30 October 2015 -

May Ee Wong: Student Conference Bursary Report

The Design History Society Student Conference Bursary Award gave me the opportunity to attend the 2015 Design History Society Conference held in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts. There, I presented my paper “Revisiting Metabolic Utopia in the discourse of the Asian Sustainable City” under the panel “Re-orienting the Asian City.” The paper reflects an aspect of my research from my dissertation “Models of Growth: Imagining Complexity in Sustaining the Urban.” In my dissertation, I analyze the role that design discourses, aesthetics and practices play in envisioning and presenting the global sustainable city as our collective future in a time of ecological risk.

My presentation focuses on one my case studies, the post-colonial Southeast Asian city-state Singapore and its sustainable urbanism, as articulated in the June 2012 special issue of the Japanese Architecture + Urbanism magazine titled “Singapore: Capital City for Vertical Green.” During my presentation, I provided a reading of the magazine that revisits and recontextualises the aesthetic and ideological influence of the Japanese avant-garde architects the Metabolists on the urban landscape and imaginary of Singapore in light of Singaporean contemporary concerns with urban sustainability. Examining how the Metabolists’ techno-utopian gesture contributed to the utopian trajectory of Singapore’s story as a successful modernised global city-state, I first discussed how Kenzo Tange’s work, along with the other prominent Metabolist architects, had contributed to Singapore’s global city skyline in the 1980s and 90s. I also discussed the Metabolist influence on a group of Singaporean planners and architects in the 1960s and 70s who were inspired by the Megastructure to envision the vertical Asian City of Tomorrow. Looking at the example of Singapore’s Marina Bay, I argued that the technoutopian gesture of the Metabolists has become reworked into expressions of post-apocalyptic utopia which emphasises infrastructural capacity, self-sufficiency and resilience instead of postindustrial mobility. It is this sense of utopia that also becomes exported in Singapore’s vision of the Asian sustainable city.

The conference gave me the opportunity to put my ideas in dialogue with other ideas on Asian urbanism presented in the other papers during the panel, and I received helpful feedback on my presentation. I also benefited from the publication workshop in the conference programme that allowed me to meet the editors of key design academic journals, and the tour to San Francisco’s IDEO, which gave me a 'behind the scenes' look into the workings of contemporary design thinking.


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