Housing is always the best way for an architect to explain their design principles and outlook towards different contexts. It is no surprise then that housing has also been used as a tool to express state power throughout history. Now the aspect in focus within this article will be sanitation, which has its roots in colonial policies. This aspect has evolved to create inequalities with access to sanitation across spaces affected by colonialism and stigmas on the sanitary movement’s mindset.

In the book, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture, Jiat Hwee Chang brings into detail the sanitary movement’s effect on “native” housing during Singapore’s occupation of Britain. Chapter 4 discusses some of how new technologies of the time and scientific rationalism led to British reports that measured and illustrated inefficiencies within the shophouses of the people living there. This chapter provides the context of why the British implemented sanitation policies with the outbreak of cholera in the 1830s. Hence the sanitary movement emerged out of the public initiatives for leading the improvement of urban housing. 

Chang’s book is a great source to understand how British architects, engineers, and planners created a technoscientific network to enforce policies of sanitation on the urban fabric of Singapore. This chapter alone goes into great detail on the several methods, successes, and eventual failures of the sanitary movement in colonized Singapore. However, this article will focus on the element that was prioritized and how that policy was carried out.

In the book, the report ‘The Sanitary Conditions of Singapore’ prioritized light and air as crucial for healthy buildings. One of the crucial elements, air, was measured into policy by 

“…stipulation of minimum space standards, in terms of volumetric space and floor area per person, and the shallow sections to facilitate cross ventilation” (Chang, 137).

This policy was informed by not only theories of 19th-century germ theory but also theories of miasma that had originated from the 4th century BC during the time of Hippocrates. Hence, what they were looking for was to create spacious and well-ventilated spaces to achieve “pure air”. What this achieved in reality, was regulatory guidelines that ignored its socio-political context in favour of objectivity.

Objectivity was used as justification by the Singapore Improvements Trust, the official British housing agency for the colony, to be able to eradicate slums to build sanitary housing.

One example of a building that was an exemplar of these policies that still survives today is the Tiong Bahru Estate. 

Unpacking the History of Sanitation through Housing - Sheet1
Tiong Bahru with enclosed communal spaces meant to open up the building_Soh, online

Created with large openings on the upper floors to allow ample entry of light but protected with a second layer of glazing to shade occupants from harsh sunlight. Communal spaces at the bottom would encourage people to “sit out” a  bit more and chat together. This all culminates as a health-centered design that also encourages people to socially open up with one another labeled as “modern comfort” according to the architect of this estate (Chang, p. 154).

However, as Chang points out the intended occupants of the building would be the “clerical class” that could afford high rent for this housing. Construction had to make way for this building by removing the squatters’ huts that had previously existed.

Sanitation, therefore, becomes a right that can only be afforded by people within a certain social class.

Sanitation and “Otherness”

Dante Furioso, in an article titled ‘Sanitary Imperialism’, explains how the tropics are viewed by imperialist US concepts. Such ideas of the tropics being this “other place” that could only be made liveable as a civilization through technoscience also enforced sanitation policies with other imperialist powers. The article itself delves deep into the socio-economic and racial segregation in the US Panama Canal Zone that allowed its imperialist occupant to live in sanitized, healthy houses, whilst those deemed ‘other’ were built houses with poor conditions. Such segregated design made use of the principles of screened facades to protect occupants from mosquitoes and is mirrored by the lack thereof in houses built for Black and West Indian workers. 

Unpacking the History of Sanitation through Housing - Sheet2
Titled ‘A temporary screened ward in St. Lucy’s Almshouse, Barbados with screened double doors’ that the article writes defined the relationship between different races and social classes_Murray In Furioso, online

It is through the previous two examples that sanitation seems to segregate those who benefit from the idea and are privileged with the “other”. The concept of the “other” intersects with race, socio-economic standing, the environment, and culture. 

Examples of Sanitation in People’s Own Terms

While the issue of de-colonizing sanitation in housing is an issue that this article does not have answers to, there are other ways that one could decolonize sanitation as a whole. 

To end the article on a hopeful note, there is a movement that anyone could be involved with that could be critical for sanitation justice. A program related to sanitation justice is called OVERDUE. 

Now the programme is important as it aims to achieve inclusive, sustainable sanitation and hygiene services within Africa. But their program has also recognized the issue of colonial narratives on sanitation, re-evaluated current-day infrastructure and policies that have failed and is experimenting with equitable sanitation.

One interesting way that they have gone about bringing such an issue to the forefront is through leading marches and celebrations on World Toilet Day 2022. An article by Nadine Coetzee and Nelly Leblond ‘In Bitterness You Can Find Sweetness’ talks about the various ways in which the programme ran celebrations across cities in Africa to put an intersection of issues regarding sanitation equity.

Titled ‘Saint Louis neighbourhood councillors and women led by the Observatoire Genre et Développement de Saint Louis (OGDS) marching for the recognition and redistribution of women’s sanitation work_OGDS, online

You can learn more about their program and be involved by going to this website: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/

Appendix and Unused Excerpts

Personal Intro Excerpt:

There is an image that persists when the topic of sanitation is brought up. Mosquito repellents. A solution to easily kill off mosquitoes in tropical countries packaged in a can. It is, from memory, effective as one might find dead mosquitoes on the floor if used. This can, coming from my household, was sprayed in a vast amount ritualistically every night in order to enjoy a bug-free morning the next day. Now the main reason that my household chose to ritualistically do this at home is to reduce the likelihood of mosquito-borne diseases such as chikungunya, dengue, etc.

Shared Queer Experiences:



Chang, J. (2016) ‘A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature, and Technoscience’. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 129, 137,152-154

Coetzee, N. et al. Leblond, N. (2023) ‘In Bitterness You Can Find Sweetness: Insights From The 2022 World Toilet Day “Making The Invisible Visible ” OVERDUE Campaign’ 28th of May. OVERDUE. [Online] [Accessed on 15th of November 2023] https://overdue-justsanitation.net/4975/

Furioso, D. (2022) ‘Sanitary Imperialism’. May. e-flux. [Online] [Accessed on 15th of November 2023] https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/sick-architecture/465599/sanitary-imperialism/

OVERDUE (2023)‘Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa: About Overdue’. [Online] [Accessed on 15th of November 2023] https://overdue-justsanitation.net/4975/

Image Sources

Figure 1: Soh, D. ‘Key design aspects of Tiong Bahru estate’. Docomomo Singapore. [Online image] [Accessed on 14th of November 2023]  https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/606e953e34b9b62727154e98/1618219610906-DZGDE2EMOQZBD36R55CA/_DSC7845.jpg?format=1500w

Figure 2: Murray, J. (1909) ‘A temporary screened ward in St. Lucy’s Almshouse, Barbados with screened double doors’. Photograph. 2400 x 2400 px. In: Furioso, D. (2022) ‘Sanitary Imperialism’ [Online] [Accessed on 15th of November 2023]. https://images.e-flux-systems.com/19c.jpg,2400×2400

Figure 3: OGDS. ‘Saint Louis neighbourhood councillors and women’ OVERDUE. [Online image] [Accessed on 15th of November 2023] https://i0.wp.com/overdue-justsanitation.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Picture1.jpg?w=1379&ssl=1


A Part I architect is my qualification, and I am on the verge of starting my architectural career. While having this title would mean I will forever be known as the ‘architect’ to most, I enjoy graphic novels, video games, illustration, and any kind of art medium.