Designing a Home: How Tembusu’s Walls Shape the Bonds We Forge with Each Other

How Tembusu’s architecture shapes us, and how we in turn shape it

Does a conscript truly thinks of his bunk as his field of care? The military does, much to everyone’s chagrin. But as much as military doctrine builders insist on it, the artificially and superficially imposed duty of keeping it tidy detracts from the sense of common obligation and ownership one has of the place.

Messiness, in contrast, is a distinctively unique phenomenon for each individual. On the left side of my desk, for example, is a 20-cm high collection of books I’ve bought but haven’t read; on the right is a jumbled mess of paraphrenia, from fighter planes to interesting maps I collected while on vacation. My desk will be different from every other person in the world due to the assortment of things I used last being unique to me. Arranging the desk into its societally idealised arrangement will make it no different from a desk in a hotel; removing the agency of people to make their own meaning through the arrangement of any space paradoxically causes a deep sense of inauthenticity and detachment within its users.

It’s messy, but it is a place I can truly call my own. It is a place, as Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan quite aptly puts it, where I experience Topophilia. My desk – both the desk at home and at Tembusu – evokes in me a unique sense of space which I can call my own. I have the ability to reshape it however I want, imbuing the desk with a field of care which functionally reinforces the unique affinity I share with my desk.

Contrast that with a military bunk; although it has by definition an overlapping sense of space because of the occupants of that space, it suffers from what Tuan has described as “placelessness” – the space bear no imprint of the users’ identities, leading to a lack of authenticity and the lifeless showroom-feel that undermines affinity between the users and the space itself. Most soldiers would treat an Ikea model bedroom better than how they treat their bunk.

“Placelessness”, a word created by Tuan, is used to describe the inauthentic and indistinguishable urban, rural, and especially suburban landscape noise which plague cities around the world. More on that later.


How Tembusu’s form was designed to reflect its function

The building and landscape surrounding Tembusu College have been intentionally shaped to create an overlapping field of care between members of our community. Suites, as with the common lounge on each floor, provide an intimate common space for its occupants to use. Each are intentionally created to facilitate place-specific interactions and activities; one wall of the common lounge is composed of a single giant piece of glass. That piece of glass, while innocuous and unobtrusive, subliminally extends the room out into the corridor. While anyone who uses the lifts, or walks down the corridor, is by definition not inside the room, our eyes perceive a different story – the transparent glass gives the illusion of the room as part of the corridor. The corridor, too, is the most used space on each floor – and we are reminded of the room and the people in it every time we enter and leave our rooms. This is not a universal feature – most NUS halls do not have lounges which you must pass by to exit the building, much less the quite expensive piece of glass that allows people on both sides to see themselves as part of the same space.

Each floor’s student lounge betrays a unique and distinct sense of history. Some have a TV, some are shoes-off and filled with pillows, while others are built to maximise the table surface area for studying. The objects and decorations which furnish each room tell a story of the past users of the space. The level 16 lounge, for example, has Pokémon-themed posters. The level 9 lounge has a deep selection of books. My lounge, on level 11, has a stack of unused pillows on the ledge beside the window.

There is always some weird object unique to each lounge, left there by an anonymous someone years ago. The space reflects the people living in it, and provides a temporal continuity from one batch to the batch two years later. In doing so, they project a sense of community that includes people whom the current users have never met.

While messy, the lounge is a place where the fields of care of each individual resident overlap with the fields of care of his or her neighbours. By being the first and last thing you see each day before you reach your room, the room embeds itself in our brains as a monument, a public symbol which invokes a common sense of belonging in an exclusive group of individuals. By seeing the room and the people in it every day, we collectively feel an obligation to care for the place. That obligation creates the sense of place Yi-Fu Tuan talks about; it creates a unique identity which members of the community nurture and reinforce.

Tembusu College, I think we can all agree, is not “placeless” – it is unique enough not to be substituted for any other residential college or hall in NUS. But this territoriality does not only extend to our front doors; UTown is designed in such a way that each residential college can project its territoriality into the area immediately surrounding it. Our seminar rooms, for example, are not placed immediately beside our front door. There is an intermediate space, which I would refer to as our front yard. Like with our floor lounges, the Master’s Common Lounge on the first floor has glass windows allowing the outside to come in, and inside to project out.

The bridge linking us to the Stephen Riady Centre is entirely unnecessary, in addition to bridges being quite expensive to build. You could easily walk around the bridge with extremely little effort – it is functionally quite redundant, especially when we consider that the gap it spans was artificially dug up.

But the bridge serves a subliminal purpose in creating a unique sense of space; it is not only a distinct landmark within NUS, but serves as a line-of-sight blocker, creating a distinct front yard for Tembusu College.

What you can – and cannot see – from the bridge is specially crafted to create, yet again, a common space associated with leaving and coming back to Tembusu. The bridge creates a common line of sight for people going to both the Stephen Riady Centre and the UTown bus stop.

On the route to the bus stop, Tembusu’s Learn Lobe and UTown Residences breaks the flow of space between the Town Green and Tembusu’s front yard, limiting the line of sight into, and out of, our front yard. Cars passing by are blocked from this space by our Multi-Purpose Hall, and by the flight of stairs that leads into the front lawn of Tembusu Colleges. On every side, the front yard acts as a funnel, breaking the line of sight of commuters inside the front yard and outside it. We cannot see the tables at the Education Resource Centre, and the students inhabiting that space similarly are not able to see us. This, in turn, creates a certain familiarity with the space, a space that only Tembusians are really familiar with. That space is intimately linked to Tembusu and its community; that space, along with our building, are physical embodiments of the imagined community that is Tembusu College.

Part of that space is a one-storey high mole hill, covered with grass, which seems to be randomly placed. But looks can be deceiving. That hill, like all of UTown, is not a natural formation – its sole purpose is to break the line of sight between the front yard and the Education Resource Centre. Again, and as guys who have dug a trench before can sympathise, it is not cheap to create. But it does its job of blocking the line of sight from the Education Resource Centre, making it seem like whatever is behind the hill is on a completely different elevation.

It also contributes to the greenery of our front yard, a fact reinforced by the small patches of grass which litter the concrete floor. As you can probably tell by the fact that the grass is almost always dead, it is extremely inefficient and expensive. But it serves its purpose; you are blasted with greenery every which way as you exit Tembusu College. All this, like the common lounges, are placed strategically to create a Pavlovian connection between the space and its users – almost exclusively the residents of Tembusu and Cinnamon.

Our chronically underused Amphitheatre, too, gives commuters a clue of what is going on inside the walls of Tembusu. Amphitheatres are, in shape and function, open air lecture theatres. It is a motif found not only in our front yard in NUS – they dot the landscape around the Kent Ridge campus of NUS. The right-angled quadrant of the L-shaped FASS building AS7, for example, is filled with an amphitheatre which looks into, via unbroken glass panes, into the main lobby of AS7. The Central Library and the southern flank of AS8 are amphitheatres. Cinnamon College, Prince George’s Park Residences, and Yusof Ishak House have one. Have their ubiquity devalued our collective connection to ours? Not really – I personally just think ours is drastically underused due to Singapore’s oppressive outdoors climate.

But social engineering via architecture can only do so much. Human agency does what it wants, often regardless of the truth, utility, or architectural layout.


Form may be designed for function, but ultimately it is the users of the space which give the space its meaning

Ultimately, returning to Tuan, the spaces we built only have meaning if we collectively give it meaning, often via the interactions and experiences we had with the space as individuals and as a community. To illustrate this, here’s a tangent:

Two years ago when I was attending the Army Half-Marathon as a National Serviceman, I had the chance to walk around the spaces adjacent to the Padang. It was crowded to a tee, with practically every NSF and Regular waiting for the horn to blow so they could enjoy the rest of the day off.

While it is the sacred centre of political power, Singapore’s civic district, like many of its overseas counterparts, is not very well known by the locals. On one flank is the then-unopened National Gallery. Directly opposite the National Gallery, across the Padang, lies a monument instantly recognisable to anyone who has read about British imperial history. It is a cenotaph; a monument of an extremely distinct shape created at the end of the first World War to commemorate the horrors of the war. It was the first war in which Britain instituted conscription; half a million men died in the Battle of the Somme alone. It was not only the first industrialised war Britain took part in, but it was the first war in which people from all classes experienced the full horrors of modern war.

The memorials for the broad swath of men who died in service to their countries were supremely democratic, even in societies with deeply ingrained class distinctions. The cenotaph was first built in Whitehall, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament and a stone’s throw away from 10 Downing Street. It is elegantly simple; like the one in Singapore modelled after it, it is a mostly undecorated stone pillar with an empty tomb at the top, and an epitaph spelling out “THE GLORIOUS DEAD”.

On that pre-dawn morning two years ago, I discovered it for the first time. On its steps were a hundred NSFs squeezing to get sitting space, some lying down in the small space between the ledge and the next step. All of them were on their phones, with their backs facing the empty coffin, which glorified people who fought and died for the polity which once ruled Singapore. Below their rears, and between their legs, I could roughly read the dates: 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945.

It hit me there and then, that this was a place where people who fought and died on Singaporean soil, including Singaporeans in the Malay, Chinese, and Indian regiments of the British Army. Well, at least it was designed to be.

I am not criticising the people who sat on the steps of the cenotaph. I would have too if that was the holding place assigned to my battalion. From what I gather, the space similarly is used whenever there is a marathon taking place at the Padang.

Not too far away from the cenotaph is the Civilian War Memorial. That is the sacred space where we hold our ceremonies commemorating the fall of Singapore, which was subsequently repurposed by the state as “Total Defence Day”. It was built with Japanese money, and underneath it are the remains of the intentionally uncounted remains of between 5,000 (Japanese claim) to 100,000 (Lee Kuan Yew’s claim) people killed in the Sook Ching massacre, a racially driven programme which literally means “purge through cleansing” in Chinese and Japanese.

Above the bones are four pillars, symbolising the common suffering of all four races. However, it does not commemorate the Singaporean-based, 43,000-strong Indian National Army (INA), which fought for the Japanese in the name of Indian independence. The INA’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was destroyed by Lord Mountbatten days after the Japanese surrender. The Civilian War Memorial, too, does not commemorate the predominantly Chinese anti-Japanese guerrillas which carried on the fight after the fall of Singapore – they morphed into the Malayan Communist Party which declared war on our state in the name of revolution.

Although the naturalists may disagree, I would argue that spaces only gain meaning via the interactions humans have with the space. Returning to Yi-Fu Tuan, these public symbols – monuments – only gain meaning through a collective sense of care towards the place. A monument can be built to project sacredness and solemnity, but it only gains a sense of space when the people using the space collectively agree to imbue it with a common meaning and purpose.

In other words, we need to collectively project unto our common places what we want the place to be, and actively reinforce that via associated rituals and activities. That place must be given meaning through socialisation; people using it must construct the systems of shared meaning and purpose which gives a place its identity.


La Vie Tembusu!

I love the college, and how kind and generous everyone in Tembusu is.  The inner kid in me laughs at how creative we are, and how we name almost every college institution, from Interest Groups to House events, after a pun (and good ones at that). I love how cavalier we are at how the tagline of our stay-in college is a double entendre. I love how creative we are with graffiti on other people’s doors during and after tAngel.

But for all of that, when someone asks me about what Tembusu is, it always goes like this:

“It is a stay-in residential college.”

“So it’s a hall?”

“No, we have college events and we have to take modules hosted by professors who live with us.”

“Oh, so it’s a dorm with classes?”

“Sort of.”

And when asked how we are different from other residential colleges, I struggle to come up with an answer outside our academic focus, which also confuses people. When people hear “thinking about everyday stuff in greater detail”, they ask me if all the people are from FASS.

The past semester, I had to explain, in a term paper, how Pokémon GO creates a unique sense of space for players vis-à-vis a specific neighbourhood. My groupmates tried to write about Fort Canning, but found it extremely hard to explain a place with an extreme case of retail “placelessness”. We chose Changi Village instead.

Tembusu College, I know for a fact, is not placeless. It has a unique culture and identity, which are in themselves markers of a highly-developed sense of place. But what exactly makes Tembusu unique?

Going back to the parable of the two war memorials, if we want to strengthen the unique sense of place of our college community, we need to first know what exactly what we stand for, before we can even start optimising our sense of community. Culture and social phenomena are a distinctively elusive thing to analyse, but we must nevertheless analyse it for no other reason than that Tembusu is only “home” if we collectively want it to be. Besides, “over-problematising things” might as well be Tembusu’s academic mission statement

Like the academic mission of our college, this one issue can be approached from all disciplines, and is best done in conversation with each other. Home is ultimately a feeling we associate with a certain type of space. Home is, in every sense of the word, a manifestation of a commonly held sense of space, and we can only articulate what it is, if we know what it stands for. There might be infinitely many layers and complexities to the identity and culture of Tembusu and its places (as Jesslene points out here), but there must be overlapping components. These shared components, ultimately, are what give Tembusu College a sense of place – a sense of home distinct from every other similarly designed residential college.

So, let’s problematise the issue and start asking each other this question: what does Tembusu mean to you?


Picture courtesy of Tay Ying Hui

About the Author

While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of wikipedia and reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He is majoring in Geography, and has previously written for The Middle Ground.