Roughly 85% of Singapore’s population lives in government housing called HDB (“Housing and Development Board) flats, which usually come in the shape of big blocky towers that look something like this:
The first HDBs were built in the 1960s, both to help alleviate Singapore’s housing shortage and to move people out of unsanitary, unsightly (according to the government) kampongs (a Malay word that can be roughly translated as “neighborhoods” or “villages”). Since then, the government has developed over one million flats and has given Singaporeans some of the most affordable housing in the world.
There have been tradeoffs in this massive building project, of course. Many Singaporeans didn’t want to leave their kampongs and move into giant apartment complexes, and the lack of architectural variety has led many critics to say that the HDBs lend Singapore a somewhat sterile air. A more recent concern among increasingly wealthier younger people is that the HDBs aren’t fancy enough — so more and more individuals are choosing to move into condominiums. The government has responded with the creation of the My Nice Home Gallery, a space devoted to showcasing sample HDB flats and plans.
Prescott and I, accompanied by our friends Everett and Anna, went to visit the gallery on Saturday (those “people” next to Prescott aren’t Everett and Anna — they’re part of the photograph).
This place should probably be called the “My Nice Home and Ikea Showroom Gallery,” because all of the interiors feature Ikea furnishings.
That’s the living room of the 3-room flat. We especially liked the fake scenery outside the “window.”
Here is Prescott in the very compact kitchen…
… and here is the overhead layout of the flat:
As you can see, there’s not a whole lot of room in there; the entire 3-room flat is roughly 700 square feet in size. One of the criticisms of newer HDB flats is that they are tiny (but I’ll note that the same critique has been leveled at newer condo units). The smallest HDB flat in the showroom, the “2-room flexi,” comes in at just under 400 square feet.
We had a good time exploring the showroom flats. We opened pretty much every door …
… we tried to make sense of the wall controls …
… and we generally amused ourselves.
Most of the items on display were glued down (some more elegantly than others):
There are lots of posters around showing you how nice it is to live in an HDB community. Our favorite poster featured this group of people, who seem somehow to be watching a television while they picnic:
The My Nice Home Gallery also lets you imagine what your new flat might look like; you can play with a computer display that offers you a variety of layouts and furnishing options (I loved that there was a design theme called “sporty spice”).
Here are Prescott, Everett, and Anna working with great industry on their interiors:
Once you’re finished with your design, you can take a picture with it and email it to yourself. Everett filled his living room with eight couches:
We soon abandoned our interior design ambitions and just played with the photo machine.
If you leave the My Nice Home Gallery and go downstairs, you can visit the HBD sales center.
HDB flats are sold under 99-year leases — after that, the government gets the flat back. There are also rental flats available for those people who cannot afford to buy. The rules about eligible buyers of HDB flats are complicated (I just know that Prescott and I are not eligible because we are not Singaporeans). It’s interesting to note that each HDB has an “ethic quota,” and that a certain number of flats within a given building are allotted to “Chinese,” “Malay,” and “Indian/Other Races.” The idea here is to promote racial mixing and harmony. I have no idea whether it works, but I find it a fascinating exercise in social engineering.
The Housing and Development Board also uses its space to show people what’s on the horizon in the Singapore building scene.
Singapore wants to grow by roughly 500,000 more people, and the government is building whole new “towns” and “estates” (these are terms of art in the world of HDBs) to make this possible.
We were interested in the marketing of these new developments, which featured a lot of vague language:
There is a nice emphasis on green spaces …
… which are supposed to make one of the new estates look like this:
I like the idea that they’re going to encourage community gardening…
… though I’m pretty sure no one has talked with them about the connotations of the word “plantation” in US English.
I’m always interested in looking at plans for the future:
But I was even more interested in the little bit of history they offered at the HDB building (they do have a real history gallery, but it’s closed right now for renovations). This poster traces the evolution of one of the new HDB development areas from kampong to a brickworks to a military training area — and now into a new “Forest Town.”
We also found this nod to history — a small-scale copy of the iconic Toa Payoh playground dragon, one of the first major playground sculptures in Singapore.
You’ll meet the real dragon in another blog post soon!