From Picturing to Constructing the Tropics: Barracks and Hospitals in Colonial Singapore, 1860s to 1930s

Reproduced with the permission of Royal Engineers Library, Chatham

Date: 25 July 2012, Wednesday
Time: 7 - 9pm
Venue: NUS Museum

Free Admission. Seating is limited to 60 pax.
To register, please email

The colonial representation of the tropical landscape pictorially is a well-research area. Scholars have argued that colonial landscape paintings and postcards are not just faithful documentation of the physical surroundings at a particular moment in time, they also represent ways of seeing, knowing and controlling these very physical surroundings that are inextricably linked to the social, cultural and political conditions of colonialism. However, could the same insights be applied to not just the pictorial representation of the colonial landscape but also to the construction, in the literal sense, of the very landscape itself, including both the natural and built environment? In other words, how did the socially, culturally and politically inflected ways of perceiving the tropical landscape in the colonial era shape the material production and transformation of the landscape?

This talk attempts to address these questions by examining how two types of colonial landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Singapore were designed/planned, built and inhabited. The first is the medical landscape of hospitals that includes the Singapore General Hospital building (completed in 1882), Tan Tock Seng Hospital Complex (1909), and the "New" Singapore General Hospital Complex (1926). The second is the military landscape of cantonments and barracks that includes Tanglin Barracks (1862), Pulau Brani and Pulau Blakang Mati Cantonments and Barracks (1890s), Changi Cantonment and Barracks (between 1920s to 1930s).
This talk suggests that in these two types of landscape, tropical nature was primarily seen as miasmatic and malarial; detrimental to the health and well-being of the inhabitants. As a consequence, tropical nature was tamed and managed in order to secure the health of the inhabitants. This talk argues that these two types pf landscape were exceptional colonial enclaves or what another scholar describes as "little islands of purity in the miasmatic landscape".

About the Speaker
Chang Jiat Hwee is Asst Professor at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore. He obtained his Ph.D in Architecture and Urbanism from the University of California at Berkeley in 2009.

His interdisciplinary research on (post)colonial architectural history and theory, and the socio-technical aspects of sustainability in the built environment has been published as various book chapters and journal articles. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the genealogy of (post)colonial "tropical architecture".

He is the co-editor of Non West Modernist Past (2011) and a special issue of Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography on "tropical spatialities" (2011). He is also the author of two monographs on contemporary architecture in Singapore -- Sculpting Spaces in the Tropics: 13 Houses in Aamer Taher's Design Journey (2012) and No Boundaries: The Lien Villas Collective (2010).

This talk is held in conjunction with the exhibition Capturing the Straits: Painting and Postcards from the 19th to early 20th Centuries.


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