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Authoring Nature

Natalie Cheung

National University Of Singapore 

We tend to see nature and animals through rose-tinted glasses. The de-territorilization of animal beyond our domestic territories has limited our interaction with animals to de-animalized creatures; animals whose ontologies are personified to simplistic and picturesque ideals. Such an image is built upon fables, myths and inauthentic projections of animals within zoos, animal mascots and pets that slip into our consciousness. As such the contemporary city continues to expand into undeveloped land, an increasing number of wild animals have begun to encroach into our territories and conflict arises as humans and wildlife share spaces.

Furthering John Berger’s notion of animal’s role in the capitalist society, the thesis focuses on Singapore’s recurring political use of nature and the use of animal as a changing figurehead of the nation, locally and internationally. The thesis studies the myths of the Merlion, animals of the Singapore Zoo and home grown mascots that form part of a larger picture in the manipulation of a national narrative of a photogenic landscape, as mentioned by Lai Chee Kien in his essay: Maidan to Padang.

In particular, this thesis investigates Singapore’s beloved families of the endangered otter species, a group of

wild animals that have not only intelligently adapted to urban space but has also has gained popularity with the public due to its physical “cuteness” and representation of Singaporean values. In this instance, wild animals no longer exist within the neat physical boundaries of the architecture-animal dialectic propelled by Bannister Fletcher - inside for man, outside for wild beasts - thus prompting new ways of thinking about animals within the city.

Through a detailed spatial and territorial study of otters and Singapore’s hubris in controlling nature, the thesis seeks to speculate Singapore’s selection of the endangered otter species as its national symbol for the country’s branding as a “City in Nature.” By envisioning the projection of otters onto the iconic Marina Bay skyline within the context of Marina’s “Floating Platform” or liquid padang, the thesis critiques Singapore’s naive strategies in engineering and maintaining a photogenic landscape that harmonizes with its accompanying animal motifs for international branding. Rather than resolving the human- wildlife conflict, the thesis seeks to speculate environments for man and animal beyond the idealised vision of the wild, to unravel the perniciousness of wilderness - an idea that has become distant in modern-day Singapore.

Natalie could you give us an introduction to yourself, any of your interests or specialties?

I'm Natalie Cheung, 25 years old and I've just graduated from National University of Singapore with my Masters of Architecture Degree. 
Before entering this course, I haven't had the confidence to embark on anything creatively charged, except for playing a whole lot of sims. This probably made every project I did in school, an exciting exploration of self and I started to grow an interest in exploring the subtleties in everyday life, especially those that seem to be overlooked. Many of these interests stem from hours of listening to podcasts from 99% invisible. Alongside architecture, I find myself in enjoying pottery (#natterypottery on instagram), illustrating and busking, which gives me time away from being precise to the 0.000000's.

Your project seeks to address Singapore’s over-controlling use of nature and animals as an international branding tool, what inspired you to explore this topic? 

My interest in this topic began from a conversation

"Get rid of these birds and butterflies, they're dirtying my green wall." 

Growing up in Singapore, it was always amusing how we cherry picked the characteristics of nature we wanted; the aesthetics of a lush greenery and the picturesque of a city within the forest living alongside wildlife. An idealistic projection that wasn't limited to Singapore. While we cleaned the streets every morning of dead leaves and culled 300 monkeys from time to time. We disregarded nature as nature; an assortment of dirt, soil and life that we cannot predict or control. 

The thesis did not seek to find a solution to achieving our "City in Nature" but sought to encourage a discussion on the tension between our idealistic projections of nature and animals as branding against nature as itself.

The scheme is located in Singapore’s top tourist destination the Marina Bay Waterfront, why was this location significant for the project?

It seemed like everything essential to the image of Singapore's City and branding seemed to collapse into this 2D picturesque - of Marina Bay Waterfront - where it physically and visually manifests change and development. Singapore's animal figurehead and cultural embodiment - the Merlion and the padang have also been relocated to fit within this specific zone to sit alongside its historic colonial urban forms and Singapore's modern developments. The location was interesting for the project to emphasize the curated glamour of Singapore against the underlying control we had over it. 

You particularly focus on Singapore’s endangered otter species to portray your fable why was this such a key aspect of your project?

The project isn't so much of the otter specifically as it is a representation of our treatment of wildlife in Singapore. However, the otter as a endangered wildlife species stands out more than other wildlife in Singapore, the seven families being 'cute' and relatable and adapting to our city life faster than we had expected. It was fascinating to note that throughout my thesis research that Singaporeans had gained a specific liking to these animals. Locals had started to create stories around these otter families by attributing their characteristics to values critical to Singaporean family branding identities such as 'family', 'togetherness' and 'cooperation' and even to the extent of intervening in their territorial fights. It was a spectacular phenomena that piqued my interest and urged me to use the otter as my thesis's driving factor. It showed perfectly Singapore's misunderstanding of animals and how we expect them to act. 

In your thesis abstract you reference a number of literary sources, does literature play a key role in your design development? 

Yes, very much. I felt like it gave a good grounding to the thesis and it came naturally to reference literature especially under the tutorlage of my thesis supervisor, Tsuto Sakamoto. 

Some of the more referenced titles for my thesis were:

John Berger's "Ways of Seeing"
Deleuze and Guattari's "A Thousand Plateaus."
Lai Chee Kien's "Maidan to Padang: Reinvention of Urban Fields in Malaysia and Singapore"
Kari Weil's "Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?"


The fable produces a speculative environment for both humans and animals, a combination of which is not regularly seen within architectural projects, what opportunities did this alternative audience offer you?   

The process was interesting for me. I had always come across projects that had tried to integrate wildlife into the city, by suggesting their physical co-existence in our urban grid using electrical wiring or overhead bridges. These projects were my starting points but I wanted to explore something that went beyond just solution-based finding to our co-existence with animals. I realised that architects or architecture always affects. But to what extent can we control everything to work the way we want? Animals are unpredictable and beyond our understanding. They have their own systems and ways of living that we see as 'dirt' or a 'mess'. Take for example, beehives and ant nests. The thesis helped in understanding that the nature that we see, in Singapore, is just another construct of humankind and provided opportunities for a discourse of how we could assimilate nature into the city.

Your illustrative style is very unique is there anyone or anything in particular that has influenced you graphically? 

MAP office's drawings 'Hongkong is Land' was one of my reference images for thesis and Erik Revelle and Giovanni's Belloti's "The Wild City" was certainly inspiring for me for their detailed axonometrics. But it wasn't a style that I knew I would have done at the start of thesis, in fact, I wanted to do something else. It just ended up this way as I drew the few days leading up to thesis. I was more focused on illustrating the systems of the otters and exaggerating the glamour of nature with detailed plant drawings that was crucial to bring across the gist of the thesis.


What is your design process when producing your drawings, I am sure readers would love to know the software that you use?

I extract my lines from rhino, change the line weights and fill in colour on illustrator. That's pretty much all I do!  Before that, I make sure I have a colour palette and I set out only 4 lineweights to use for everything. 

If you could offer one piece of advice to our architecture student followers what would it be? 

To truly live and be completely obsessed with your project and to keep doing it until you're satisfied. 


Finally, where can people find out more about you and your projects?

I'm currently starting my own publication / blog - Storeys. I hope one day it will pick up. Also currently working on an online portfolio but at the meantime, I have my drawings on @nallocks (instagram), #nataliecheung_arch.

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