The ‘loss’ of our backalleys
Along with Singapore’s rapid progression, backalleys disappeared along with shophouses. Conserved shophouses lost their unique dual functions as work-live spaces, with specialized retail businesses and services replacing the traditional home-based businesses which once characterised backalleys with their individual and collective colonizations of space. While backalleys still exist today around us, they are often overlooked and devoid of the life they used to contain.
However, standing as a contrast to the sanitized streets of Singapore, every backalley portrays a unique character with its own quirky and mysterious concoction of everyday objects, which almost seem to have a life of their own.
The investigation of backalleys brought the team on a journey to various conserved urban neighbourhoods, where they recorded the use backalleys with timelapses across the day. Inhabiting the backalley along Duxton Hill, they observed workers in the area spilling out from the back of restaurants, massage parlours, and occupying the backalley as a breakout space. The Duxton backalley today is home to a mixture of unique and creative appropriations by the workers.
The Backalley as a Backstage: A Space of Respite for Singapore’s working class
Behind the graceful facade of shophouses, the team saw in the backalleys an authentic working class who work hard and play an indispensable role in our nation’s progress. These workers dwell in the backalley for long periods of time, Here, rest is a call back home, a puff of relief and a chat for comfort. In the night, there are no lights to condition the backalley, save for the streams of light flooding out from their adjacent shops.
To provide a more conducive and pleasant space of respite for our workers
Using flexible elements which adapt to existing structures and elements we can easily find in backalleys today, the team created a framework accommodating these different observed states and configurations of rest, and yet allow for a variety of other spontaneous activities between workers and the public to arise. On this framework, canopies providing shade and shelter, and lamps ensuring safety at night can be hung by the workers themselves.
The team created an installation as part of the Singapore Design Week 2016 Design Trails, where they transformed a backalley in Japan Klapa into an informal gallery and studio space that engaged the public in rethinking and re-imagining the backalley. In the living gallery, the public was able to imagine the lives of the workers and their different states of rest in the backalley portrayed through their furniture and belongings. Old photographs also reminded the public about how our backalleys used to be in the past. The public were then invited to re-imagine the very backalley space using a collective collage and a board where they could freely express their thoughts and visions for our backalleys. The team subsequently built and put up their design prototype in the Duxton backalley for a day, and organized a break time tea workshop for the workers, where ideas and feedback were exchanged over food. This encouraged them to further refine their designs and create a life-size prototype of a backalley kit on Parking Day 2016.
‘In My Backyard’
Building upon the informal history and nature of backalleys to extend beyond a network of blank canvases for ground-up interventions and informal adaptations, the team hopes to encourage more spontaneous encounters, exchanges and collective experiences between different communities among an increasingly diverse and fragmented society.
The team hopes that leftover spaces like our backalleys can become the glue tying us Singaporeans into a more cohesive and compassionate community willing to care for one another, regardless of where we may come from. Maybe one day, we could bring back the community spirit that once characterised Singapore.
Prof Chong Keng Hua
Ee Hui Jie
Jezamine Chua Zihui
Tan Yen Lin
Lim Jia Xuan
Lim Kian Chong
February 2016 – Present
Re:Act Really Architecture Design My Place Grant