WOHA’s Enabling Village is drawing communities
We delve into the design of this green, inclusive space
By Justin Zhuang | 03 Feb 2017
Where Timothy Ang used to work in Jurong Point, there were times when he couldn’t get to the office because the lift broke down. He also recalls only seeing “buildings and walls”. Today, the studio manager, who is a wheelchair user works out of a ground level office next to the housing estate of Lengkok Bahru. Not only is he surrounded by greenery, he can connect with others like himself and the larger community at this one-stop hub.
Welcome to the Enabling Village – an inclusive space combining education, work, training, retail and lifestyle that connects people with disabilities with society.
Located in the mature Redhill neighbourhood, the project is a successful demonstration of rejuvenation and community building within a housing estate. An adaptive reuse of the previous Bukit Merah Vocational Institute built in the 1970s, the property was taken over by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, repurposed and opened in December 2015 as the Enabling Village. It is now the home of SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enable people with disabilities to connect with like-minded partners and stakeholders.
Breaking down barriers
“Not just a place for people with disabilities, we wanted the village to also be a new heart and hub for the community, breaking down barriers,” says the lead architect Phua Hong Wei from architectural firm WOHA who led the 22-month project to transform this sprawling compound consisting of six blocks. This meant removing major segregations and ensuring the site is well integrated with its surroundings. A tall green fence came down. Multiple entry points were created. Drivers can come in through a safer spot along Lengkok Bahru, visitors can walk in from Redhill MRT fully covered by sheltered linkways, while residents from the adjacent Redhill Close can enter through a new entrance that features a garden shaded by majestic saga trees that have stood there for decades. “People can also take a short cut through the village from one end to the (neighbouring) school and precincts. It’s not just a destination but has become part of people’s daily commute,” adds Hong Wei.
Within the compound itself, a kampong feel with more wild-looking landscape seeks to draw people closer to nature and to each other. It is designed together with landscape studio Salad Dressing. “We wanted the village’s environment to be more accessible with Singapore’s indigenous flora and fauna,” says Hong Wei. The village’s ponds surrounded by edible plants such as pandan, lemon grass and banana have attracted dragonflies, frogs and even rare hornbills. And while residents have released fishes into the ponds others slow down to enjoy the surroundings when they go around the village. “I overheard a mother sharing a special moment with her little boy, pointing out the fishes and unique plants,” says Hong Wei. “That was a great moment for us.”
Reimagining everyday spaces
In addition to ensuring smoother and more seamless movements around the site for those with disabilities, WOHA also injected more public spaces to encourage greater interactions amongst visitors and users. From seating booths to play spaces for preschoolers and an outdoor amphitheatre for events, the spaces cater for both buzz and quiet moments. “One of the main things we look at is how everyday spaces and linkages can be reimagined to be useful, meaningful, accessible and inclusive. The more meeting points you create, the more opportunities there is for people to meet and interact. That sort of interaction is what creates a village and really opens it up to connect people with disabilities with the rest of society,” says Hong Wei.
He adds: “The place is not about how it looks, but how it works. A lot of people have come to the village to use it differently… and in doing so, they share and bond with common memories.” Children have been seen doing their homework at the amphitheatre, and a set of repurposed sewage pipe used as seating booths underneath the amphitheatre have become popular with visitors who contort themselves to fit in or imagine being sucked into them. The Enabling Village’s ecosystem of businesses and services geared towards people with disabilities has also enabled users like Timothy to expand his network and make new friends. His colleague Jessie Ong likes the village for its convenience, and has participated in events and parties organised by others like the Stroke Support Station located in a neighbouring block.
In their citation for this project, the jury of the President’s Design Award wrote that the “Enabling Village is a first of its kind and represents a natural evolution of place-making, where the redesign of the space is driven by the needs of the users. It is a demonstration of how designers can build a better world through design, by not designing.” For its thoughtful creation of a social space that breaks down many barriers and brings together communities, the Enabling Village was awarded the President’s Design Award 2016.
The President’s Design Award is the highest design accolade in Singapore recognising designers and designs from all design disciplines for their design excellence and creative innovation. Three designers and 10 design projects were honoured with the award in 2016 which is in its 11th edition. The award is administered by URA and the DesignSingapore Council. For more information about the award and roving exhibition on the winners, go to www.designsingapore.org/pda.
All images © Patrick Bingham-Hall
This article first appeared in Going Places Singapore, an online urban magazine about appreciating our city. www.goingplacessingapore.sg