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Singapore's 'void decks': social engineering through empty space

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 27, 2010 04:43 PM

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In Boston, apartments have roof decks; in Singapore, they have "void decks." Imagine a building raised on pillars, so that there's a large, empty space underneath. That space is the void deck - and most apartment buildings in Singapore have one.

Thumbnail image for voiddeck02.jpg

What's the void deck good for? Everything, apparently. According to Singapore's Straits Times:

Like blank canvasses on which Singapore's ethnic rainbow is painted, void decks host everything from weddings and funerals to romantic trysts and day-long chequers sessions that draw retirees from all ethnic groups.

In Singapore it's perfectly normal to host a wedding for hundreds of guests in your building's void deck, or to drop off your kids at a childcare center set up each day in the open space under your building. Singaporeans make good use of the empty space. (The beautiful weather helps, of course.)

Yet the void deck is no accident of design. More than 80% of Singapore's population lives in public housing, in buildings designed to government specifications. And Singapore's government ensures that every apartment building mirrors the country's ethnic mix, with Chinese, Malays, and Indians living as neighbors in proportion to their share of the population - 77%, 14%, and 8% respectively. The void deck ensures that everyone gets to know each other, and each other's cultures. As the Times puts it, its pleasures are actually "part of Singapore's strictly enforced social policies aimed at ensuring harmony among the races in a region often torn by religious and ethnic strife."

That void deck might look empty, but there's a policy hidden there! It's another version of the power of the architectural empty space.

Photo via Arkitera.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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