From Imagining to Designing the Urban City

URA Scholar He Yutian - Architecture Designing

Architecture crosses a diversity of disciplines. As a URA scholar, He Yutian dipped her toes into all her interests in building the future of Singapore.

One of my favourites shows while growing up was a cartoon titled “Ten Thousand Whys.” I looked forward to each episode’s unravelling of a question on topics ranging from the humanities to the sciences and gleefully counted down to my mastery of the world’s knowledge once I hit the 10,000th episode. Though my childhood daydream of omniscience was quickly shattered when my parents gently informed me that there were more than 10,000 whys on this planet (and only 446 episodes in the show), I continued to be fascinated by multiple disciplines throughout my schooling years. I enjoyed drawing, sculpting, reading and writing as much as I loved to analyse systems, recognise patterns and partake in hands-on projects. This naturally led to my desire to study Architecture, a broad-based yet specialised course where I could explore all of those interests.

In identifying a suitable potential career, I looked for organisations that work on a wide range of professional fields and provide opportunities for interdisciplinary discourse. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore’s land use planning and conservation authority, was an intuitive fit. I hence took on a URA Overseas Undergraduate Scholarship to study Architecture, with a double major in Visual Art and a minor in Anthropology, at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

My six years at Rice University were formative and endowed me with a diverse array of experiences. In the School of Architecture, I experimented with prototypical designs focused on meeting the pressing needs of a changing world. I used expandable buildings, disassembled historic sites, and portable fabric architecture, in a variety of contexts from Houston to Rosario to Paris.

Outside of the architecture studio, I sculpted with fire, paper, emergency blankets and a panoply of unexpected materials to create thought-provoking art installations peppered across the campus. A marriage of my interests in anthropology and design-led me to interview insect biologists on the subject of ant colonies to derive insights on how underground spaces for humans could be reimagined.

In my free time, I also sought out interdisciplinary adventures. One of which was to work with civil engineers to design and build a model of an earthquake-resistant high-rise building that could survive shake table simulations of 9.1-magnitude earthquakes at the annual Seismic Design Competition.

With URA scholarship’s support for summer school programmes, I attended Semester At Sea’s Summer Voyage, where I spent two months aboard a ship that sailed and docked in the Mediterranean, doing global comparative studies in Architecture and Anthropology. During another summer, eager to learn about the regional differences in building techniques and to get my hands dirty with construction work, I worked on typhoon-resilient building construction in The Philippines. There, I discovered the boundless versatility of the coconut tree as a building material.

With an arsenal of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary experiences in the built environment, I was ready to return to Singapore to begin my journey in urban design with URA. In my present role, I oversee the planning of the Museum Planning Area, which is the historic heart of the city centre. It’s home to numerous arts and heritage institutions, as well as the urban green lung that is Fort Canning Park. I conduct simulations of building form and massing as part of an iterative design process, to test different parameters for developments that can encourage vibrant additions to the cityscape while maintaining contextuality and sensitivity to the surroundings.

As part of a wider planning intent to stitch together parts of our city into a larger arts, cultural and heritage district, I am currently also working with various agencies and stakeholders on several street enhancement projects, including pedestrianisation
and sidewalk widening, in order to create a more inviting streetscape with public spaces that everyone can enjoy.

The work at URA is varied, stimulating and satisfying. As an organisation that has an overview of the myriad forces that come together to shape a city, we are in a unique position of being able to identify synergistic opportunities for collaboration and blur boundaries beyond the confines of field-specific discourse. It allows us to kick-start imaginative conversations about how Singapore could be like in the future.

URA Scholarship
Attained: Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and Visual Art, Minor in Anthropology Bachelor of Architecture
Now: Architect, Urban Design (Central Area, North), Urban Redevelopment Authority
From: Rice University (Houston, Texas)