Deviating Discourse: Tay Kheng Soon and the Architecture of Postcolonial Development in Tropical Asia

A Postcolonial Architect

Tay was among the first students to enroll in the Diploma of Architecture course at the Singapore Polytechnic in 1958. He graduated five years later in the pioneer batch of locally educated architects, joining a select group of local architects educated overseas in a professional scene that was still dominated by British expatriates. The socio-political conditions of this period shaped this generation of architects and their work, particularly in Tay’s case, in significant ways. The emergence of locally trained professional architects in Singapore coincided with decolonization and a rising consciousness of their role in the building of a post-colonial nation. In Singapore’s case, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the difficult birth of an ‘‘unnatural’’ nation, from self-government in 1959, to merger with Malaysia in 1963, and finally separation and independence in 1965.

For Tay and Lim, independence meant not a reactionary rejection of Eurocentric modernity or a retreat into parochial nationalism through, for example, the triumphalist assertion of the supremacy of one’s national traditions and cultures. Instead, they saw the relevance and the liberating dimensions of modernity, selectively embracing it while they also asked how they, as citizens of a newly independent nation, could contribute to the constant transformation of modernity, gaining recognition as equal members of the cosmopolitan culture. Their embrace did not mean wholesale acceptance; it was a partial embrace mixed with critical interrogation, one that was, and perhaps still is, fraught with tensions and even contradictions.

Architectural Aesthetics and Postcolonial Politics

The best illustration of Tay’s selective embrace of Eurocentric modernity is his design for the Tropical House at King Albert Park (Figures 1–3). Completed in 1994, the house is considered a culmination of Tay’s long quest for an architectural aesthetics of the tropics, following decades of experimentation with different formal languages in his previous work, including public buildings such as schools and hospitals (Figure 4). The Tropical House was designed in response to the tropical climate, emphasizing the need to provide shade from the tropical sun through deep overhangs, louvers, and zones of transitional spaces. It was also designed to facilitate natural ventilation for cooling through the use of porous walls and screens, the elevation of parts of the building on pilotis and the deployment of the one-room thick principle in planning the spaces. Tay called this the architectural language of ‘‘line, edge, and shade,’’ one which contrasts with the emphasis on volume, plane, and light in the modernist architecture of the temperate zone.

At first glance, the design appears to adhere to the climatic design principles of modern tropical architecture first advocated in the mid-twentieth century by protagonists such as Maxwell Fry, Le Corbusier, and Otto Koenigsberger. There are, however, a few key differences between Tay’s proposal and the mid-twentieth century discourse of modern tropical architecture. By the 1980s and 1990s, the theory and practice of modern tropical architecture had become largely invisible with the ubiquity of air-conditioned buildings. The passive cooling strategies of tropical architecture, devised to address resource scarcity in the colonies and the developing countries during the mid-twentieth century, appeared less economically relevant in many parts of the tropics, especially Singapore and Malaysia, with the availability of cheap energy and low-cost mechanical cooling equipment. Yet, it was precisely at this moment that Tay, along with others such as Ken Yeang, sought to resuscitate it.

He argued that addressing the tropical climate at the building level alone was inadequate as it could not remedy the problems of excessive heat, noise, and dust generated by an urban environment inappropriately planned according to the northern temperate model

Tay emphasized that the esthetic problem of designing in the tropics was inextricably linked to socio-economic structural problems that have colonial origins. He was acutely aware of how Western cultural hegemony shaped architectural aesthetics, and he claimed that ‘‘tropical design continues to be compromised by the ghost of Northern box esthetics.’’ According to Tay, the root cause of the problem was a socio-economic one. He observed that because tropical economies were so thoroughly linked to those of the developed world, they did not have ‘‘the confidence to chart new grounds and new approaches.’’

Tay’s combination of a Wallersteinian world system perspective on unequal exchange between the metropole and the colonies, an eco-social perspective on ecological exploitation in capitalist production, and a postcolonial perspective onthe continual efficacies of colonial power relations today radically reconstructed modern tropical architecture. Instead of a technical discourse about passive cooling and thermal comfort, Tay re-imagined it as an emancipatory aesthetics that could redress the postcolonial asymmetrical power relations and purportedly free the postcolonial subject ‘‘from the political and taste-dictates of [his] masters.’’

Urbanization and Ecological Development in the Tropics

Tay’s tropical architectural aesthetics stand apart from mid-twentieth century discourse for another important reason—they were conceived in conjunction with a rethinking of urban planning in the tropics. In 1989, Tay published Mega-Cities in the Tropics, a manifesto for urban design in the tropics. The next year, he led a team that implemented his ideas in the ‘‘Kampong Bugis Development Guide Plan’’ (KBDGP), a proposal for a test site in the central region of Singapore (Figures 5–7).[7] Perhaps influenced by the generally acknowledged failure of planned modernist cities in the tropics, such as Chandigarh and Brasilia, where the climatically responsive architecture of individual building was not matched by a similar climatically sensitive approach to the planning of open spaces and urban infrastructures, Tay noted that proponents of modern tropical architecture did not address the problems posed by the tropical climate at the urban scale. He argued that addressing the tropical climate at the building level alone was inadequate as it could not remedy the problems of excessive heat, noise, and dust generated by an urban environment inappropriately planned according to the northern temperate model. Tay attributed the demise of tropical architecture and the widespread use of air-conditioning partially to this failure to conceive an urban planning model for the tropics.

Tay proposed a compact, high-density, and multi-tiered city in which multiple usages, such as residential, commercial, and educational, were combined. Tay argued that multi-use and compactness would optimize the round-the-clock utilization of urban infrastructure, minimize travel distances, discourage the use of cars, and promote walking. It would also keep vehicular traffic at the periphery and allow the spaces between buildings to be used for public commons to encourage social interactions. Many of Tay’s ideas anticipate what is popularly regarded today as sustainable urbanism.

Unfortunately, Tay’s sustainable urbanism was ahead of its time and Singapore’s state planning agency did not adopt his ideas. But today, with sustainable development becoming more widespread and Singapore adopting an ecological modernization paradigm, the government has belatedly implemented policies, including promoting greenery on high-rises and photovoltaic cells on buildings, that are similar to what Tay proposed two decades ago.

Tay’s proposals for tropical urbanism and tropical architecture were not simply ecological visions of cities and buildings in the tropics. They were, and are, ideas that challenge the economic dominance and cultural hegemony of the West and serve to propel Singapore’s socio- economic continued development. Twenty years ago Tay observed that: ‘‘Singapore will never be a first-class city if it cannot initiate basic and fundamental ideas on what it is and what it can become. Singapore will always remain in my mind a second-class, provincial town with global pretensions if it is not able to focus on the specifics and poetics of place.’’ Abidin Kusno saw Tay’s proposal as a form of ‘‘climatic essentialism [that] might as well be read, economically, as a cultural restructuring of late capitalist development.’’ And my own initial interpretations understood Tay’s work as a form of what Partha Chatterjee called ‘‘derivative discourse’’ because, however emancipatory his intentions, Tay based his postcolonial tropical architectural aesthetics on the reductive and determinist climatic category constructed by colonialism. Now, however, it is possible to see this work in a new light and, as I have demonstrated here, Tay’s re-conception of tropical architecture differs in important ways from its colonial modern antecedent. Far from being a derivative discourse, Tay’s construction of tropical architecture and urbanism constitutes a deviating discourse that expands and contests the (post)colonial conception of modern tropical buildings and cities.

 

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