The Critical Turn in Perspectives on Public Housing as Heritage

Heritage Changes the Social OrderHeritage Changes PoliticsIndustrial HeritageActivists and ExpertsArchitecture and Urbanism
Regular session
13:30, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Heritage changes politicsPolitical uses of heritageUses of heritageHeritage and conflicts
This session discusses the ways in which early public housing from the 1950s to 1960s in Hong Kong, China, and Singapore have emerged recently as an arena for the critique of national, elite or dominant notions of heritage and history. The contexts of the development of public housing in the early post-Second World War era and the background to their recent reappraisal as significant sites for the edification of cultural identity or socio-political struggle provide grounds for exploration of a number of issues concerning emerging perspectives on what heritage can "do."
Thus for instance, the socio-political contexts and affiliations behind the initiation or production of public housing may be narrated or rewritten today with differing emphases or silences. Alternatively, the differing opinions and narratives may also stem from differences of sentiment or opinion regarding the location of significance or value in examples of public housing—whether this is deemed to reside in architectural form or planning and physical fabric, in community and activities, or simply in the everyday. These differences have the power to frame popular understandings of the history of the interplay between civic groups and the state in the creation, regulation or reproduction of public housing and its "lifeworld," while simultaneously reflecting the prevailing assumptions in the society in question about the notion of "public housing heritage"—whose heritage is this deemed to be? Has it been discussed as belonging to the residents who shape what is at stake—that is, as a form of community heritage that is embodied—or instead as heritage that is shared across the citizens of a city in an abstract sense? Or do the discussions revolve around an even more rarefied notion of the role of state agencies behind their creation, or even specific ruling regimes?
The concern of this session is thus not with any lack of acknowledgement of the category of "public housing" as heritage. Rather, the focus is upon the variability or contradictions in the articulation of their historical significance or heritage value. These inconsistencies or paradoxes may be observed in both explicit ideological contentions and in more insidious means of exclusion based on some purportedly "objective" criteria or forms of "expert knowledge" such as aesthetics, technical considerations, or significance within the nationalist narrative.
The debates revolving around the significance of early post-war public housing highlight the potential of a critical inquiry into the heritage-making discourses on an ubiquitous product of architectural modernism, the apartment block and estate, to raise questions on what the very notion of "heritage" has come to signify when it is applied to a kind of mass-produced vernacular, albeit an avowedly "non-traditional" one. Does this signify a critical turn in popular (and academic) discourse/discussions about "heritage" that is no longer restricted to conventional or privileged categories of cultural patrimony, and has become the means of re-positioning the definition of identity away from elite or state constructs? How is this complicated by the very nature of the genesis of public housing?
National University of Singapore
Assistant Professor

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