“Work hard and be nice to people.” – Adib Jalal
It’s a little hard to tell Adib from the students milling about in the foyer of Temasek Polytechnic. Stylish, bespectacled and with a shy, almost sheepish demeanour; the 29 year old could easily pass off as one of the students. Make no mistake, however, the once “rebellious” teenager is now ironically a lecturer, one of the youngest in the school. In fact, this might not be as much irony as it is destiny – through teaching Adib aims to expand the definition of architecture for his students, beyond what he himself was taught in school.
Aside from his teaching duties, Adib, a self-confessed victim of the “itchy backside syndrome”, also runs the online magazine FIVEFOOTWAY. He co-founded the magazine during his university years in NUS Architecture, and continues to operate it today. Focusing on Asian cities, the magazine features everything from cemeteries to interviews with everyday citizens about what their city means to them. It transcends the usual notions of urban development, encompassing other fields such as media, technology, cultural studies and graphic design. In recent years, FIVEFOOTWAY has expanded into a research studio, helping organizations understand various cities and the built environment better.
Adib is also the festival director of Archifest 2012, a festival spanning from the 6th to the 31st of October. Despite its namesake, Archifest is more than just about solid architecture. Rather, it is a “festival of ideas about the city”, celebrating Singapore’s urban environment as a whole. The theme of this year’s festival is “Rethink Singapore”, and much like the ethos of FIVEFOOTWAY, Archifest 2012 aims to incite deeper dialogue about our living spaces; thus widening the scope beyond buildings and designs.
It is easy to forget that a lot of the things we view as complex are really quite the opposite. If architecture is the building of places for people to live in, then more than anything it should be about the people and the public, rather than be seen as esoteric knowledge. Through his work, Adib returns architecture to the masses and reminds us to reclaim our living environment as truly our own.
I guess since young I’ve always enjoyed making things and creating things for myself. So when it came to the point when I had to choose a university course and figure out what I wanted to do, all I had in mind was that I wanted to make things for a living. At that time, graphic design wasn’t really a “valid” degree course and neither was industrial design while architecture seemed to be the course that allowed me to make stuff. So that’s why I chose it although I had no real clue what architecture was about. I just knew it was about buildings.
So has it disappointed you, or made you pleasantly surprised so far?
I had a very good year one tutor who opened up the definition of architecture for me. He was very encouraging, and showed me the possibilities of architecture – how architecture could be about the senses and the city, etc. It was good. But I think I’m still discovering what architecture means to me, through education and work.
It’s definitely changed the way I see things. I wouldn’t say it has disappointed me although when you’re working you do get a little disillusioned, what with all the drawings that need to be done, going to construction sites and arguing with contractors.
I guess I’ve never been a pure “architect” sort of person, so that helped my own definition of architecture.
What do you mean by not a pure “architect” sort of person?
I don’t consider myself a strict “architect” because I don’t just design buildings. I’m interested in typography, in web design, in media. I learnt how to code by myself and how to do graphic design. I think all these come together to create an understanding of the built environment and so my definition of architecture is not just about materials, construction details or the shape of the building. It’s a lot more than that. It includes things like signages, how people make a building their own and community involvement.
So you’re more interested in living spaces rather than just the building itself.
Yes, living spaces and the human aspect. But I didn’t realise that until later on. When I entered NUS, I didn’t know what architecture was about. I just jumped into it and tried to design something…I pretty much stumbled through the whole 4 years. It’s really been a journey of discovery. That’s why I’ve never viewed myself as an “architect” but rather, simply a designer?
Lecturer, festival director of Archifest, co-founder of FIVEFOOTWAY…you have a lot on your plate. Are there any other projects you’re doing?
Those 3 responsibilities pretty much fill up most of my time. There are other small projects under FIVEFOOTWAY too, so it’s really quite a juggling act of sorts. One of the things we’re doing now is a collaboration with Lit Up!, a literary festival. For that we’re making an architectural model and writing stories as part of an art installation. We’re also doing other collaborations such as one with Lomography Singapore which we will be releasing soon.
There are also some other side projects that I’m involved with, like this project called #BetterSG. It’s about trying to get people more involved in their environment, to create a better Singapore and about civic involvement in design and activities, urban farming, helping your neighbours, etc.
Actually, this whole project is related to another project called #BetterKL (Kuala Lumpur) . I had a similar idea simmering in my head for the past few months, and so when I heard of #BetterKL, I got into contact with the person who started it immediately. I had a conversation with Sze Ying who was leading the project, and we felt we could do another version of it in Singapore. We have a vision that this will spread to all parts of Asia – to Jakarta, to the Philippines and various Asian cities. Hopefully we can get the whole community involved in creating their own country and being proud of it.
When do you foresee the movement will begin?
We’re in the process of figuring out the mechanisms and technicalities. Because it’s going to be a regional movement, we need to be quite clear about how we’re going to push it forward, how we’re going to execute it, what it stands for etc. Some details are available right now at the FIVEFOOTWAY website and we’ll continue to update the site as we go along.
What is FIVEFOOTWAY about?
It started when I was still in school. In architecture school, we were always encouraged to look at magazines to find out more information. and there wasn’t really a magazine that was dedicated to Asian architecture. The ones that did feature Asian architecture were all mostly stylistic, and were more about the way foreign communities looked at Asia. Even the local magazines at that time were more about interior décor – they were good, but it wasn’t from the angle that I was interested in. I wanted to know about the issues in Asian cities, and there was nowhere I could look. So when I couldn’t find it, I created it myself. I started it with my friend Jia-Jun or JJ for short who’s now in the US. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We wrote one or two articles, we coded a website and it started as a blog with just the 2 of us writing and interviewing people, messing around. That was in 2007, when design blogs were not really big. Along the way I think people got interested in what we did, and approached us saying that they wanted to write for us. We continued even after we left and word started to spread. We got more contributors, became more ambitious and wrote more stuff and soon, we had a magazine. Then it died. (laughs)
JJ when to Yale to study, and I had a full-time job at FARM. Things got busy so we stopped updating frequently, and we didn’t give direction to the contributors. It kind of slowed down and died a natural death. It was only early last year – after I quit my job – that I decided to revive FIVEFOOTWAY. And so it came back as a magazine and a research studio. Through this studio we hope to do curatorial work and research projects about Asian cities. Archifest is our first major commission and hopefully we’ll be able to do this more frequently with other companies. For example, if IBM is doing a lot of city-driven work, we could be consultants to them as we have the network and the knowledge. But let’s see how this goes.
What do you think we lack in our local architecture scene?
Courage. I think we don’t dare to make new things or go to unknown places. Of course, there’s the Esplanade, and the church at Buona Vista that looks like a Star Wars spaceship. There are bits and pieces that are pretty courageous, but there isn’t enough of it. There isn’t enough courage to design and build new things and take new approaches. For example, maybe we should just open urban planning up, and engage the citizens in the design process in a lot more radical fashion. Or maybe we should write more and discuss the city more critically.
It’s not that we don’t have ideas. If you go to schools you realise that there are a lot of new ideas at the thesis level; but it just stops there. When people join the industry, they forget everything else. They become too caught up in the day to day tasks, the pragmatism and also the “real-world” limitations. So, yes, I think courage is missing here in Singapore.
Do you think this courage and creativity is due to the limitations of our environment?
On one hand, I believe that real creatives would turn whatever limitations they have around, and that has been the case for a lot of things. Historically, the best works are usually done during times of oppression, and after all, rules can always be turned around.
Take the School of The Arts (SOTA) building for example. That is a great piece of architecture with the same set of rules that everyone has to abide by. The Esplanade is a bit odd, but it’s still memorable. So it’s not impossible. Again, it goes back to courage. How much do you want to push yourselves? If you keep pushing, things will change.
But at the same time I do feel that some of these rules limit us, because it affects how we behave. For example, in Singapore, people always say “until I tell you can, it means cannot”. The default state is no, until I give you permission to do it. This is as opposed to the default state being yes, until I tell you that you can’t. It changes the way you approach things. When the default state is no, you limit yourself when it comes to the things you want to do. I think that’s the biggest effect that this has on us Singaporeans. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that if Singapore just relaxes the enforcement of certain rules, we can actually achieve a lot more.
Tell us more about Archifest 2012.
It’s happening in October, and it’s organized by the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA). This is the 6th year it’s been held and while the past five years’ Archifests have been very industry-centric, we’re trying to rethink what Archifest could be and expand the definition of Architecture.
We’re rebranding it as a celebration of ideas about the city and so it’s no longer about individual buildings. It’s about transport, about urban economics, about parks and urban data. It’s about looking at the city from many different angles. That’s the first thing that’s different about Archifest 2012.
The second change that we hope to effect is to reach a larger audience in Singapore by having more entry points to the idea of architecture. If you talk about architecture and urban design to the general public, they get very scared. They think it’s some complicated “engineer thing”. But it’s not really. Architecture is about their quality of life, their living spaces. Hence the programmes that we’re crafting are all aimed to reach a larger audience.
The theme for this year is “Rethink Singapore” and we think this is a great way to start this new Archifest and here’s why. Singapore is always seen as the model city, the prototype for the rest of the world. If we can rethink Singapore then we can probably rethink the rest of the region. Singapore is the starting point.
This year we are going to have a pavilion at the old River Valley Swimming Pool opposite Liang Court. There’s a big plot of land there where the swimming pool used to be and the pavilion will be designed by one of our local designers and it’s really exciting. It’s the first time we’re building a pavilion like this. The brief given to them was to design a public space for people to enjoy the city – a real public space, where people can just hang around for free and not get chased away by the police. We hope we can pull it off. (laughs)
The industry-centric forum is still there, but we’re getting a range of speakers so it’s not just architects and designers, but thinkers as well. There’s a professor who will be talking about using data to design the city. The lead of the #BetterKL project will also be one of the speakers.
There’s also this other thing we’re doing called the School of Urban Ideas. It’s a gathering of Archifest’s various partners to conduct workshops and seminars. For example, Orita Sinclair is doing a course on urban typography and NUS is doing an introduction to Singapore urban history. Members of the public can just sign up for any class and learn a little about the city and architecture. We hope that that will be an outreach outlet for us, for people to understand architecture better. And beyond all of this, there will also be curated tours of the city called Architours, various exhibitions and other things to make this a festival.
This year’s Archifest is a big thing for both SIA and FIVEFOOTWAY as we’re really rethinking the whole format and the programmes. Exciting stuff.
What is your favourite place in Singapore?
My home-office at Changi Village. Near a stretch of kopitiams, behind some HDB blocks is a row of black and white houses which used to be the British Army’s workers’ quarters, so they are very small. It’s also very quiet there and you can hear the birds chirping, the occasional airplanes flying past; it’s like being in a chalet. Favourite place on earth.
You’re still very young, so how do you see yourself expanding and developing in the future? Where do you want to be in a few years’ time?
I’ve had various phases in my life. When I first graduated, I knew a lot about architecture but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Then I worked for 4 years and that was when I really “practised” architecture in terms of building, doing drawings and all that. I realised that that was not what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
Now I’m at a stage where I’m more interested in curating programmes and Archifest is the perfect project for me. I get to create educational programmes, I get to uncover new knowledge and create new understanding. I think this will carry on for the next few years.
Another one of my current interests is civic engagement. I have been working on that for the past few years with FIVEFOOTWAY, through collaborations and most recently with projects like #betterSG. I think these 2 strands will pick up over the next few years, not just locally but also regionally.