Annabelle Tan explores Singapore’s past, present and future prospects through colonial, post-colonial and neo-liberal tropicality
Past, Present and Post-Tropicality: Viewing Singapore through an ‘Infra(-) structural’ Field
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL)
Tutor: Tania Sengupta
Annabelle Tan ’s dissertation researches why the urban landscape of Singapore is how it is today, seeking to understand and learn from what has been lost during the island’s colonial and post-colonial eras. In doing so she explores ideas of tropicality, proposing a subaltern perspective as an alternative to colonial and neo-colonial standpoints.
In her thesis, she looks at dominant infrastructures of three modes of tropicality: colonial, post-colonial, and neoliberal in the context of Singapore. This includes the relocation of people from semi-sufficient kampung village compounds to mass housing by both colonial and post-colonial governments, and the development, which emerged in the 1990s, of tropicality as a global commodity, demonstrated by Singapore’s quest to be a ‘Tropical City of Excellence’.
Tan also explores alternative experiences of tropicality through the everyday realm of ‘infra-structures’, which she defines as ‘a constantly shifting assemblage of people, relations, things and knowledge that is found in the crevices and shadows of dominant infrastructure’. In infra-structures, people are perceived as active agents rather than having the more passive role they inhabit in infrastructures.
She explores infra-structures by drawing on her own family history through interviews with her mother and grandmother to explore different ways of domestic living over the last 80 years. Such narratives, she says, are often brushed aside in an academic context. These include everyday anecdotal moments, from her grandmother’s early life in kampung village settlements to Tan ’s lockdown experiences living with her family. One theme is the intimate proximity to nature and environmental conditions of village living in contrast with later, more interior-focused city living and its preoccupation with cleanliness.
‘I focus on the ‘smallness’ of everyday tropical living because I feel that the answers to a more sustainable, equitable and even happier future are no longer within “big” solutions…I use my family history because it is also the nation’s history – a multi-generational story that almost everyone in Singapore has experienced,’ she says.
Although optimistic for Singapore’s future prosperity, she feels it can’t progress without full acknowledgement of both what it has inherited from its colonial past, and its continuing neo-colonial capitalist systems.
‘On a global scale, inherited notions of modernity are at the root of anthropogenic activities that continue to cause climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. We all need to transcend singular ideals of modernity and progress,’ she says.
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2022 RIBA DISSERTATION MEDAL PANEL
Chair: Lesley Lokko Founder and director of the African Futures Institute, Accra, Ghana
Thomas Aquilina London-based architect and academic
Kuukuwa Manful PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London
Samir Pandya Assistant head of the School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster
Tanja Poppelreuter Lecturer in the History and Theory of Architecture and director of postgraduate research studies at the University of Salford
Huda Tayob Lecturer in architectural studies at the University of Manchester