Singapore’s slums were regarded as some of the worst in the world throughout the first half of the 20th century. After the passing of the Housing and Development Act in 1960, more than 50,000 units in big, low-cost buildings became available to city dwellers.
Now, roughly 80% of the city’s population — nearly six million people — lives in these buildings, which are known as HDBs, from the name of the Housing and Development Board.
The public housing units have been a big help in restoring balance to Singapore’s housing stock.
But they’re also very visually arresting, built in bold colours and with playful designs.
When photographer Peter Steinhauer first moved to Singapore in 2000, it was impossible to avoid the sight of the public housing buildings.
“They just looked so bizarrely odd but beautiful,” Steinhauer told Business Insider. “Singapore is a very clean place. It’s a very nice place to live … I think they just try to do this to make everything look nice.”
Once he moved back to Singapore with his wife at the end of 2011, he began photographing them seriously. He’s shared some of his best shots of the buildings here.
Steinhauer is originally from America and grew up in Colorado. He finished art school in 1993 and went over to Vietnam for a trip he planned to be no longer than a few months. He would end up living in Asia for more than 20 years.
He originally travelled to Vietnam because his father had worked there as a doctor during the war and told Steinhauer many stories about what it was like. He would also take photos around the village he was stationed. Steinhauer's father later started a health organisation that donates medical equipment to hospitals in Southeast Asia.
Steinhauer has lived in Vietnam, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But even after two decades of travelling Asia extensively, he has never seen buildings like the HDBs in Singapore.
The HDBs are very close together and compact. Giant numbers have been painted on many of them. This makes it easier for people to find their desired location within the massive complexes, which are made up of 20-story towers.
The fonts are varied in type treatment, including everything from a more funky Art Deco to a more plain Helvetica. Some fonts look like something a small child drew with his or her hand.
Of course, the colours are a big part (if not the biggest) of the bold look. Public housing units are usually set in more muted tones and don't look all that exciting, which makes Singapore's complexes stand out even more. The newer buildings tend to be even brighter than the older ones.
Inside, the units are pretty uniform. They are very blockish -- just square and rectangle living rooms and kitchens. They have eight-foot ceilings and are fairly small overall. They're mostly three to four bedrooms, but some have five.
Since most of the population lives in the HDBs, it's more unusual to encounter someone who doesn't live in one. Steinhauer was not actually living in a government-subsidized apartment because you have to be either a permanent resident or the spouse of a Singaporean to buy one. The vast majority of those who live in public housing own their unit.
Singapore has very strict immigration laws. Unless you have the right visa or a Singapore ID, you can't turn the electricity on in your apartment or get a mobile phone number.
Steinhauer didn't have many problems photographing the buildings, though. Anyone can go into the buildings and walk up the stairs, as the property outside of and in front of the units are all considered public space. He would usually just get in his car and drive, stopping to photograph HDBs that stood out to him. Steinhauer said he would sometimes spend hours searching for the right angle for his shot.
Steinhauer ran into a lot of residents, who he all found were really nice -- as he says Singaporeans generally are. They were curious as to what he was photographing and why.
He says his experience in Singapore was a relief compared to his experience in Hong Kong. Over there, residents and security officers would suspect that he was a foreign property developer posing as a photographer.
Singaporeans do have some reason to be paranoid, though. HDBs are being torn down in certain sections towards the center of town, where the business district is booming and becoming more expensive.
Since Steinhauer was just a guest standing in front of their homes, he didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable by getting into all of these issues too much. He says he generally didn't have any social or political agenda with taking photos of the buildings anyway -- he was just fascinated with how they looked visually.
For now, he is back in the US, raising his three kids with his wife in San Francisco. Steinhauer is going to continue to shoot the buildings over a few more trips back to Singapore before he considers the series done. 'I miss Asia tremendously,' Steinhauer said. 'So that's why I jump on aeroplanes now and go back over.'
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