) took the modernist style further by applying it to its public housing design in a conscious attempt to break with the colonial legacy, and in a search for a national architectural identity. The State Minister for National Development, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan had expressed: “Building in the modern style was also a statement that we were breaking away from the old colonial society, which was riddled with inequality and vast disparities of wealth and living conditions. Architecture, often seen as a manifestation of a society’s values, thus mirrored that break from old values and the warm embrace of the new values and ideals of an independent and egalitarian Singapore”. [3]

“Y-shaped” 19-storey tower block in Toa Payoh.
“Y-shaped” 19-storey tower block in Toa Payoh. Source: HDB (from Ooi & Chiang,“Modern Singapore”, 1969)




2. Speech: Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan (September 4, 2002) State Minister for National Development, at mAAN’s 2nd International Conference: “Towards Modern Asian Architecture”, NUS, Singapore. 

2 Comments on “Singapore / Modernism, Public Housing & National Identity

  1. Over 80 per cent of the population in Singapore live in public housing and it’s not interpreted as a sign of poverty or low standard living. It is interesting to know how modernism influenced the design of public housing in Singapore which has been playing such important role in its society. It would be nice to see some examples that reflect the particular styles of Singaporean public housing as mentioned above.

  2. Under the paternalism and welfarism be strongly introduced and practiced by Singapore government, all citizen is well protected in housing, health care and education.
    On the other hand, inequality is undoubtedly existed forever. The minimalism is not always as good in all aspect when architecture is regarded as distinguish the identity again. the simplicity on housing is such one kind of ‘modernism’. After 10 years maybe, the aesthetic view of simplicity maybe be evaluated as it always.

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