Gary Kwek
Return of the Amphibious 屿

Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Johannes Widodo

Site: Southern Islands, Singapore

屿 (yu) is a borrowed Chinese geographical term (also seen in Zheng He’s Mao Kun map), that refers to a specific typology of island, which has no counterpart in the English language. It not only speaks of terrain that disappears at high tide and temporarily emerges at low tide, but also the cultural activities and spiritual fascination Man has projected onto this phenomenon of impermanence. The Malay Archipelago contains many of such small fragments and islets whose ‘amphibious’ quality as an island has been lost through reclamation and gentrification which accompanied the arrival of western ‘modernity’.

The thesis is sited at the southern islands of Singapore, which lost a large part of its vernacular culture after the 1970s reclamation and relocation of islanders and serves as the motivation behind the exploration of ‘屿’.

The architecture thesis speculates a conservation of the amphibious through restoration. The focus are as follows:
1. Restoring the amphibious quality of reclaimed land through rising sea level

2. Restoring the gentrified past islanders to return to the newly built neo-vernacular village

3. Restoring the vernacular context of the Kusu pilgrimage

The architectural intervention is the building of a neo-vernacular village where people can continue to define what is ‘vernacular’ and reconnect with our amphibious heritage, a critical identity of our forefathers. Through craft and constructing the village, they will be able to understand the spirituality that was projected from the terrain.

Methodology and Islands Concept Plans

The research phase first seeks to understand ‘what is the vernacular ‘屿‘?’ through an investigation of past and current cultural and historical accounts of the remaining site: Kusu Island; and mappings of the physical past and current site of the 3 presently defined Southern Island Parcels.

From here, a series of conceptual plans on the islands are first developed, to guide and lay the groundwork for the macro vision of the possible trajectory that these islands can take, before developing the key-intervention of a neo- vernacular village on the selected site: Lazarus Island.


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Settlement Plan & Derivation of Neo-Vernacular Village Morphology

The settlement plan lays out the skeletal idea of how the neo-vernacular village can be constructed. In the crafting of a neo-vernacular, the restoration of the site does not lie in the exact footprint or appearance of it, but more in the principles that give rise to the village in the first place.

These principles are derived from the site study of Kusu and the Southern Islands, with some adjustments to account for contemporary issues such as controlled development, rising sea level, etc.

The Tripartite Cosmology and Divison in Terrain and Boat-and-stilt Housings

Concept Diagram, derived from the Austronesian cosmology of vernacular housing, showing the tripartite model used in the neo-vernacular village to separate different experiences throughout the landscape. It allows villagers and tourists to experience different interactions between culture and terrain.

Boat, Pilgrimgae and Festivals: Navigating and Celebrating the 屿

The architectural intervention is a Kolek Interchange serving as a local connection between the different islands, which also serves as the starting point for the annual Kolek Racing Festival that the project plans to be held.

Traditional boat craft is important for the appreciation and celebration of the amphibious terrain. It is from the boat, that the deity of Kusu Island used to occupy before setting root on the island. Waves of Chinese immigrations during the early colonial days had sought solace from the offshore pilgrimage, and from the traditional boat which mimics their immigrant past; this popularized the pilgrimage.

The interchange allows for a shortened journey of the obsolete traditional pilgrimage through boat crafting, which was removed due to the parcelling of Singapore’s waters for port activities. Through this, it seeks to allow pilgrims to understand and interpret the origins of their pilgrimage.

During the Kolek Festival, the coming together of different communities around the Malay Archipelago temporarily dissolves the borders that separate different countries, celebrating a unique shared maritime vernacular that is present amongst the island archipelagos.

Tree to Craft: The vernacular product of the 屿

Through engaging with the making of craft from the very basic like trees, villagers engage with how the terrain produces cultural products of the village using human creativity. A concrete base is created at such places to mimic the original role of the amphibious terrain but separates the waste from entering the waters and polluting it.

The Craft Workshop

At the craft workshop, they are also able to engage with learning about the different rituals associated with the different crafts and interpret the past processes.

The Marketplace: A continuation of the 屿 vernacular

The market is a central place for villagers to purchase components of their boat-and-stilt housing, but also other products such as food for daily consumption or religious pilgrimage offerings all made from the terrain and by the people.

The idea is to use craft as a form of training, so that the reintroduced villagers can define and build their own interpretation of what is the ‘vernacular’ in the 2100s.