story | Yip Jia Qi, Opinion Editor

photo | Yip Jia Qi

Although Yale-NUS College as a student entity is diverse and by no means painted in a single brush stroke, I want to focus on something static that people may base their impressions upon: our architecture. There are many reasons for Yale-NUS being perceived as exclusive, and there are many things that are more important than our architecture. But as the first thing people see before coming into our school and getting to know the community, it might serve to reinforce whatever existing notions people already have. It’s something that’s at least worth talking about.

I am no Urban Studies major, but taking the perspective of a user, I find that our school’s design is distinctly less porous and more disconnected from University Town (UTown) than the rest of the residential colleges (RCs). This might make us seem uninviting, if not outright exclusive. Our campus is — at least from the outside — the architectural equivalent of, what some would call, a resting bitch face; cold, closed off, no sign of the life and relationships that are developed within its walls.  

For example, our campus stretches the entire length of one of UTown’s busiest walkways, yet manages to remain quite invisible.  Whereas each of the other RCs has at least a simple sign outside their premises, Yale-NUS is a white and grey, walled-off building with imposing metal gates. Whilst most of UTown is connected via sheltered walkways (something essential given Singapore’s weather), our school remains an island on its own, inconveniencing students during a heavy downpour.

This is not to say the school should raise money to build a shelter between our campus and UTown, nor will this be a cure-all to our problems. However, this infrastructural divide is a subconscious yet constant reminder of how our school was planned and built separate from the rest of NUS, making it as much a symbolic divide as it is a physical one.

Even walled-off Condominiums have clear signages at their entrances and connecting walkways to the nearest bus stops. If something as functional as a private residence can have all these things, why isn’t this the same for our college, which in many ways is beyond just a residence? More than just affirming our identity, proper labelling and connectivity also makes our campus look more inviting, signalling to people that Yale-NUS is present and a part of the UTown community instead of apart from it.

The design of our school may also shape our behaviour, even if we don’t realize it. Back when the campus first opened The Octant reported on the design philosophy behind our campus. One of the architect’s’ most distinct inspirations was the courtyards that were present throughout both Eastern and Western institutions, so now we live on a campus that has a courtyard for each RC, where we live our lives around it. The architects probably had privacy and intimacy in mind, and it has helped us foster the tight-knit community we have here.

Still, there are trade-offs for every design decision. The courtyard is not a true public space – it is only public to the community that surrounds it. When walking along our corridors, only the courtyards are visible, because our view of UTown is blocked by the classrooms. As we traverse these spaces, we are constantly looking only around ourselves and at ourselves, the way the  architecture prompts us to do so.

To clarify, making the campus more inviting does not mean making it less secure, and does not have to entail massive changes to the campus. Our campus is beautiful and there are very good reasons for our campus’ design. Unlike most of the residential colleges in UTown, our college acts not just as a home, but also as a school. Though not all of us are comfortable with throngs of  strangers wandering around our residences (or bathing in one of our empty suites), we should not be content with seeming invisible to the outside world, either. Ideally, a compromise should be made between being secure without being closed-off.

A good place to start could be the walls themselves. Tall, imposing, and a little too clean, they are a vast canvas. So much art has been springing up within the campus itself,from  the lifts in the RCs to a Stop Sign outside the library.  Why don’t we consider taking some of these works outside our gates? New locations could be considered where any art would surely make for better viewing than the plain white walls. Anything placed along the utown walkway is sure to get as much or even more attention than it would in one of our lifts. Given that our RC gates are plain, and take forever to open, there is potential for a captive audience right there. There are indeed many avenues and locations for expression that can make our college look very much part of the space that surrounds it. The Octant has even covered some potential locations.

In the end, none of this will change the larger problems our school faces in public perception, but little things like signs on our front door and a livelier more inviting facade might add up, and feed back into shaping the community here in school, or it might not. In any case, the campus as it stands belongs to the architects who designed it. Like a virtual character in a Role Playing Game, it is up to us to personalize our college before we can truly call it ours.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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