In the heart of the open-aired Paya Lebar Quarters (PLQ) Plaza, surrounded by shops and within sight of the MRT platform, stands a three-metre-tall structure. At first glance, the form of the plywood sculpture eludes the viewer, who sees numerous sheets of plywood intersecting and meeting at right angles like crisscut fries.
Some metres away at the adjacent mall, a similar plywood waffle stands in the middle of the indoor public atrium of SingPost Centre. The strange structure is reminiscent of kirigami pop-up cards, intricately laser-cut and sturdily assembled, towering over curious passers-by. Some of them stop to gaze at the pop-up installation, taking pictures with the sculpture.
Children dart about and climb around, exploring the unusual sight at the malls. They have staked their claim on the new oddly-shaped ‘playground’, innovating their own meanings and purposes for the structures.
These sculptures are prototypes fabricated by one of the finalist teams for a national competition, consisting of NUS architecture students Chan Chee Meng and Andrew Lee, both Year 2s from the College of Design and Engineering. Their anamorphic (adj. denoting or relating to a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point) sculptures were designed to showcase hidden symbols from specific positions—specifically a dollar sign, a heart shape, and a trophy.
Cash, Love, Clout (💲❤️🏆) comprises two separate installations at Paya Lebar, and was born out of a desire to further a previous design intervention project. Andrew and Chee Meng had recently completed UTS2105 Singapore as ‘Model’ City in NUS Residential College Tembusu College that semester (AY2021/2022 Semester 1), which involved constructing and exhibiting their designs at UTown.
It was towards the close of the semester in November 2021 when the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore (REDAS) organised the third edition of the SPARK Challenge, calling for teams to submit designs aimed at catalysing meaningful interactions among users of the shared public spaces. Partnering with various malls across the island, the challenge aimed to bring the public closer to the built environment, with the hopes that the experiential installations will add vibrancy to these built spaces, enhancing the urban experience.
Learning about the URA-REDAS SPARK Challenge through an email circular and encouraged by their Tembusu College professor, Dr Margaret Tan, to send in their work, Andrew and Chee Meng decided to give the competition a shot.
Their concept, curated such that the viewer is only able to see the symbols (💲❤️🏆) from specific angles around the structure, is a commentary on the search for happiness—where people are often on the hunt for Cash, Love and Clout, believing that those are what lead to happiness. With the symbols only visible from certain positions, fading away into obscurity when seen from other directions or distances, the design comments on how conventional notions associated with success and happiness might render it elusive.
However, Chee Meng emphasised that the point of the sculpture is not for viewers to find the embedded symbols, but to embrace its ambiguity and create their own joy and wonder through exploring it. Viewers are free to assign their own meanings to the structure and are able to enjoy the artwork without finding each symbol, mirroring how happiness in life can be achieved even without the chase for material goals like wealth, validation, or power.
With the new Paya Lebar sites in mind, their designs used for UTown’s Town Green had to be modified for the new locations. Estimating distances using Google Maps and actual heights, they worked in Rhinoceros 3D to extrude the three symbols from the intended points they wanted the symbols to be visible, and where the sculpture would be situated, modelling the artwork based on where the extrusions intersected.
They then submitted their proposals, before going through the first stage to get selected to present their idea to the organisers. Subsequently, they advanced to the second stage where finalists were given the funding to execute their ideas.
The duo, who had previously formed architecture firm Studio Akiplgo (@akiplgo) with a few other friends, were no stranger to implementing design projects. However, despite their established working relationship with a contractor, scaling up for something to be seen and touched by the public still meant not only coming up with a safe and structurally sound sculpture that was within budget, but also dealing with the challenges that come with the fabrication of their prototype.
While the first iteration at UTown was done entirely by the pair, from using the school’s laser cutter to assembling the sculptures by hand (and a lot of glue) at the Town Green sites, this larger version had to be designed with more considerations in mind.
For structural safety, it meant using thicker sheets of plywood for the pieces at the bottom and thinner pieces on top, to prevent the structure from being a safety hazard to the public. Due to the larger scale of the Paya Lebar sculptures, they also found themselves combining pieces of plywood to create larger sheets, as suppliers did not manufacture plywood sheets that large. Going from a laser cutter to the contractor’s CNC (Computerised Numerical Control) machine also meant getting used to and troubleshooting a new machine.
Chee Meng also mentioned, “It was quite a big challenge to suddenly work with so many contractors and stakeholders,” citing the malls, their own contractor, the competition organisers from URA as well as the marketing team overseeing the competition publicity.
“As students, it’s a huge transition—they don’t teach you these things in school. It’s something you would normally learn through working in the industry. But when you just thrust yourself out there and learn it all at once, it’s quite the experience.”
What Chee Meng finds the most fulfilling is seeing their designs come to life. “In fact, as a student, you rarely get to see [designs] come to life at 1:1, real life scale, because you always see the small miniatures, but you never get to see it and appreciate it for its full scale.”
He added, “We rarely see the kind of manual labour and workmanship that goes into these kinds of things, and often they’re quite underappreciated, because people focus on the product and not the process or the worker.”
“It’s something I personally don’t want to gloss over, because, really, without their labour, nothing would’ve happened—it would’ve just been a 3D file on a computer somewhere.”
When asked about her thoughts on their work as the instructor of the module that kickstarted Cash, Love and Clout (💲❤️🏆), Dr Tan expressed, “Their work is conceptually strong, playful and, certainly, meets the challenge’s objective of revitalising public space through innovative solutions and smart design interventions.”
She added that the project is a testament to how the pair have demonstrated that what they have learnt in the classroom can have relevance and impact in the larger society, showing themselves to be “curious, observant, and able to think critically and creatively”.
“For the public, I hope the work will inspire reflections not only on their concept of happiness, but also the importance of public space for sociality and how we can play active roles in shaping it.”
Chee Meng and Andrew’s design prototype is on display at Paya Lebar until the end of the month. The public may vote for their favourite design out of all the finalists’ entries here from now till 18 April 2022.