As part of the Civil Defence Shelter Act of 1997, every new HDB flat in Singapore must be provided with a household shelter, in order to ensure adequate provision of emergency shelters for every Singaporean in times of emergency.
The essential characteristics of the Household Shelter have been defined through the official rhetoric of civil defence, but what do people make of this room that cannot be customised, occupied permanently, or used privately?
As part of the Civil Defence Shelter Act of 1997, every new house in Singapore must be provided with a household shelter, in order to ensure adequate provision of emergency shelters for every Singaporean in times of emergency. To people in most other countries (1), this might sound more like science fiction, but for Singaporeans this household shelter is an almost invisible part of nearly every Singaporean's home.
The household shelters are built with increased thickness of their concrete walls reinforced with welded steel fabric mesh and hot rolled steel bars, light protective steel door, and ventilation ducts. No hacking or permanent modification is allowed in the room, and all additions have to be temporary and removable within 48 hours notice, otherwise it may incur “a fine not exceeding $5,000 and, in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine not exceeding $250 for every day or part thereof during which the offence continues after conviction”(2).
The essential characteristics of the “Shelter” were first defined through the official rhetoric of civil defence, but what do people make of this room that cannot be customised, occupied permanently, or used privately? With limited ventilation and our hot and humid climate, you can imagine that this windowless room is not ideal as a private everyday space.
Although it is supposed to be a shelter, it usually lacks amenities that would allow it to be used as a long-term emergency shelter. And if you ask around or look online, you will find many inventive Singaporeans devising inventive ways to conceal the standardised air vent and steel door of the shelter, or finding ways to repurpose the space despite the many rules and conditions surrounding the "allowed uses" for the space. It is frequently used as a storeroom, but rarely discussed in public is the more complex issue of how the Household Shelter is often used as living quarters for maids.
What if we take the shelter out of the context of a HDB flat, giving it a bit more visibility and giving people space to think and talk about it? Using the technical requirements and dimensions for the shelter, a live-sized(3). replica of the Shelter is being built.
As a site in which we categorise and represent the past, present, and future; a museum seems fitting site for a replica of the household shelter to be located. As a "part of another building" within a building, the windowless shelter is a mirror of itself, in which we can observe it to reevaluate the functions of our domestic spaces.
As it turns out, perhaps none of the escape devices lead anywhere, but their purpose are to be psychological devices, bringing with them the possibility of allowing us to access a different universe of our imagination – like an atlas of mirrors. This work was commissioned by the Singapore Biennale 2016.
With thanks to the curator Michael Lee, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore, and AE Models.
Footnotes(1) Besides Singapore, only a few countries such as Switzerland and Israel have imposed requirements for residential buildings and houses to have shelters built into individual apartments - where such shelters often become a part of the building's daily use.
In Switzerland, based on Swiss Federal Law (article 45 and 46), residential buildings were required to have their own nuclear shelters (1963), and currently all residential building built after 1978 are to contain a nuclear shelter able to withstand a blast from a 12 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres.
In Israel, the MAMAD or Merkhav Mugan Dirati is a security room required to be built into all new buildings (1951), with its technical specifications drawn up in 1992 after the Gulf War (1991). It can withstand blast and shrapnel from conventional weapons as well as protects against chemical and biological agents. (Israeli Home Front Command: The design of shelters and protected spaces בתכנון מקלטים ומרחבים מוגנים) [Back to text]
(2) See Civil Defence Shelter Act (Chapter 42A) [Back to text]
(3) Misinterpretations and Misunderstandings: It is worth noting that despite initial plans to make this model shelter the size of the minimum requirements for the shelter, the final shelter that is now on site at the National Museum of Singapore has turned out 55cm wider and 55cm deeper than planned. It is still well within the range of average bomb shelter sizes, but it is almost as if it has swollen up with embarassment or from holding its breath whilst trying to appear as small as possible in the confines of the History Gallery. Furthermore, in initial media reports about the work, reporters repeatedly got the basic facts about household shelters wrong, at first seeming to completely confuse it with the museum's model of a 1970s HDB flat. Bizarrely, my requests for the report's factual errors to be corrected has now resulted in further impreciseness and inaccuracy, resulting in the shelter being described as being from 1997! It is almost as if the reporters themselves seem completely oblivious to the presence of the household shelters in flats all over Singapore and perhaps even within their very own home. Every rule, technical plan or statement is always open to interpretation as well as cheeky misinterpretation... [Back to text]
(4) Read more about Tiny prayer houses (From OPENURBANISM, August 2013) [Back to text]