Once a final resting place, Bidadari is making a fresh start as a home for the living. And not just any home, either. The public housing project will set the bar for Housing Development Board (HDB) estates of the future thanks to its integrated design that doesn’t just put residents near amenities like parks, schools and hawker centres. Bidadari will put people within these spaces.
Conferred Designer of the Year in the President's Design Award 2015 and recognised under URA's 20 under 45 architects, Man Kok believes that the role of architects is not simply to "build something beautiful" but build something liveable and resilient. Bidadari is just one of Man Kok's projects that demonstrate his take on urban solutions in Singapore.
"The architect has the ability to translate policies and requirements into tasteful and useful design that people can experience," he says.
© Housing Development Board
Man Kok’s approach to architecture is detailed and all encompassing. Integration, for him, is not merely in the end result but in the process – he aims to break down boundaries between developers, city planners and government agencies at the planning stage for the benefit of residents and users.
Take Bidadari Estate for instance. Man Kok began what HDB would eventually select as the winning design with a single question, drawn from the leafy history of the district: “Can everybody live in a park?”
“Can we have the park infused into every aspect of the open spaces of the masterplan?” he continues. “So, literally, you are not just going to a park. You are living in one.”
It isn’t as easy as it sounds, explains Man Kok. A project as integrated as Bidadari requires a rethink in town planning. For example, the National Parks Board would typically maintain a park, yet town councils are responsible for the residential blocks – which is why there are usually roads that separate the two. “We think that there shouldn’t be roads and other artificial things to create barriers,” the 53-year-old says. “It should be a seamless continuation.
© Housing Development Board
The master plan for the 93-hectare estate ensured that not only would Bidadari’s history as a wooded area and a bird sanctuary be preserved, but a stroll through the estate would be far more enjoyable. Even the hawker centre is surrounded by greenery and houses a residents’ garden on the rooftop, above which the residences are stacked.
Located in a central area of the estate called the Woodleigh Village, the hawker centre isn’t just a place for people to grab a quick meal, either. Man Kok envisions it as a communal space where residents can unwind and catch up on work. The layout of the hawker centre is also streamlined to ensure the collection and cleaning of cutlery is more hygienic and less unsightly.
Fresh updates from the project include more “ambitious connectivity plans”, Man Kok shares. In the works are underground crossings for cyclists, more pedestrian-friendly pavements, and even overhead bridges that are designed as public ‘buildings’ for people to experience different vantage points of the parks. “So you don’t even see it as a bridge,” he adds.
The kampong spirit
Community is a key focus for Man Kok. He believes that in order for a housing estate – or a city, for that matter – to be liveable, it must lend vibrancy and liveliness to the people and places there. Just like Marina Bay, he says. “It’s a very well-planned body of water that enhances all the developments around it. And as you walk around, you sense that energy, that optimism.”
MKPL hopes to bring that not only to Bidadari, but to a more recent project: the housing estate along the Chua Chu Kang segment of the Rail Corridor. But as novel and innovative as it appears, the source of MKPL’s inspiration is something far closer to home: the kampong. “There’s always been this need to make people feel as though they are back in the kampong days,” Man Kok says. “But how do you have an urban kampong?”
Living in a forest © MKPL-Turenscape
One way would be to develop a ‘shared land use’ strategy rather than allocating land for individual, discrete purposes. In his plans for the Rail Corridor estate, Man Kok proposed integrating the 30-metre-wide Pang Sua Canal that runs over the site into the landscape. Which means that on dry days when the canal is barren, the green walls of the canal can be seen. Housing can even be built over the canal, on land that isn’t normally used. “We allow the ground floor to be flooded. And there’s a raised deck, just like in the kampong days when you could watch ducks swim around,” Man Kok laughs.
Linear forest © MKPL-Turenscape
A softer element of the ‘kampong spirit’ is what Man Kok calls “emotional attachment to the place”: how residents grow and change together with their social and built environment. Man Kok carved out a 50-metre-wide strip of land adjacent to the housing blocks – it’ll be a linear forest whose trees will be planted by the future residents themselves.
“So they have a say in the growing of the trees and the nurturing of the park,” he continues. “Because they’ve participated in it, they’ll be empowered to take care of it. And as they grow older, they’ll see the trees grow taller. That instils a sense of ownership and adds meaning, in a very real way, to the community.”
Nursing the future
MKPL is currently working on a nursing home in Bukit Batok West that Man Kok hopes will leave a lasting impression on the public. The nursing home will be integrated with a park and a residential neighbourhood, and he wants it to be seen as a social amenity. “We want to break the taboo that nursing homes are terrible to have near your house,” he says. “And we are using design to change that perception.”
In future, Man Kok wishes that the public look at institutions such as nursing homes as they do schools. His wants Singapore to have nursing homes that are so well run that they become popular and, with our ageing population, people will desire to live close by. “And maybe even raise the property prices around it!” he jokes.
Musing further, Siew dreams of completely integrating the private and public realms, creating sensible walking connections between them. “Not that everybody can enter the condominium, but making it part of the eco-system,” he says. “What will happen if legislation requires private estates to provide, say, linkways to bus stops? Or if they’re required to design those bus stops that double-up as public spaces? Singapore is quite well coordinated in terms of the many government agencies that these things can happen quite easily.”
MKPL Architects’ plans for the Bidadari and Rail Corridor housing estates was exhibited as a key highlight of the Singapore Design Week 2017. Watch out for their photography exhibition coming up at the URA Centre soon.