Today's post will detail the history of the Dakota Crescent public housing estate, and how the colonialist-designed estate represents an important connection between the past and present.
“...The photographs of our early housing estates have a double power: they are invitations to sentimentality and discussion but they also reveal fascinating aspects of Singapore’ early public housing history” (pg 4).
How could a building possibility hold cultural value? Architecture is not just about bricks and mortar. The structural design imbues ideologies and beliefs into our built environments, and from that our human responses are what define us. Culture comes from the peculiar habits and ongoings that are afforded by the places we call home, which is why Dakota Crescent is of such great significance to the history of architecture. The colonial-era building represents the tie between the failing public housing in the colonial past and the burgeoning public housing of contemporary Singapore, which makes up 72% of all flats in Singapore (pg 16).
While Tiong Bahru was built in the 1930s, and HDB helped develop the tail-end of Queenstown, Dakota Crescent is unique because it represents a clear link between the colonial past and contemporary Singapore.
Why the Singapore Improvement Trust Failed
The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was famously incompetent due to the systemic racism in the British Colony with colonizers blind to the sincere struggle of the Asian residents. Before the Japanese internment of the British in WWII, the British themselves believed their white supremacy was what gave them the mandate to govern. “The lifestyle of a British officer in Malaya...was nothing but ‘a tangible demonstration both of his superiority and of his white prestige’ for which he was paid an inordinately high salary and provided other highly valued perks to maintain” (pg 2). By the way, have you ever read a sentence that so clearly spells out the similarities between the colonizer and the post-colonial CEO of the 21st century?
The exposed fallacy of white supremacy meant that the colonizers needed to actually do something if they wanted to hold on to their strategically located trading port. An uptick in construction after 1947 correlates with this narrative. In 1947, the SIT had just 2,336 public units, housing only 1% of Singapore’s population. By 1959, the SIT’s final year, there were 23,019 units lodging just 9% of the population. The Singaporean-run Housing and Development Board (HDB) was able to develop 106,418 new units between 1960 and 1969 to house 32% of the island (source). The number is now up to 80% (source). For more on this history, please see my post on Toa Payoh.
The Dakota Crescent Estate was designed and built by the SIT in 1958. It is one of the last developments to be planned and built by the SIT before their work was transferred to the HDB in 1960. This point is significant to understand the cultural value of the Dakota Crescent, which I will get more into with the conclusion
The Singapore Improvement Trust designed their buildings on a small budget, adding few amenities, and constructing to survive about four decades in the tropical weather. The weather adaptations meant high ceilings, large windows, and open-air balconies (source). The building’s character is defined by the balcony and the corridor, an architectural feature now deeply embedded in the design vernacular of the island, as anecdotally demonstrated by a tote bag using photographs by famed Singaporean photographer Darren Soh.
Looking from a bird’s-eye view, one might also notice among several ‘straight blocks’ are a few curved ones. These blocks were known as the ‘butterfly blocks,’ and,“ were designed for better light and ventilation...” (pg 59).
While the form looks so familiar, the physical material is different. While most HDBs of today are built of concrete, these were built with bricks.
The creation of geometric patterns through the simple ordering of building materials was another staple for several SIT estates. At Dakota Crescent, this includes the geometric screen in the center of the ‘straight blocks’, the air vents at the top of the buildings, with decoration for the other blocks being the criss-cross balcony patterns.
To get to why this is important for the western world; the example of Dakota Crescent and SIT’s architectural endowment to the future of Singapore demonstrates that the problem with public housing was never the formal design. Part of what made the HDBs successful was the organizational urgency for production to immediately improve living conditions.
The Future of Dakota Crescent
The plans to demolish the estate were first announced in 2014. Since then, all residents have been cleared by 2016, and the blocks stand in a state of abandonment. The future for Dakota Crescent is bleak. Thanks to public appeals, just six of the fifteen blocks standing will survive. The Ministry of National Development has states the future plans are not determined yet, though he is openly considering conversion to student hostels and community-based institutions moving in (source).
One dash of good news is that the Dove Playground will not be demolished. It was designed by Mr. Khor Ean Ghee himself in 1979, the same year he completed the Dragon Playground in Toa Payoh.
Of the six blocks to be restored, two will be seven-story ‘butterfly’ blocks, two will be seven-story slab blocks, one will be a three-story block, and the last will be a two-story block. While the neighborhood environment will be gone, at least the four architectural forms from its past will be represented.
The Dakota Crescent Legacy
The Dakota Crescent’s abandonment has led many to openly reflect on its meaning. For some, including, Mountbatten Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan, this means fighting to educate the public about its existence. The largest community for this is the Save Dakota Crescent Facebook page, which to date is followed by just over 2,300 people, and was instrumental in the successful campaign to preserve six blocks.
Betweentwohomes.sg has archived interviews and photographs of the estate for their own project. This included talking with Fizah, a single mother. She describes the emotions of leaving the place she raised her children using pragmatic language, reflecting that, “we will leave our old memory, happy moments, our sad moments in this house. And then we will have to make a new life.” Rice Media author Krystal Lim published her experience in 2017 exploring the neighborhood on a moonless night as an exercise of building an intimate connection with the abandoned heritage site. Ghetto Singapore wrote their own piece in 2014 with images and stories of the historic neighborhood as well.
The unique online archive from individuals does reflect the deeply personal significance Dakota Crescent estate has for the story of Singapore. The fact that people keep turning to it, keep returning to, speaks to a historic value.
The historic value for Singapore is that of a clear aesthetic relative of Singapore’s contemporary heartlands lifestyle. The form of 15-block expanse illuminates the stories that bridge the Singaporeans of today with the Singaporeans living with the colonizers. This familiar architectural form comes with a dichotomy. The colonial-designed SIT flats afford a familiar yet foreign lifestyle. Despite not even being able to go on the balconies, visit anyone's home, see the local provision shop or see children playing with the dove, the story told is stark. Even without the life, the kinship between the colonial past with today’s post-colonial Singapore heartlands are nowhere more clear than at Dakota Crescent.