Void Decks In Singapore

Saddened by ‘slow death’ Singapore Void Decks

Many Singaporeans moved from squatter settlements and villages to the Housing Development Board’s first high-rise flats in the 1960s. The devastating Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961, which killed 16,000 people and destroyed an entire neighbourhood in Singapore’s Chinatown, persuaded many that the HDB flat was a more desirable home.

The first satellite housing estates in the 1960s were Queenstown and Toa Payoh, and they were used as test cases for much of Singapore’s public housing. Today, more than 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing, and for many of us, the HDB home is the bricks and mortar to the Singaporean spirit.

HDB flats in Toa Payoh. (File photo: Calvin Oh)
An early HDB flat in Toa Payoh where the ground floor was occupied with residential units instead of a
void deck (1968). Courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings

HBD Void Deck, commercial enterprises for kindergartens and residential uses

The void deck is a seldom-considered component of public housing complexes. The vacant area on the ground level is known as the void deck, and it’s usually where people congregate. Flats are generally confined to floors two through six of a building, with the open and airy area on the ground level being known as the void deck.

Since the 1970s, Singapore’s HDB has opted to keep the void deck to allow for a wide range of activities including commercial enterprises as well as kindergartens and other kiosks; and residential uses such as designated study areas and senior citizens’ corners.

Child At Street 11 is named after its location in Ang Mo Kio Street 11 and nearly seven in 10 of its 50-plus children are from low-income families. Image courtesy of GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Children’s Library The former Nee Soon Central Community Children’s Library (1999). Courtesy of National Library Board
A former children’s playground located at a void deck. Courtesy of Housing & Development Board

In addition to the basic functions mentioned above, the void deck was also built with a social function in mind by allowing for group bonding. The HDB void deck, which was intended to take the place of the open areas in kampongs and shantytowns, encouraged community interaction and neighbourliness.

A common sight in the past was a collection of elderly people socializing at recreational tables. After finishing their shopping, housewives would chat with their neighbours on the way home. Parents are also seen waiting in the void deck for school buses. Because most playgrounds were outside and could not provide cover from the rain, children utilized the void deck as a covered play area.

A group of elderly residents playing chess at the void deck of Blk 337, Ang Mo Kio (2012). Courtesy of National Heritage Board
A group of retirees who gather daily for chit-chats at the void deck of Blk 32, Marine Crescent (2012). Courtesy of Belinda Tan
A ping-pong table at the void deck of Blk 440, Ang Mo Kio (2012). Courtesy of National Heritage Board

Although they are not legal in all states, you may rent out a void deck for a low price from the local city council for social gatherings such as weddings and birthdays. Extra costs may be levied for utilities like water and electricity.

Chua Beng Huat, an NUS professor, attributed the popularity of void decks among residents to environmental conditions.:

“Void decks are shaded and shady, which are significant assets in a tropical environment where they make the space more usable, especially during the day.” (Public Space: Design, Use and Management, 1992)

However, as more shopping malls are constructed and more homes are equipped with air-conditioning, the void deck is gradually losing its appeal as a unique retreat.

Buddhist funeral rites being conducted at a void deck. Courtesy of Sean Tan
A Malay wedding held at the void deck of Blk 605, Choa Chu Kang (2011) Courtesy of Salleh Md Amin
A Taoist funeral setup at a void deck. Courtesy of What’s Up

Additionally, the dimensions of new void decks have decreased. It appears that the new public housing style focuses on constructing larger rather than wider structures. The largest open space is the multi-purpose hall, which may be hired to host events. Since the ground level now functions as a parking garage, lift lobbies, drop-off points for automobiles, loading bays, pathways to multi-level car parks, and sometimes dead-end areas with little connection are all visible. Given Singapore’s high cost of land and scarcity of available real estate, it may be argued that it is viable.

In older homes, the elderly residents are most frequently connected with void decks. Given their age, they are unable to walk long distances, and the lack of space on their property makes the void deck nearby a practical meeting place.

A purpose-built Senior Citizens’ Corner at the void deck of Block 232, Bishan Street 22 (2012). Courtesy of National Heritage Board
The Kolam Ayer St George’s West Residents’ Committee centre located at Blk 1, St George’s Road (2012). Courtesy of National Heritage Board
A typical weekend morning at the bird singing corner at Block 440, Ang Mo Kio (2012). Courtesy of National Heritage Board

Vendors are gradually fading from the void decks, as is evident on certain of these structures. The number of convenience stores and supermarkets is on the rise, with modern ones able to provide special discounts and a wider selection of goods, including perishable items.

The big issue is whether neighbourliness will be lost as void decks get smaller.

Saddened by ‘slow death’ of HDB void decks. Image courtesy of By Azhar Kasman

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