Housing Politics: Examining the Built Legacies of Toa Payoh
BY JOSHUA TAN
The state project to shape public and private space began with Toa Payoh, the first housing town completely designed by the newly self-governing nation. In 1959, the recently elected People’s Action Party (PAP), predicting imminent housing shortages, established the Housing Development Board (HDB). HDB built 54,430 housing units from 1960 to 1965, ameliorating the housing crisis and demonstrating the state’s competence. While understandably lauded for its success, the project was far from gentle, requiring a violent imposition of abstract representations, like architectural plans, on space.
The state prepared Toa Payoh for the development of public housing using discourse, cartography, architecture, and public policies. What ensued was housing that prescribed a common identity, encoded public and private space to enact surveillance practices, and promoted specific lifestyles. This domesticated and standardized the citizenry by transforming the originally specific and highly dynamic context into generic frameworks with architecture. This paper traces Toa Payoh’s pilot development and the design of its facades, public areas, and domestic spaces, demonstrating and critiquing the role of architecture in framing Singaporean housing and lives.
Preparing Toa Payoh
As plans for the new housing town were announced, the state faced immediate resistance from the settlers of Toa Payoh. When people refused to give up their farmlands, livelihoods, and homes, the state began to characterize Toa Payoh as an uninhabitable land. National media, employing words like “swamp”, “slums” and “gangster land”, characterized the land’s undesirability through public discourse.  Residents were termed “squatters” and “illegal”, allowing their claims to be dismissed.
Figure 1: 1961 Toa Payoh Street Map (Image stitched together by author from One Map Singapore)
Cartographic representation further influenced public opinion. For example, the Street Map of 1961 (Figure 1), one of the more comprehensive and publicly accessible maps of Singapore, omitted buildings that were neither of public nature nor of significant value. The numerous farms and villages within Toa Payoh were represented as a featureless swath of land. The state’s efforts were aided by existing frameworks like the Master Plan of 1958, which designated most of Toa Payoh as a Residential Development Area, “justifying” the dismissal of informal settlements in the area.
These strategies culminated in the Land Acquisition Act, passed in 1966. It gave the state the legal framework and authority to “acquire any land deemed necessary to the interest of national development” with “the rate of compensation … determined by the state”.  Common and private land was quickly appropriated, regardless of their social meanings and previous uses. 44% of Singapore’s land was under state ownership in 1960. By 1999, it rose to 85%. The complex sociality of the Kampungs and villages was henceforth gradually eradicated, replaced by the public housing flats built by HDB.
Figure 2: Facade of a Toa Payoh HDB block (Image from Unsplash, Christian Chen, 2020)
Painting First Impressions
The architecture of Toa Payoh’s first flats were white, repetitive, and brutalist. Concrete was the material of choice, a decision justified by referencing economic constraints. It allowed for efficient assembly and was favorable for long-term contracts that supplied materials at stable, reduced prices. Concrete continued to be employed and experimented with even as Singapore grew more affluent. This was probably motivated by its production of a clean aesthetic and a common image.
First, the clean, white facades of Toa Payoh’s first flats, designed in the spirit of the modernist aesthetic, projected an “image of a progressive, civilized city.” This aesthetic was important for attracting foreign investment and illustrating hygiene and cleanliness. When juxtaposed against unsanitary past living conditions, the white facades were proof that the state had fulfilled its promise to provide a better quality of life.
Second, the facades produced a common national identity by homogenizing the disparate identities of Singaporeans through architectural expression. Prior to independence, Singapore consisted of a patchwork of collective identities emerging from communal living in villages. Distributing the population into white, sterile, and standardized concrete blocks concealed racial, political, and socioeconomic differences. This first occurred in Toa Payoh’s HDB flats,  setting the precedent for the institutionalization of regulations, which specified the minimum resident racial makeup of each HDB. While the policy was crafted to avoid racial and ethnic riots, such legislation simultaneously resulted in the dispersion of minorities within the country, eroding previous collective identities in favor of a unified national identity.
Socio-economic differences between residents were also masked to the detriment of less privileged groups in Toa Payoh. Hidden behind the genericity of HDB exteriors, low-income 1-room unit renters appeared the same as more affluent 3-room homeowners, rendering these groups less visible and strengthening the state’s narrative of common economic growth and national prosperity. By continuing this mode of construction, the facade became the perfect political representation: one that illuminated the success of the state and masked any failures of inequities.
Figure 3: Floor Plans of Toa Payoh Flats
(From top to bottom: 1-Room Emergency Housing, 1-Room Improved, 2-Room and 3-Room Flats. Plans redrawn by author, originally from Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore)
Controlling Public Space
Generic common spaces accompanied the generic facades. The first Toa Payoh housing blocks mainly consisted of the linear block and the L-shaped block; both primarily employed single-loaded corridors. Aside from the communal first floor, which was allocated for food stalls and other amenities, every floor was identical. Designers of the flats argued that the single-loaded corridor was chosen for ventilation and its similarity to a street. Yet, the corridor width was only a mere 1.5-meters, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, but not for play or extended meetings. These single-loaded corridors thus became mere passages for access, a far cry from the Kampung’s verandas, where one could receive guests outside. Their narrow linear arrangement, coupled with police encouragement to keep doors closed, discouraged congregation and casual interaction. Residents were forced to search for new spaces further from home for social engagement.
The “void deck” was one of these spaces. While not implemented in the initial rollout of flats, the void decks would become prevalent after 1969, replacing the shops and amenities on the first floor.  They were also used for temporary events like social functions, rituals, celebrations, and funerals. The void deck was set up as a new type of public space, separate from the domestic rituals of private spaces. It also lacked the specificity of previous communal spaces, unlike the stilted spaces under Malay houses used for gathering and routine household chores. Space ceased to have the same intimate and collective meaning that arose from the informality of Kampung living.
Within the void decks’ multiplicity of uses, any planned activity would require state approval. This control and the openness of the void decks make it prime for state surveillance. Any idle, illegal, or undesirable activities could be quickly detected and effectively managed, something previously difficult in the complex layout of the Kampung. With public space and void decks as effectively surveilled and managed, what happened to private spaces?
Figure 4: Unit Plans of Toa Payoh Flats
(From left to right: 1-Room Emergency Housing, 1-Room Improved, 2-Room, and 3-Room Flats. Plans redrawn by author, originally from Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore)
Framing Private Space
The first HDB flats of Toa Payoh contained three unit types: 1-Room, 2-Room and 3-Room. The design of these unit types effectively shaped the boundaries of nuclear families by imposing an upper limit on the number of people who could live in a unit, as a shift from the “large multifamilies in the village”. Furthermore, only families were eligible to buy 3-Room units. This reinforced the state’s position that the right to a permanent home was only valid with the formation of a nuclear family. These family units created a formalized and accountable social structure, concretized into a permanent address. In The Art of not being Governed, James Scott argues that the division of the population into elementary units assists political order. States find it impossible to exercise sovereignty over a people with “no permanent pattern of organization, no permanent address, whose leadership was ephemeral, whose subsistence patterns are pliable and fugitive.” By simplifying the complex social relations in the Kampung into smaller units of nuclear families in the same way, the state gained political control over the populace.
The design of unit plans in Toa Payoh also provided the state with the opportunity to impose new daily routines. The plan can be read in the context of an architectural frame, a concept described in Bernard Cache’s Earth Moves. Cache argues that “separation” is needed for inhabitants to live together and coexist in space. The frame separates through the provision of rooms but also produces a certain indeterminacy in how the spaces would be used. The programming of this separation is called “selection,” which re-establishes the connection in space and provides the mechanism by which movements and routines would emerge and crystalize into habits. In other words, by designing the unit plans and employing the architectural frame, HDB architects essentially selected the routines of domestic life for its citizens.
They did so by isolating domestic space and organizing the adjacency of rooms, which isolated families, altering inter-household communal behavior. The former was accomplished by enclosing the house with concrete walls, creating a strict public-private boundary. In the Kampung days, doors were left open and collective activities occurred just outside of homes. Rather than isolation, collective surveillance of open space was used in the Kampung. This form of community surveillance reinforced communal relations and encouraged interaction, a practice much like urbanist Jane Jacobs’ well-known phrase “eyes on the street”. In contrast, the HDB concrete walls clearly delineated the inside from the outside, the private from the common. The visual connection between home and corridor was obstructed by solid walls and small openings of windows and doors, eliminating the once ambiguous threshold between the public and private.
The design of the unit plan also selected routines within the interiors of the units. In her analysis of the Henry Roberts Model Houses in England, Maria Shéhérazade Giudici argues Robert’s design of the model aimed to “create hierarchies, orchestrate asymmetries and ultimately enforce very specific behaviors.” The organization of the plan becomes not only a spatial diagram, but a social one. Similarities can be drawn between the 3-room unit plan of Toa Payoh and the Model Houses. The names and corresponding functions of the rooms have persisted. The hierarchical sequence of spaces that increase in privacy remained. Only a single entrance is provided and the proximity of the kitchen to the bedroom and living room was maintained. HDB architects retained this social diagram even with the completely different cultural context. They also added a few adjustments of their own. The kitchen, utility spaces, and bathrooms were pushed to the back of the unit, concealing reproductive labor. The narrow space of the kitchen encouraged households to perform domestic activities individually rather than collectively. The similarity in scale of the living room and the bedrooms encouraged the individualization of space.
If the Singaporean state’s goal was to shape a sedentary and domesticated population, this achievement would not have been possible without Toa Payoh as its initial prototype. Toa Payoh is not simply the image of a dragon playground or an artifact of the past. It is a reminder of how buildings last and how their planning affects the future. The design of facades, public, and private spaces produce important social effects like eliding diversity, reshaping communal spaces, and framing a type of family. Public housing remains a vital part of Singaporean’s lives, shaping daily routines in contemporary society even as designs become more varied and “creative.”
The designers of today’s Smart Nation and new HDBs are creating the built legacies of tomorrow. This paper invites architects, urban planners, and policymakers to carefully consider the beautiful aesthetics, the successful numbers, and the narratives of survival in state rhetoric, as evidenced in this historical analysis. This is not a comprehensive manifesto of what ought to be done, but a provocation for reflexive questions and further engagements between various stakeholders. Practitioners can integrate social analyses and issues of inequality into their design practices, encouraging participation and organic, communal interactions in their decision-making processes. This way, the future of housing in Singapore can be premised upon inclusivity and community.
Joshua Tan is an M.Arch I candidate at the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA). He received a B.Sc in Architecture at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, graduating summa cum laude. This piece has been adapted from a research paper originally submitted for Architecture and Abstraction, a class at the YSoA led by Professor Pier Vittorio Aureli.
 The first housing town in Singapore was actually Queenstown, which began under the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) that was established by the colonial government. Toa Payoh was the first housing town completely designed by the Housing Development Board (HDB), established by the People’s Action Party (PAP).
 Sip Chee, Fong. The PAP story: The pioneering years, November 1954–April 1968: A diary of events of the People’s Action Party: Reminiscences of an old cadre. (Singapore: Times Periodicals, 1980)
 Housing and Development Board. Annual report of the Housing and Development Board. (Singapore: HDB, 1965), 10
 Abstract space is a term largely attributed to Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, and it can be defined as spaces prescribed by abstract representations like architectural plans, grids. and schedules.
 Loh, Kah Seng. From Squatters to Citizens. (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), 40
 The Straits Times, Board’s 51,000th house will be ready next month. (Singapore: The Straits Times, 1965), 1
 Janice Heng, From ‘Gangster land’ to home sweet home, (Singapore: Straits Times, 2015)
 See 1961 Historic Street Map, One Map Singapore
 Informal settlements were represented for the Master Plan of Toa Payoh although farmland was not drawn. See 1958 Master Plan of Singapore, Urban Redevelopment Authority
 Chua, Beng Huat. Not Depoliticized but Ideologically Successfully: The Public Housing Programme in Singapore. (International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2009), 27
 “In determining the payment rate, no account is taken of any potential value for other intensive uses, only the existing use or zoned use is considered, whichever is lower. The prices paid by the HDB for the acquired lands are therefore usually much lower than the market price.” See Yuen, Belinda. Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing. (National University of Singapore, 2005), 11
 Yuen, Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing, 10
 Motha, Philip and Yuen, Belinda. Singapore Real Property Guide. (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999)
 Brutalism was an architectural style that emerged in the early 20th century as part of the modernist movement. Brutalist buildings are usually large and monolithic, employing concrete as its primary material.
 Goh Chin Lian, The Pioneer Club (Singapore: The Straits Times. 2014)
 Yuen, Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing, 9
 Park, Moonseo, Ingawale-Verma, Yashada, Kim, Wooyoung and Ham, Youngjib. Construction Policymaking: With an Example of Singaporean Government’s Policy to Diffuse Prefabrication to Private Sector. (KSCE Journal of Civil Engineering, 2010), 2
 Refer to First decade in public housing, 1960–69. (Singapore: Housing and Development Board, 1970) for images of the first Toa Payoh HDB Flats.
 Yeoh, Brenda S.A. Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations in the Urban Built Environment. (Singapore: Reprint ed. NUS Press Pte Ltd, 2013), 215
 Chua, Beng Huat. Political Legitimacy and Housing. (Singapore: Routledge, 1997), 52
 Chua Beng Huat has made a similar argument, but he focused more on the elimination of visual socio-economic differences rather than the production of a common national identity. See Chua, Beng Huat. Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of being Global edited by. A. Roy and A. Ong. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011)
 See Matthews, Matthew. The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic. (Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore, 2018)
 Ho, Elaine Laynn-Ee, Wong, Chih Yuan and Ramdas, Kamalini. “Chapter 3: From Housing a Nation to Meeting Rising Aspirations: Evolution of Public Housing over the Years”. Changing Landscapes of Singapore: Old Tensions, New Discoveries (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013), 47
 Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 90
 Chih, Hoong Sin. The quest for a balanced ethnic mix: Singapore’s ethnic quota policy examined. (Urban Studies Journal, 2002), 1347–74
 Chih, 1347–74
 In This is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn shows how the facades of low-income HDB flats look the same as normal HDB flats, concealing the high density and poorer living conditions. See Teo, You Yenn. This is What Inequality Looks Like. (Ethos Books New Edition, 2019), 47-55
 Wong, Aline and Yeh, Stephen. Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore. (Singapore: Koon Wah Printing Pte. Ltd., 1985), 247
 See Teo, You Yenn. “Everyday Lives” This is What Inequality Looks Like. (Singapore: Ethos Books New Edition, 2019), 47
 Facades remained homogenous until 1975, long enough to produce an image of what the HDB was. Facing criticism, HDB eventually became more concerned with the “type” and “quality” of housing, but façades generally looked the same till the designer projects of Duxton and Dawson. See Peggy Teo and Shirlena Huang, “A sense of place in public housing: A case study of Pasir Ris”.(Singapore: Habitat International, 1996), 307
 Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 127
 Single-loaded corridors are walkways that run along the exterior of the building. One side of the corridor is open to air, while the other accesses the housing units. Single-loaded corridors were primarily employed for 2 and 3 room units. Refer to the floor plans for illustration.
 Wong and Yeh, Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore, 71
 Wong and Yeh, 76
 Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 117
 Tan, Alvin. The Toa Payoh Heritage Trail. (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2014), 7
 Housing and Development Board. Annual report. (Singapore: Housing and Development Board, 1969)
 Wong and Yeh, Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore, 77
 See Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 76-80
 See Bishan -Toa Payoh Town Council Void Deck Booking Website.
 Chua, Beng Huat. That Imagined Space: Nostalgia for the Kampung in Singapore. (National University of Singapore, Department of Sociology, 1994), 10-13
 The exact ratios were 40% 1 room, 15% 2 room, 45% 3 room. See Housing and Development Board. First decade in public housing, 1960–69. (Singapore: Housing and Development Board, 1970), 26
 Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 58
 Wong and Yeh, Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore, 247
 In special circumstances, units could be sold to orphans, but only with another person of the same gender, further alluding to the temporary nature of such provisions and the implicit expectation that orphans would eventually marry and buy a proper home. Refer to Wong and Yeh, Housing a nation 25 years of public housing in Singapore, 246
 See Scott, James C. The Art of not being Governed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 36-39
 Scott, 38-39
 See Cache, Bernard. Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995), 21-25
 Chua, That Imagined Space, 15
 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (New York: Random House Press, 1961)
 Chua, 17
 Giudici, Maria Shéhérazade. Counter-planning from the kitchen: for a feminist critique of type. (The Journal of Architecture, 2018), 1205
 Reproductive labor, as defined by Maria Shéhérazade Giudici, is the labor that is “needed to make life possible”. It would include activities like washing and cooking.
 Further analysis is needed to investigate the relationship between HDB unit plans and gender. The writings of Teo You Yenn, Mary McLeod, Maria Shéhérazade Giudici and Dolores Hayden may be relevant here.
 At the turn of the millennium, 86% of residents lived in HDB flats, and 85% of Singaporean land was under state ownership. See Phang, Sock Yong and Kyunghwan, Kim. Singapore’s Housing Policies: 1960-2013. (Singapore Management University: Research Collection School of Economics, 2013)
 Designs like Sky Terrace @Dawson, for example, which accommodate intergenerational families, are a pale shadow of the collective spaces of the past.
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