No Choice – Decision Drivers for Brick Making in Singapore

The traveller Munshi Abdullah recalls in his memories of pre-colonial Singapore “no one at that time had yet built a house in brick.”   Brick production started in the course of British colonization after 1819. The introduction from Britain prompted a critical development as the imported bricks were designed for cold climate zones but are problematic for the hot and humid Singapore. Yet the material has been reselected at several instances in history. This research tries to answer why decisions were made in favor of brick. The progressing urbanization indeed called for a fire resistant building material. But differently from the traditionally used timber, bricks heat up, store heat and block natural airflow. To understand the underpinning reasons for the repeated decision, five historic moments of change have been studied. The investigation shows that for the establishment of the settlement and first urban growth production was imposed by colonial dependencies. For the early 20th century, limited coal resources prompted the introduction of sand-lime bricks, a material equally determined for cold climates. Governmental aspirations of post-independence first pushed the brick production and in 1999 replaced it with the manufacturing of precast concrete components. With the choice for massive concrete use an even more critical path was initiated. The material irretrievably separates the indoors from the outdoor that calls for a fully air-conditioned parallel world.

 

This research comes to the conclusion that the colonial imposition of a material that had proofed suitable elsewhere has set an irreversible path for future decisions. Whenever the production of brick-making had arrived at a crossroad, the behavior of the material in relation to indoor climate was not revisited. Instead, the production was technologically optimized and matched with aspirations of companies or the government. The result of this study is put in perspective by the revealed variety of production under low governmental involvement during the early 20th century. Bricks from that period are the material evidence of various industrial and government actors, technologies and local clay resources. The appreciation of this variety might eventually serve as a reference point for the future selection of building materials. Today, the story of brick in Singapore seems to repeat itself in places where powerful players import inadequate building materials. It is important to understand potentials and risks of introducing non-vernacular materials to new contexts over large time frames. The case of brick production in Singapore serves as an example.

 

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