Capturing Singapore's HDB look-out points

Capturing Singapore's HDB look-out points

Contours of culture

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Aaron Chan

In his new book, Ways of Seeing, photographer Elephnt shares his fascination with the shapes and colours that ornament Singapore's HDB void decks

If you've grown up playing at the void deck in Singapore's HDB estates, you'll feel the nostalgic pull from Elephnt's photographs. The photographer ­— whose real name is Aaron Chan — has released Ways of Seeing, a compilation of his photography project that captures look-out points and void decks in the HDB estates of Singapore. Published by Math Paper Press, the book is his first, featuring 55 photographs that capture the ornamented, the straightforward and the soul of these common areas. If you're a kid who grew up before the Internet, you'll recall a childhood playing around these look-out points or simply having a heart-to-heart with friends, lying your backs on those geometric shapes.

Previously, Elephnt has exhibited at the Noise Singapore 2016 Festival and at 'Ephemera', a pop-up exhibition at The Substation. Catching up with him over email, we learned about the professors who inspired him to look at these "contours of culture", the most interesting estates he's seen and his next photography project after Ways of Seeing.

Ways of Seeing book

What's behind the name, Elephnt?
It was a nickname from a friend that I decided to use as a nom de guerre for my photography. And it was strangely appropriate because when I started shooting four years ago, I always felt a little awkward behind the camera (and I still do sometimes). So when I'm not getting photos that I want or when I'm 'wrestling' with my camera settings, I feel like an elephant fumbling around with a tiny camera.

The photographs were an ongoing project. How did it turn into a book?
I've been shooting Ways of Seeing for close to two and a half years now and several close friends of mine were prodding me to do something with the project rather than have it sit around on Instagram. I knew Kenny and the BooksActually team from some previous work with them, and approached them with two possible projects for a photobook. When it came to choosing between a photo book and putting up an exhibition, I had and still have this hope that people will pick up the book and start wandering around Singapore in search of these unusual and sometimes overlooked look-out points and void decks.

Why the fascination with look-out points?
I think looking or gazing is a part of living in HDB blocks and it is very much facilitated by certain architectural elements like common corridors and void decks. In university, I read two books on public housing and society by Robbie B.H. Goh (professor of literature at National University of Singapore) and Chua Beng Huat (professor of sociology at National University of Singapore), which introduced me to the notion of informal surveillance and architecture. These ideas have stuck with me since then, so picking up a camera and travelling around Singapore to shoot was a way to keep exploring and understanding those ideas for myself.

Ways of Seeing book

What were some of the things you were surprised to learn of in the process?
From quite early on, I was struck by the variety of designs for look-out points in HDB blocks all across the island. If you were to spend a day walking around Choa Chu Kang or Simei, you would find look-out points that are shaped like a diamond, circle or four leaf clover and these are only three of the 12 I have encountered so far around Singapore.

Interestingly, many of these blocks with look-out points at the void decks were built in the '80s to '90s. I recall in Goh's book, Contours of Culture: Space and Social Difference in Singapore, that there was a conscious effort then to build housing blocks with some kind of ornamentation as well as decorate them in different colours.

It's also sad that the Housing and Development Board has stopped building blocks with these look-out points at the void deck. If you visit the new housing blocks in Punggol, you'll realise that the ornamental motifs that distinguish one block or estate from another have travelled to the rooftop, which I feel is a shame. I think those look-out points at the ground level add colour and character to what would otherwise be an empty space, a 'void' in that sense. So while shooting Ways of Seeing, I have always had this sense that we might one day lose something that's quite unique and readily accessible for residents in HDB estates when these blocks fall victim to the cycle of redevelopment in Singapore.

Which are some interesting blocks or estates you've discovered along the way?
There's an estate with void decks that are painted in red and grey checks as well as another with yellow stars. I think one of the most beautiful look-out points that I've seen can be found in an estate that has pink hexagons with a red Chinese ink stamp-like design at the bottom.

Ways of Seeing book

What will you be working on next?
I'm working on a project called "Everything must go" that captures shop signs in convenience stores around Singapore! I'm very intrigued and amused by those convenience stores that claim to be "moving out" (but to my knowledge, never do) and how they play upon that claim in their in-store advertising and shop displays. 

Purchase Ways of Seeing at BooksActually.