A Pandemic Response: Spatialization

[Hypothetical project]

I. Introduction

In our time and age where digitalization has become ingrained into our lives, it is not far-fetched to imagine if one day a pandemic were to strike, it will be more virulent and extremely unpredictable. And the only way to contain  ironically, the only way to overcome them after all exhausted means, is through digitalization.

Globalization since the 1990s has made epidemics frequent and indeed, more virulent. At the turn of the 21st century, all across the globe, a war was raged against not a few, but several epidemics, in no more than 3-5 years apart. SARS and H5N1 in the first decade claimed thousands of lives worldwide; Asia in particular, with densely populated cities, recorded some of the highest statistics of infections and deaths. Our dependability and interrelations on the international grid has opened pathways for (undetected) transmigration of viruses. When infiltrated into our complex social networks, they spread in directions, mutate under different contexts and conditions, and eventually reach magnitudes far beyond any widest of imagination. Think Black Hat. Their discreet behavior escapes even the most sensitive of technology. Their velocities and numbers travel and propagate exceedingly fast and far, beyond predictions from pundits or believed prophecies. Perhaps it is relevant that we ask: are cities, and are we, a populace, adept and prepared well today, for an onslaught of a pandemic?

This thesis casts a light onto the city-state called Singapore. Singapore is one of the smallest countries and cities in the world, with one of the largest global networks, very densely populated and busiest on the planet—Singapore was and still is one of the busiest financial hubs, maritime ports, in the region because of its strategic location. Measuring in just under 1,000 sq. km. in land size—despite ongoing reclamation efforts through the 1990s—Singapore is vulnerable to pandemics. Which warrants the question: how will Singapore react?

This thesis argues that with a presumably increasingly unpredictable nature and characteristics of contemporary viruses, strategies used in the heydays of Singapore, particularly during the war period and colonial ruling, of isolation and quarantine measures are today irrelevant and ineffective. The only method perhaps to fight against new pandemics is with the idea of spatialization—as opposed to isolation and quarantine, it is in fact anti-isolation, antithetical to how we have come to understand cities through urban connectivity and networks.

The proposal seeks to investigate upon and test this idea of spatialization. Although another kind of spatialization—the space of flows propounded by Manuel Castells—can also be acknowledged, space in this context refers to its physical properties i.e. defined by visible boundaries. On this note, it must also be clarified that spatialization is not an attempt at supplanting the commonplace practices of medicalization, but to support its operations with spatial methods. Further, to put into perspective, spatialization may be regarded as ‘operative architecture’ where there are rules and parameters that govern and constrain. Spatialization should be in every nation’s crisis preparedness plan and agenda.

II. Media

“1 in 6 citizens is affected. That’s 1.3 million of Singapore’s population. Among who, 6,000 have succumbed. The situation is likely to worsen; the death toll will escalate.”

“Our medical forces are working round the clock to treat the infected. Our defense teams are fighting to ensure security and stability. It’s unfortunate that foreign reinforcements cannot be rendered; they are fighting too for themselves. We fear now that beds are running out, medical centers will reach maximum capacities. The crematoria cannot admit any more.

III. We use what we have: the logic behind Singapore’s planning of the city

Singapore is planned with a decentralized approach. Decentralization allocates resources, services, infrastructure, information and facilities in different parts of the city, forming individual town estates identical in structure and characteristics. Educational facilities, mainly primary and secondary schools are such examples under the will and mechanisms of decentralization. They situate strategically in between residential blocks within walking distance. Community centers are similar. Crematoria on the other hand, are sited away from the residential estates for reasons such as ‘negative energy’, ‘bad fengshui’, factors for property devaluation and possibly other social, economic and political reasons.

IV. First reactions

Parents and teachers fear for their kids lives so schools will be closed. These places are compounds of and for congregation. Markets and transport hubs may remain operational but with limited activities and heavily controlled human movement.

V. A radical move: schools to open

Reopening schools during a pandemic sounds in every sense ludicrous. But perhaps it may be the most sensible and justifiable solution when we think about the logic behind the strategic planning and siting of schools in the residential estates. These schools will be used as temporary medical facilities when hospitals and clinics reach maximum capacities. Residents who find themselves at risk of infection can only walk to these compounds. Reality: Singapore has been investing millions of dollars into investing in medical facilities with more beds.

VI. Schools-turned-infirmaries

The school compounds transform into infirmaries, unfolding scenes of parasol structures to house and nurse the sick. That’s where the millions of dollars should be invested. The dire circumstances trigger in each and everyone a sense of self-, social-, and civic responsibility: care for others, report sick when at risk of infection. These parasols are easy to assemble (within a day), provides a sense of assurance from its shelter, and can be configured to other usage on normal days—disinfected.

VII. When the victim succumbs

When more victims succumb to the virus, the crematoria soon reach their maximum capacities. The bodies cannot be exposed any longer and must be treated quickly because of its infected nature. Spatialization allows the redistributing of the surge back into the residential estates. Another venue, governed by the same logic behind the estate planning, opens to use.

VIII. Tracking death

The stadium is always noticeable—because of its scale, it serves as a landmark of reference and navigation. In every individual town estate of Singapore, a stadium, sometimes combined with swimming pool and fitness facilities, is built. The stadium holds events of national scale such as tournaments and matches played by the creme de la creme of the Singapore sports teams, watched by a nation—of all races, religions and cultural beliefs in a single continuum of time and space. The scene is an apparent visibility of a national identity and therefore the transcendence of a national ideology.

The stadium contains power—the power of “one nation, one people”.

If the stadium is discerned as a space of celebrations from tournament and match victories, can it not be discerned similarly as a space where the nation comes together and grieves when a crisis hits? Can it be politicized the same way?

The stadium’s design is often overlooked with little to no regard because the stadiums in Singapore, from one to the other, look plain, ordinary, identical. In times like this however, it is why the design of the stadium draws significance. Its ‘simple and ordinary architecture’ is easy to possess features and mechanisms that a crematorium setting would have. It makes sense to contextualize on the stadium its ritual process. In this case, the handling of the body bag from the school, the handling of the body, the moments of grief, and body to fire.

VIV. National ideology

The usual practices of treating the deceased are overturned, upset by the pandemic crisis. In Islamic religious and cultural practices, bodies are only buried, not burned. However, under the pretext of a pandemic and the place where all ends, the bodies have only to be burned. The stadium contains a politicized power to rule a national ideologyone above all other cultural and religious ideologiesthe way Singapore has always run withthat justifies under its disguise. 

VIV. An ‘operative’ architecture; how death is perceived

The architecture is a collapsible and extended glass tunnel structure on rollable wheels. When extended, it is used to carry and transport the body bags on folded conveyors. It touches the stadium like a syringe on plan. When extended, the glass tunnel reaches out to the stadium tracks where mourners gather for their last grieving moments. This is an unusual way of contact because of the glass interface that only allows visual connection. A 15-min wake ends with the conveyors retracting the body bags to the rear end of the stadium where the cremation takes place.

In such a ritual that is commonly perceived as respectful, dignified and emotional, but is run in this case by machine, an uncomfortable question arises for us to mull on: in such circumstances, can we accept the post-humanistic treatment of our loved ones. Can we surrender emotions in place of efficiency? These, against the campaign of do your part to prevent the spread of virus, save your live and your loved ones’.

This text has been rewritten from an architectural thesis submitted in 2012 to satisfy the requirements of the masters in architecture (history, theory and criticism) program. The original title is Responding to Pandemics: Transitory Landscape of School Infirmaries and Stadium Crematoria.

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