Late last year as the Covid-19 pandemic entered a second wave in Singapore, more than 90 per cent of the cases were counted among the residents of migrant dormitories. A consumer economy that imports the majority of its goods and services, Singapore relies on labourers from throughout Asia for manufacturing and other manual labour, as well as to provide domestic household help. Dormitory residents are usually construction workers assigned to a particular building project, and the second wave outbreak has put the spotlight on the construction and design of the buildings, and indeed on the intersections between people, place, and the built environment.
Dormitories slept 25 people to a room, sharing one bathroom. Overcrowded and with poor ventilation, the virus spread easily.
The University of Sydney’s Jennifer Ferng writes1 that certain “socioeconomic and environmental trends converge forcefully” in the dormitories, with the inequality faced by its residents marked by “the complex nexus between financial power, industrial manufacturing, and unparalleled construction growth”, which plays out in the themes of human capital, climatic design, and migration.
For National University of Singapore’s Associate Professor Lilian Chee, these matters and more were brought acutely to the surface when the pandemic hit the country in 2020. “We have to look at our building practices again; we have to look at the structures of our offices; we have to see whether so much building is necessary; we have to think beyond ‘if I need to replace this labour, where is the other labour pool?’” Chee tells FuturArc.
An associate of Parlour2, an advocacy group focussed on women and equity in architecture based in Sydney, Chee says that feminism can provide a vital contribution to rethinking the world away from the inequalities made painfully visible by the pandemic.
“The feminist project of being inclusive, having diversity, thinking about where things come from and where things go, caring about other people’s well-being, translates to the way in which you treat your employees, you think about where your materials come from, how much you pay your employees, what is fair, why we should have work-life balance. From a feminist perspective, these things trouble you when you are in practice because you think about them on an everyday basis.”
Flexibile work/Life spaces
One of the major shifts required for intersectional gender equity pertains to the world of work: the domestic division of labour, women’s access to the professions, and the elusive work/life balance. As ‘Six myths about women in architecture’5, a document authored by Parlour co-founder Justine Clark in 2014, notes, “There are many factors that build one on top of each other to make things very difficult for many women in architecture. These include: long hours, poor workplace cultures, and poor part-time and flexible work options.” They are the result of the sexist assumption that women do not really belong in the paid workforce and that it is untenable to combine ‘home duties’ such as parenting and household management with a professional career.
Labour and Materials
The pressure on women in households is just one indication of the need to rethink the systems that support working and living, says Chee, pointing to the consumer basis of Singapore’s national economy. “We import many things, including foreign labour for construction. Inevitably, such labour is treated as a disposable resource, for extraction,” she observes, considering the case of Singapore’s migrant dormitories.
Over the years, FuturArc has spoken to numerous women architects, designers and change makers who have been making waves in the field of sustainability in Asia. So, in doing an issue about women and architecture, and presenting more leading women in the following pages, we are in no way forgetting about those from earlier conversations. Here, we are highlighting excerpts from three of them who represent different aspects of making a difference in the built, natural and social environments: the way we build, what we build with, who we build for, and how we coexist and interact with diverse ecosystems.
Architect and Honorary Professor, UNESCO Chair of Earthen Architecture, Building Cultures and Sustainable Development
How significant is the woman’s perspective in the discussion of sustainability?
AH: It’s absolutely vital. But it’s not related only to women; it’s more of the female approach. And this is to care for the process, not just the outcome.It’s about preserving old wisdom. It’s not about conquering new grounds or inventing new things all the time. You hear today of future settlements onMars. No! I think there should be less conquering and more caring for what we have. This is a female approach. This is a path that has also been taken by some men. Gandhi is one of the best examples. He was talking of exactly the same thing: we should not just consume, but also produce the things we need for life with existing resources. That is how to push sustainability along.
Architect & Urban Conservationist
You are one of the very few women from your generation who were able to set up a practice that is now more than three decades old, and have catered to diverse projects from conservation to post-disaster housing. How easy or difficult is it for women to run a practice today?
BS: I think it is not easy for anyone, be it a man or a woman. If it comes to challenges of being a woman in a fairly male-dominated profession in the present day, I feel that women are not isolated anymore, [at least not in] the way my contemporaries and I were. We were also a handful of women who were running our own practices. There were also advantages of being in isolated spaces because I only focused on building. We had no computers and media was not omnipresent like it is today. In these times, there is a whole fraternity of women in architecture and other professions who support one another through different platforms like social media. There is constant sharing of knowledge and ideas, which has made things much easier for women, and also men, to practice.
Dr Lena Chan
Senior Director, International Biodiversity Conservation Division, National Parks Board of Singapore
When you talk about using buildings as connectors, do you think buildings can also create habitats?
LC: Absolutely. Two hospitals here, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, are driven by champions of biophilic design. Liak Teng Lit, the former CEO of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, decided he wanted native butterflies, native birds and native freshwater fish on the hospital grounds, so he designed for that. The result is incredible. Similarly, Commonwealth Secondary School has actually created two different ecosystems in their
school grounds. One is a secondary forest and the other is a wetland, and it’s amazing because they have infused that so much into the whole ethos of the school. They are just totally immersing themselves into biodiversity conservation and biophilia. The principal and a teacher there are the main drivers of the project— you need champions for these kinds of things.
Lilian Chee is Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore, where she co-leads the Research by Design Cluster. Her research connects embodied experience and affective evidence with architectural representation and feminist politics. Her award-winning film collaboration 03-FLATS (2014) has been screened in 16 major cities. Chee is on the editorial boards of Architectural Theory Review and Australian Feminist Studies
Justine Clark is an architectural editor, writer, researcher, advisor and advocate. She is a co-founder of Parlour (gender, equity, architecture), established the Parlour website, and leads the organisation’s event and advocacy programmes. Clark consults for the built environment organisations, practices and universities on a broad range of projects, events and strategies. Active in public discussions of architecture, she has organised many events, curated exhibitions and sat on national and international juries. Her work has won awards for architecture in themedia and her broader contribution to the profession was recognised in 2015 with the Marion Mahony Prize. Clark is a former editor of Architecture Australia.
Naomi Stead is a Professor of Architecture at Monash University, Australia, where she was Head of Department from 2018 to 2020. She is a past President of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand. Her research interests lie in architecture’s cultures of re/production, mediation, and reception. She is an award winning architecture critic, having written more than 50 commissioned feature and review articles, and is presently a columnist for the online journal Places, where she writes essays on concepts and mythologies within and without architecture. She is also the architecture critic for The Saturday Paper. She is editor or co-editor of a number of books, including Semi-detached: Writing, representation and criticism in architecture (Uro, 2012); with Janina Gosseye and Deborah van der Plaat, Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research (Princeton Architectural Press, 2019); with Hélène Frichot, Writing Architectures: Fictocritical Approaches (Bloomsbury, 2020); and most recently with Tom Lee, Ewan McEoin, and Megan Patty, After The Australian Ugliness (National Gallery of Victoria and Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 2021).