The Singapore Story

The Singaporean housing and development narrative revolves around the following themes: family, efficiency, creative design, affordability, community, and a general sense of homeliness. Singapore portrays these themes through the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) public galleries. The URA employed scale models of the entire city and individual neighborhoods to display the all encompassing land use plans, master plans, and concept plans created for the nation-state, primarily to portray the narrative of efficiency and creative design. The HDB employed interactive and informative exhibits to narrate the importance of family, affordability and community in Singapore.

One of the scale models of Singapore seen in the URA gallery.

One of the scale models of Singapore seen in the URA gallery.


The URA gallery started with a scale model of the entire island of Singapore with different colors of buildings representing recent development and planned growth on the island. After this model there is another model of the downtown riverfront area with interactive iPads that give more information on the buildings that have been developed recently in the area. These models are the first inclination of what the URA gallery is trying to convey with the narrative of the city. The models show how much space the island has, which is not much, and how much they have developed on that space, which is quite a bit.
After these two initial models we entered the city gallery in the URA. The first thing that the group is confronted with is more interactive screens that all show the same thing: models about land use in Singapore and what aspects of city life should be within city limits and outside city limits. All of the activities would end with a similar message: it is hard to use the land available and there are no perfect ways to do so. This message, while somewhat cliche, exemplifies the narrative of efficiency that Singapore is trying to portray to the tourist population as well as the local population.
An interactive model that involved centering an iPad camera on the large cubes.  Information about each area was then displayed on the iPad.

An interactive model that involved centering an iPad camera on the large cubes. Information about each area was then displayed on the iPad.


After these exhibits the URA introduced a game where multiple people could help plan a city that had to balance economic well-being, living space and overall happiness all within a very small bit of land. In the game you could add HDB flats, private homes, public spaces and different types of means for economic growth in order to make a functioning city. Regardless of how well the group did, we played the game twice, the message was constant: You did a good job, isn’t it hard to do a good job with such a finite space? This, as with most of the other early exhibits in the URA gallery, promotes high efficiency in order to have such a successful nation-state.
After we played the planning game, we continued throughout the URA gallery to find several exhibits that highlight the creative design of the water ways, predominantly located by the Marina. One of the main focuses was the barrage which acts as a reservoir and dam to maintain the Singapore’s waterways. The barrage design is unique in a creative sense, with how the roof wraps around, almost like water going down a drain, and in a multi-use sense, the grass on top of the barrage is often used by the public as a park and for flying kites. This highlights the Singapore narrative of creative design and pushes it further by utilizing the creativity of the building in multiple ways throughout the community.

The URA gallery’s most common mechanism of displaying information was through scale models of certain areas throughout the city. On the other hand, the HDB gallery employed many types of displays to communicate their official narrative. They had a variety of displays that would be attractive to almost every generation. The gallery began in a circular room with walls that closed behind us to form a 360 degree projection of the Singaporean story. It began with two families who raised their children (one family with a son and the other with a daughter) in an HDB flat, who then went off to university where they met each other when his frisbee took a turn in her direction. She returned the frisbee to him and they proceeded to date, get married, move in together, and raise a family in their very own HDB flat.
A beautifully orchestrated, very nationalistic song titled “Singapore” accompanied this wonderful story of building a family in the homes built by the HDB. This made the narrative of the housing development board clear from the beginning; family values and building homes is of most importance. This narrative continued as we walked to the “house warming party” of the new couple represented in the story played in the 360 degree room. There were holograms of grandparents, the newly weds, and other relatives talking in the model kitchen about cost, accountability, and value. Unfortunately, the volume was too low to hear well, so we continued on to the next part of the gallery.
Some of the written information at the HDB gallery.

Some of the written information at the HDB gallery.


The remaining parts of the gallery combined written and spoken information accompanied by photographs and an interactive playground for adults. All of these avenues for displaying information worked together to portray the familial narrative of the HDB effectively. Families could leave the gallery and proceed to the showroom flats feeling excited about taking out a loan, applying for a government grant, or paying a down payment for a wonderful HDB home. This excitement turned into anticipation as we walked through the hub, rode up the elevator and crossed a bridge to get to the showroom flats.
Floor Plan

Floor Plan


While the gallery painted a beautiful picture of the community and homeliness of the HDB flats, the showroom flats provided a concrete demonstration of typical two-room, three-room, four-room, and five-room flats. Every flat was interior designed by IKEA, which provided a well-coordinated, rich appearance to flats that would typically be bare until furnished by the new owners. We moved through the flats excitedly, saying “this is so cool!” or “I could totally live here.” Yet there were a few families looking through the flats with a much more realistic demeanor. They seemed to be looking for an actual home, probably while weighing the cost of each additional room in their minds. Because the HDB communities are much more than a collection of residences, Yuen’s assertion that neighborhood facilities also matter (2006, 597) help illuminate the notion that the larger living environment may also have an influence over a certain family’s decision to purchase a flat.
Living Room

Living Room

Master Bedroom in model flat.

Master Bedroom in model flat.


The HDB gallery used a variety of mediums in order to communicate it’s narrative of building good homes for new, old, and growing families. The URA gallery’s main medium was through realistic models, which makes sense because their main focus is redevelopment which takes a lot of realistic planning. The URA communicated a narrative that pertained more to efficiency and creative design to build productive and happy communities. Exploring both of these galleries provided us with much insight into the official narrative of Singapore and processes of the URA and the HDB.

Source: Yuen, B. Et al(2006) High-rise living in Singapore public housing. Urban Studies, 43(3), pp. 583-600.

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