Rehabilitation and Reuse in Southeast Asian urban cores

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a. a ubiquitous sight across the horizon

Studio Instructor

Daniel J. Whittaker


A quotidian site is all-too-easily witnessed throughout Southeast Asia: the mega-structure. Pairs or triads of twenty, forty, sixty-story tall towers precariously situated upon an even larger car-park podium of a base. An anemic sprinkling of trees coupled with an infinity edge pool on steroids decorates the rooftop edges. Choking traffic slowly conveys kilometers of crawling cars across newly paved roads that quickly merge into crumbling footpaths never meant for such vehicular abuses. These highly-profitable towers are the darlings of developer-sponsored, multi-family architectural mega-developments. Is there an alternative? Are there other options to house the newly emergent and young: single, productive middle-classes in rapidly transforming cities in Southeast Asia? Or, conversely, should there be belts to rope in and attempt to control the burgeoning growth of these exploding soon-to-be mega-metropolises? The crux of this thesis question asks if there is value in exploring not the new, but instead, expanding upward the existing, under-appreciated structures in a pre-existing urban fabric.

This summer options studio project’s focus posits the question: how can today’s architecture students in Singapore (and future globally-practicing architects) provide the design-vision leadership to examine how to re-densify and grow new vertical structures inserted into existing urban fabric in one of four fast-growing cities: Hanoi- Vietnam, Phnom Penh- Cambodia, Penang- George Town- Malaysia, and Singapore. Each city possesses its own unique vernacular interpretation of what is codified today as the ‘row-house’ or ‘shop-house’. This typology stands in a typical horizontal format within the tropical urban grid. What is a new interpretation boldly investigated the vertical axis? What kind of higher-density architecture can be created in locales already conveniently possessing all of the necessary urban infrastructures? Where can or should significant architectural elements be conserved and preserved within a matrix of the new? These are just a surficial sampling of a myriad of deeper queries which revolve around the notion of rebuilding the existing city, re-housing locals and re-constructing upward where our forefathers and foremothers have already built.

b. heritage mixed with underutilization

Part 1: Hanoi, Vietnam

Above, such post-card-perfect imagery of French-colonial era rowhouses populates tourist itineraries; how can this urban density be re-tooled for actual inhabitants and not casual day-trippers, preparing the city for a new life in the twenty-first century? A teething metro area encompasses some 19.8 million souls, three and four-meter wide row houses appear woefully inadequate to accommodate much of any high-density use without first falling to a wayward politician’s pen, and secondly, to the impact of the wrecking ball. How can a new architecture swoop in to save such reminiscences of the past, no matter how unpleasant? This options studio shall enable the student to forensically (through remote digital means) examine the urban morphology of old Hanoi, search out the weakest links of architecturally ‘non-contributing’ shop houses, go about the process of re-programming the site to meet the most salient needs of the neighborhood, and progressively move forward with a new vertically-oriented proposal for re-development and re-use.

Complete erasure of the city’s colonial past, while superficially an instinctively tempting solution, does not provide for any degree of continuity when an urban historical narrative is considered of some value. Wholesale block destruction nor centimeters-deep façade protection and reuse are found to be acceptable alternatives to comprehensive investigation of what a formerly sleepy provincial capital town, hurtling into a profit-drunk twenty-first century future, really needs. The quest of the architecture student over the brief framework of time the summer options studio provides, is to come to grips upon a simplified singular aspect of future urban planning, and fully proceed with germination while neighboring sunlight is still accessible.

c. as if we needed more reasons to be mad

Part 2: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A city built upon a supposed mythical intersection of four rivers. Better yet, the Tonle Sap seems to be so fickle to outsiders it changes its mind four times and reverses its direction of flow twice a year. How much more can its seasonally verdant and fertile banks sprout such monstrosities that some developer has handsomely profited from? Oh so thankful are they to the solemn words of Louis H. Sullivan, who observed skyscrapers ‘make the land pay…’. How can a more sensitive and observant architecture student arrive upon such a wounded city and heal the land and the water of a metropolis of 2.1 million (and quickly growing) Khmer inhabitants? In what ways could urban population growth be sensitively balanced with an adjacent watercourse-habitat conservation?

d. A radiused street corner

Let us begin at a more manageable scale than seasonal sub-continental drainage paths. Instead, this options studio investigation shall start at the traditional three- to four-story high urban rowhouse. Commonly built in the 1980s and 90s, these edifices, nearly thirty or more years of age, are now coming of age: and facing a dire future of demolition en bloc to make way for the stomach-churning super-block podium-tower formulae. As leaders of the future profession of architecture, we must and we can do better. What alternative reuse options exist, to create a new urbane horizon? How can existing shells be re-purposed and new vertical density harness already-desirable and convenient urban locales? This is the focus of our Cambodian exploration, should students elect to examine this locale.

e. A different face of Penang

Part 3: George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Exploring a sub-urban environment, still within the boundaries of George Town on the island of Penang, lays a profusion of mosque complexes with curious minarets in the form of pseudo-pagoda-esque archetypes. Being built during a curious informal transition period, these edifices merit serious scholarly attention. The focus of this options studio is not that, but instead, the lesser-noticed, non-designated out-buildings which lay off to the sides of the already-conserved architectural specimen.

f. ready for rescue; what shall you do?

Second- or third-class in form, they none the less possess irreplaceable architectural form, character, may we even extend to use such imprecise words such as ‘charm’. Resplendent with classical overtures, marks of earlier British colonial influences, they are prime targets for replacement. This options studio focus targets these forgotten ‘bastard-offspring’ that are under such grave threat of inconvenient histories and impure architectural pedigree. Elimination could be seen by non-purists as a form of mild-architectural genocide. This must not occur under the watchful eye of careful and savvy architectural leadership. These outbuilding can serve new lives, embody new programs, and enhance an already lively architectural assemblage without resorting to farcical skin-deep thematic re-purposing.

g. ready to be re-imagined

Part 4: Singapore: imagining localized realities

Locally, a lively vertical growth pattern could emerge out of one of the world’s most densely populated islands. Oft overlooked neighborhood pockets, such as Jalan Besar and other locales, sprinkled throughout the environs of the island, possesses what decorators term ‘shabby chic.’ However, greater character, meaning and use-intensification can emerge beyond a mere cliché of decorator-inspired genteel decay. One must proceed with a codified research process to: develop criteria, assess structures, and locate a specific neighborhood zone of sub-par density buildings. Ideally, these would lead to further design investigations pursuing how to harness the potentially architecturally intriguing rowhouse structures, ripe for reconstruction and use-intensification, for further vertical design endeavors.

h. recent past/ future thoughts about vertical growth

Part 5: Concluding Thoughts

To summarize, all four metropolises which exist and thrive in the belt that constitutes Southeast Asia. All four locales offer the design student with a rich palette of new cultures, cuisines and architectural buffets. The first challenge the options studio student faces is to choose which site – in which city – and in which country – they wish to work with. Even distribution of the studio is desired. Second, the ever-necessary cultural research project must commence. Third, the formation of a realistic and reasonably-complex program must be contemplated, vetted, reformulated and eventually crystalized. Lastly, the summer Options Studio student then may proceed full steam ahead to push through various design iterations which always ask the self-referential question, “does this particular design and architectural solution best satisfy the array of criteria asked within the initial program?”

Part 6: Calendar

Wk.01 country-city / neighborhood site selection, precedent studies pt.1
Wk.02 vertical precedent studies pt.2, initial program development
Wk.03 continue program development / potential client / user groups
Wk.04 specific site analysis leading to volumetric form-making
Wk.05 project development: establish overall concept/responsiveness to site
Wk.06 Mid-term review + submission
Wk.07 [recess week]
Wk.08 comprehensive response to feedback given and assessment
Wk.09 project development: specific interior configuration needs
Wk.10 further develop vertical spatial organization / specific const. details
Wk.11 set forth priorities for clear conveyance of project / refine const. details
Wk.12 ensure realistic deliverables for visual communication
Wk.13 continued production of set deliverables
Wk.14 Final Review + submission

Note: This studio would be begin, for a time period to be determined, being conducted in a hybrid format: both on-line (via Zoom) and on-ground, in studio, under the dual supervision of the instructor and an on-campus, studio-based Teaching Assistant. The teaching assistant will be: graduated (former ASD M.Arch student) Michael Augustine Yeow.

Image references:
a. Suburban Hanoi, Vietnam, July 2014, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
b. Old Quarter – Hanoi, Vietnam row houses in situ, July 2014, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
c. Phnom Penh, Cambodia, new city on the Mekong, July 2019, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
d. Phnom Penh, Cambodia, old city, July 2019, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
e. Acheen Street Mosque environs, George Town, Penang, Malaysia, July 2019, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
f. Acheen Street Mosque environs, George Town, Penang, Malaysia, July 2019, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
g. Singapore environs: Jalan Besar, Rochor Neighborhood, October 2019, photo by Dan J. Whittaker
h. Singapore re-envisioned Summer 2020 Options Studio, August 2020, project by Naomi Wong