Events & News


Common Spaces and Identity in the 21st Century City

Assoc Prof Victor R Savage and Prof Jason Pomeroy

24 Oct 2011

Possibility Room (Level 5), National Library Building 100 Victoria Street, Singapore 188064



EUC-NLB Series on the EU & Singapore – Culture and Identity – In conjunction with ArchiFest 2011

In this second public talk in a joint EU Centre-National Library Board series on culture and identity in Europe and in Singapore, the theme of urban spaces and conservation was explored.

Assoc Prof Victor Savage (Dept of Geography, NUS) gave a presentation on Singapore’s experience in urban heritage conservation in which he elaborated on the perennial questions surrounding such conservation projects. Given the rich mix of cultures in Singapore as a result of the island’s historical and geographical situation, one major question inevitably arises – whose heritage is to be preserved? Is it the buildings representing the European heritage from the colonial era, or should buildings representing each ethnic and religious community be given equal consideration? In land-scarce Singapore, the option of keeping the island’s entire built history is often deemed an unaffordable luxury. For Assoc Prof Savage, the importance of engaging young Singaporeans may have been overlooked in the quest of preserving colonial-era buildings. Survey results indicate that they feel little affinity for the Civic and Cultural District where the bulk of colonial-era buildings lie. In all, more discussion is needed on national history.

The theme of land scarcity in contexts like Singapore’s was taken up in Prof Jason Pomeroy’s (University of Nottingham; Broadway Malyan) presentation on ‘greening’ the urban habitat. As cities increasingly tend to be built up vertically with ever taller buildings, this not only poses an environmental concern with the urban heat effect amplified by high density but this loss of open spaces also affects social and community life. Through an examination of cases from Europe (the Shard, London Bridge and Commerzbank Frankfurt) and Singapore (National Library Building and Marina Bay Sands), Prof Pomeroy demonstrated how skycourts and skygardens can mitigate this depletion of greenery and social spaces while also serving other economic and recreational purposes.

The presenters alluded to issues concerning private versus public access to spaces in modern cities in Europe and Asia, and this was discussed in the ensuing dialogue with the audience. Questions were raised as to whether the gardens and courts of the 21st century are increasingly closed to the public, since many of these are situated in buildings owned privately and occupied by corporations. In a sense, ‘common’ spaces in 19thcentury European cities such as courts, gardens and galleries were  privately owned, and much was also closed to public access, or at least opened only to the privileged few.  Heritage conservation may have democratised the issue of public access of previously private buildings and spaces; but it may also have had the effect of destroying the distinct character and  soul of neighbourhoods in other cases. Nonetheless debates and discussions over urban culture and identity, whether in ‘young’ Singapore or ‘old’ Europe, are perhaps key to engaging its inhabitants in the life of the city.