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WHITEBOARD DIALOGUES: What Makes a Design Singaporean?

The question of what makes a design ‘Singaporean’ was at the heart of the opening session of The Whiteboard Dialogues. Iliyas Ong sums up the discussion.

WHITEBOARD DIALOGUES: What Makes a Design Singaporean?

Top image: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

How can a design be considered ‘Singaporean’? What elements of the Lion City’s culture and society can – and should – be distilled into a building, a logo, or a souvenir? And who ultimately decides what Singaporean design really is: residents or outsiders?

Singapore Souvenirs – Kan Cheong Spider Watch

Those were the riddles that the opening session of The Whiteboard Dialogues attempted to solve. The discussion, held at the National Design Centre in March, brought together three designers to talk about their experiences on the topic: Vikas Gore of DP Architects, project lead behind the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay; Jackson Tan, creative director for the SG50 brand identity; and Winston Chai, brainchild of Singapore Souvenirs. But as these things tend to go, a lot more questions were raised than answered.

Singapore Souvenirs – Singlish Notebook

Chai kicked the session off by addressing the issue of ‘national icons’. His project Singapore Souvenirs began as a reaction against the Merlion keychains that comprise most of the tourist tchotchkes on the island, which the industrial designer said has no bearing in and relevance to his life.

Instead, Chai’s souvenirs are modelled after food and other Singaporean colloquialisms: kueh tutu erasers, Singlish notebooks and Peranakan tile badges, among others. Clearly, in Chai’s mind, the organic and grassroots elements of a culture prevail over top-down design. But top-down design must still be thought of as the other side to the same coin.

Singapore Souvenirs – Kueh Tutu Eraser

“There are things that are created out of nothing,” Chai said, referring to the Merlion. “And I think it’s a very successful design. Every day, if you go to the Merlion park you’ll see busloads of people taking photos. They enjoy it. They recognise it as Singaporean. And it becomes the identity of Singapore to foreigners. Who’s to say that’s wrong?”

SG50 Logo

Tan addressed the ‘outside looking in’ point-of-view by recounting an experience he had while showing the work of his art/design collective PHUNK overseas. While American audiences thought his paintings and sculptures were definitively ‘Asian’, the Chinese had wildly conflicting views.

“They said this is not Chinese, not Asian – this is Western!” Tan laughed. “So we’re not East and not West. But somehow they can see it’s Singaporean. I can’t see it, but they can.” Perhaps, the designer continues, Singapore is analogous to a teenager: a young city that’s awkward, insecure, and still trying to find herself.

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

It’s a view shared by Gore. In fact, the architect considers a kind of national insecurity responsible for over-determining the meaning of a ‘Singaporean identity’. He explained that in India, where he grew up, the average man on the street “knows what India is because it’s in him”. But in this city-state, where he spent most of his professional career, there’s a constant struggle to define – many times officially – what Singapore is.

“I feel that the Singaporean spirit isn’t on paper,” Gore suggested. “I don’t see why we can’t just go about being what we are and recognising that we have a unique way of doing things. There’s a unique identity that we don’t have to feel insecure about.”

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

When DP Architects was awarded the Esplanade project, Gore and his team knew they were supposed to design an icon for the country. But he had no idea how to. “When you say it has to have a local motif or be in a local style, I thought to myself ‘What the heck is that?’” he recalled. “Is that Malay, Minangkabau roots? Or is it Indian arches? Or is it a Chinese roof? What’s a Singaporean architectural motif?”

But this isn’t a problem restricted to Singapore. Gore argued that neither is there a significant body of work to distinguish contemporary American architecture today as American architecture. The same goes for cities around the world. If, Gore continued, you show a layman skyscrapers from New York, Tokyo and Paris and ask him to identify their home cities, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” he remarked.

On that note about cities, a member of the audience grabbed a nearby microphone to make what was possibly the most lucid point of the session. If you consider design to be something that is by definition not natural then Singapore is by itself design, he began. “You don’t have water, you don’t have mountains, you don’t have anything, and yet you’re doing well. These systems also need to be seen as design: it’s the design of a city, it’s a national design. And that for me is the real identity of Singapore.”

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