August, 2013 Monthly archive

DarrenSohGreyscale_LRYou have been documenting the landscape of Singapore for a while now. What inspired you and how did you get started?

I often joke that I like photographing buildings and landscapes because they don’t talk back to me, but I’m really a very sociable person. I used to photograph anything and everything until 2002, when I started to realise that a lot of how we relate to a place has to do with how we understand and appreciate space and time. I started photographing ‘unfamiliar’ parts of Singapore by night and this became a project called While You Were Sleeping, which was published as my first monograph in 2004. I think it was then that I decided to use images of spaces as my main photographic language to convey the concerns I have.

You have dedicated this series to your son, Christian, and you mentioned that the buildings you documented probably won’t be around when he grows up and becomes aware of architecture.  Why is it important for him to know about these old structures?

I think the old adage that “in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been” cannot be more true in a country like Singapore. We live in a period in Singapore when our physical landscape is changing at such a drastic rate that not a week goes by without an old building being demolished or a new one completed. I’m all for progress, but at the rate we’re going, most young Singaporeans will have lost the neighbourhoods they grew up with or hold fond memories of, by the time they are adults. Photography is one way of ensuring that a collective memory of these spaces remains when the actual physical spaces are long gone. With my project, I hope to be able to educate Christian in time to come of all these pieces of architecture that used to exist in Singapore.

You mentioned that a lot of these buildings might not be around when Christian grows up. Given a choice, which building would you choose to preserve?

Block 82, Commonwealth Close would be at the top of my list because that is was where I lived for the first five years of my life, from 1976 to 1980, and it has a special place in my memory.  I believe there are no immediate plans to demolish that block but given its age, it is most likely only a matter of time. This block is located in heritage-rich Queenstown, the first planned housing estate in Singapore. Unfortunately, many iconic buildings in this neighbourhood, for example Forfar House and most recently Queens- town Cinema, have already been torn down.

Which of these buildings is the most meaningful to you?

I know this is cheating, but they are all meaningful because they represent different slices of architectural history in Singapore.

How long did you spend documenting these buildings?

I started in 2006, but most of the images collected in this book were made in the last two to three years. I have no intention of stopping.

Of all the structures that you’ve shot, which was the most challenging?

The interior of Queenstown Cinema was the most challenging as there was hardly any light and I struggled to convey a sense of space in an interior so beautiful, yet obviously left in a really dilapidated state for over a decade. In the end, the results were really worth the effort.

Is there anything else that you would like to document for Christian?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not about to stop! So many buildings in Singapore, not just HDB blocks, are being slated for demolition in the name of progress. If we can’t stop it, the next best thing would be to faithfully and very purposefully document them, so that future generations, not just Christian’s, are able to appreciate these spaces that used to dot the island.

What do you find so intriguing about old buildings, granted that some contemporary structures also deserve documentation?

They really don’t build buildings like they used to, and I find a lot of the old brick-built buildings very charming.  I am personally also a fan of mid-century modernist architecture that was so functional yet beautiful in its own minimalist way. I also document contemporary structures; I am no stranger to the fact that in time to come, contemporary structures will become historical and potentially endangered as well.

Among all the buildings in Singapore now (old and new), which is your favourite and why?

My favourite buildings that still stand today are Blocks 63 to 66, Yung Kuang Road. The sheer scale of this group of buildings really needs to be appreciated from within. It should be used as a living example of Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon.

What do you feel is lacking in new buildings in Singapore that is found in older ones?

Wow, this is a really scary question, because whatever I say, there will be those who disagree. I personally feel that there is too much glass used in modern buildings in Singapore – which is a really valid concern because of the climate we’re in, where the greenhouse effect is most felt. As a result, most modern buildings have to rely on air-conditioning to keep the interior cool and this, as we all know, contributes to higher energy consumption and indirectly to global warming.

Obviously we can’t conserve every building. Do you have a compromise or a creative solution to this dilemma?

Of course what I feel is important may be of no significance to others. At the end of the day, I am acutely aware that we cannot conserve every single building, but I am confident that enough people feel strongly for many iconic public buildings, that some sort of consultative approach or public referendum should be put in place before those are slated for demolition. Currently, we see attempts at this but whether it is a good sign of things to come or merely perfunctory on the part of the powers that be, only time will tell. When all else fails, there are, of course, the photographs.

What, to you, constitutes a building worthy of documenting?

I am seriously not fussy – as long as it’s a space that holds memories for groups of people, I will try and photograph it before it gets torn down. Of course there are buildings which a much larger proportion of the population can relate to, such as the old National Library at Stamford Road, but there are less well-known ones as well.

What is the message that you wish to convey to readers through your images?

That Singapore is changing far too quickly for its people to develop any strong sense of anchorage to the built environment. If we cannot preserve all the buildings that people want to, we should at least properly document most, if not all of them for future generations.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sadly, I scan the Housing Development Board’s Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) website regularly, to find out when old HDB blocks are going to be demolished and work my way from there. I also try and keep abreast of current affairs even though I’m not a photojournalist, and try and draw inspiration from what’s going on around us.

As a photographer, what is your pet peeve?

That young photographers these days are happy to simply copy other people’s angles and shoot locations, and be replicators rather than original creators of work.

Any advice for photographers out there who wish to venture into landscape photography in Singapore?

There is no substitute for exploration. If you wait to be inspired by another photographer’s work of a space in order to go photograph that space, you are already too late.


The portrait of Darren Soh was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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