Future Memory Forum in Singapore
The Architecture Programme at the Royal Academy recently co-hosted an RA Forum in Singapore with the British Council on the theme of ‘future memory’. Having held three previous Forum events in London over recent months, the opportunity to discuss these ideas in another location where issues of heritage and the past are seen very differently, opened a new perspective on the topic. Kate Goodwin, the RA's Drue Heinz Curator of Architecture, reports on the event.
Chairman of the event Iain Borden introduced the evening by putting forward definitions of space and memory that would help frame the discussion. Referencing the French sociologist and Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, he proposed that space is not pre-existing but something social that is constantly being defined by every society. Space can be seen as object, representation or experience, i.e. physical, conceptual or dynamic. Memory and remembering are one of the prime ways of both engaging with, and constructing space. Memory is thus embedded in space, and architecture can be a trigger for both personal and collective memory. Borden planted a number of seeds for consideration over the discussion – whose memory are we discussing, whose history, what are the implications of ritual and performance, symbols and representations? He suggested there are different ways of ‘knowing’ both remembering and forgetting, and a difference between fictional and official memories.
Architect and planner Liu Thai Ker, a well-established figure in shaping Singapore’s urban development and housing policies over the last 30 to 40 years, expressed an anxiety that many Singaporeans didn’t engage with their heritage – cultural or built. He felt that many memories became problematic as they were associated with a past of struggle and hardship – perhaps this was a reflection of the concerns of his generation. Younger generations may in fact see the past differently in relation to their own struggles and ambitions. He made two points about some of the underlying attitudes of the population. Generalising, he said that in contrast to most Western societies, for Asians ‘land’ in the first instance means profit, not environment. He also felt that with the rapid growth of Asian cities and the migration of vast numbers of people from the country to cities, the current urban population barely understands their new culture. This seems a really significant point, particularly in relation to China.
Mr Liu expressed pride as he showed figures about the number of monuments, building and sites that have been placed under preservation orders (or recognised for their cultural significance in similar ways) in Singapore by government bodies. It perhaps provides an interesting case in relation to what OMA presented as part of the RA Forum
series in March, where they pointed to the economic benefits of preservation in relation to tourism, and cited a figure of 12% of the world now being under some form of preservation order.
Eric Parry RA spoke about the ability of materials to evoke and embody memory – perhaps most graphically and powerfully illustrated by an altar he is currently designing for the chapel at St Martins in the Field. The chapel is in memory of Richard ‘Dick’ Sheppard, a vicar who set up a place of respite and comfort at the church for returning WWI soldiers who were passing through Charing Cross, himself having just returned from the trenches of France. The design for the altarpiece is simple and understated, with meaning conveyed through material. Parry showed a photograph he took on a recent visit to a quarry in France, where the stone to be used for the altar was extracted from the earth, unveiling a surface and texture which had been hidden for millions of years – geological time rather than human time – a universal memory. He noted the significance of crafting nature, turning it to artifice, and the memory embedded within the finished product from those who have toiled over it. Memory – both personal and collective – can be embodied within material form. Asif Khan’s design for the Future Memory Pavilion as part of ArchiFest
in October (further element of this future memory project with the British Council) – also promises to address similar ideas. The pavilion will deal with the issues of land and climate, which lie at the heart of Singapore’s heritage, through a structure made from ice and sand.
Singaporean artist Michael Lee reflected on examples of his own work over the past 10 years to consider what might be ‘the future of memory’. One salient comment he made was about how we can appropriate memories. Although he had never seen a performance in the old Singapore National Theatre (built in 1963 and demolished in 1986), he had every sense that he had, due to the very evocative stories he had been told from others – the memory became just as real and valid for him as if it was his own. Much of his recent work plays with an idea of ‘false’ or ‘fictionalised’ memory, playing with created characters and architecture as though they were real. One idea he seemed to be raising was whether the future of memory lay in reality or the imagination.
In discussion, Eric Parry stated that he saw public space as a key conduit for shared and collective memory, because social activity and life is very often played out in the public realm. This thought was perhaps influenced by a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre earlier in the day where the historic importance and vitality of the street in Singapore was incredibly palpable. Seah Chee Huang made the comment that the notion of public space in contemporary Singapore is a slightly different consideration and idea than in Europe. It was an interesting point – do memories change in relation to how public and or private we feel a space to be?
The future of the Tanjong Pagar railway and terminus, a Malaysian-owned railway that ran to Johor Bahru from the centre of Singapore, is a much-discussed topic, since its recent closure on the 1st July 2011. When asked by a member of the audience, the panel gave a mixed response to what the future of the site should be. Michael felt the interest in it was most probably temporary, but the best way to deal with its memory and legacy was to make art about it. Liu Thai Ker said research needed to be done before he felt he could comment, but Seah Chee Huang wanted to address the question directly, asserting that it offered great opportunity for wide public engagement driven by genuine interest in the past and Singapore’s heritage. What was the memory, whose memory was it, and the question of how to celebrate but not sentimentalise it were raised. What could be done that would be meaningful to the past use of the building and land, but which would also be economically viable and add value? It also posed the question of whether there is something particular in the act of a journey that affects or shapes a memory, and that may influence its future incarnations. The issue of the future of the Tanjong Pagar railway site seemed a real case in point to the ethos of the entire discussion. We hoped that an understanding and awareness of memory – defined differently from nostalgia – could be a catalyst to instigate change.
Kate Goodwin (Drue Heinz Curator of Architecture, Royal Academy of Arts)