When I was first appointed to direct the Singapore Archifest 2020, I envisioned a lot of parties at which I would shake hands with some of my architecture idols from around the world and mingle with old-time colleagues and new friends over the buffet table during a coffee break.

Then, everything that we took for granted in a typical festival suddenly became so distant since February. Indeed, the biggest challenge was the constantly evolving situation and the ever-changing rules from the authorities.

Chong Keng Hua

With so many uncertainties during the first half of the year, we were unable to plan how many people could gather physically and how we could pull off a virtual festival for the first time (Zoom was almost unheard of earlier this year!).

And what if we planned for a virtual launch and everything went back to normal by October? Nevertheless, the pandemic has certainly pushed us to be more creative and decisive, leading us to conceptualise and present the first-ever hybrid edition of Archifest.

With programmes that thread both online and offline platforms, this has also been a blessing in disguise as we could invite a broader international audience. It also prompted us to add “Singapore” to the festival name and make the Singapore Archifest 2020 one that brings together the built community from all across the world to learn, share and discuss new ideas relative to the theme.

“Nevertheless, the pandemic has certainly pushed us to be more creative and decisive, leading us to conceptualise and present the first-ever hybrid edition of Archifest.”

Chong keng hua

Architecture Saving Our World is something close to my heart as I have always believed architecture has the power to do good no matter how small a feat. It is also a theme that stems from the many discussions I’ve had with my partners on the festival team, the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) council members and many colleagues and friends.

The theme was not originally planned to coincide with a pandemic, but it has become timely and crucial that we address the global and local issues our world is facing such as food resilience, climate change, underserved communities, the digital divide, homelessness, the living conditions of migrant workers, mental wellness and, of course, public health. The built environment has been a contributing factor to these symptoms, but could architecture also be the cure?

Most Archifests have featured a pavilion that served as the main event venue. The one for this year’s Archifest was a virtual pavilion co-created by ADDP Architects and OWIU Design and accessible worldwide.

“Architecture is a collaborative project”, affirmed Minister for National Development Desmond Lee in his opening address for Singapore Archifest 2020. From across more than 100 programmes we curated, we acknowledged that its scope needed to expand and cross boundaries to work in tandem with urban farmers, community practitioners, social scientists, technologists and users because simply housing the world is no longer sustainable.

We need more cross-collaboration to heal and restore our world. So how can each of us, designer or user, participate in such collaborative movement? I’d like to share a few things I learnt from this last festival.

BE CLIMATE POSITIVE

Climate positivity represents a mindset shift of sustainability from operational efficiency towards a more holistic view across the entire production cycle.

Inspiring projects from conferences, forums and exhibitions have shown us how this is achievable through the use of indigenous materials, biomimicry design, upcycling of waste and resilient urbanism. In our daily lives, we can also endorse activities, products or buildings that go beyond carbon neutral and create environmental benefits.

The AirBamboo gazebo by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)and AIRLAB combines bamboo and 3D-printed connectors. 

Taking non-fossil fuel-based transportation, making full use of natural ventilation and evapotranspiration, reducing waste and insisting on recycling and choosing climate-positive material for home renovations are just some of them.

A climate crisis is both ecological and social. Once both users and designers fully grasp the carbon footprint and handprint, we can create a strong demand to influence the entire supply chain and city planning.

SUPPORT LOCAL

Covid-19 has made us realise the importance of building local assets, sustainable businesses and self-reliance on daily needs. The urban farmers and architects featured in several exhibitions and forums have unanimously highlighted the critical issue of local food production and how a “productive landscape” or “foodscape” can be integrated into our urban planning and building design, making Singapore not just a garden city but an edible garden city as well.

The Green Agora

What does this mean for individuals? Well, we need to acquire a new relationship with the plants around us that goes beyond aesthetics. We should support local farms and products and even get in touch with the earth, join community farms and grow our food.

Farm tours and workshops conducted during the Singapore Archifest offered a great start. Supporting local also includes using locally available materials that lower the carbon footprint from transportation, learning wisdom in the local contexts and working with communities to build trust and ownership.

This brings me to my next point.

MAKE TIME AND EFFORT FOR THE COMMUNITY

A trend we have realised from engaging with speakers and partners is the collective spirit of creative activism. Many of the visions and actions, whether in response to the on-going pandemic or humanitarian or ecological crises, involve empowering local communities.

Archifest 2020 Opening Forum

During several forums, we learnt how a community is involved in placemaking, how participatory design builds a sense of ownership and how participatory art becomes a medium to lift underprivileged children.

We also picked up on how architecture strives to make a difference to migrant workers’ living environment, and how ground-up movement calls for conservation of modern heritage. It is about time that each of us cared more about the people and places around us and became involved in these community initiatives.

A snapshot of Prakarsa, a virtual panel discussion about design and architecture as tools of social activism. 

The proposed conservation of Golden Mile Complex announced last month is a good example of collective effort. With more people actively involved in creative activism, I believe we can start to shift from creating a functional city to live, work and play in to building a more gracious and liveable city for bonding, caring and growing.

Looking back, we had an incredible journey that was unimaginable when we started. I hope Singapore Archifest 2020 will always be remembered as a showcase of resilience. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARCHIFEST
Singapore Archifest 2020 festival director Chong Keng Hua is an associate professor and programme coordinator at SUTD and founding partner of design consultancy COLOURS.