Architecture and humanitarian work would hardly be considered bedfellows, but for NUS Architecture Master’s graduand Bernard Heng, the two come together in perfect synchrony. Admitting that Architecture was his second choice when he applied for NUS, Bernard was nonetheless inspired by his father’s background in interior design, and over his course, became intrigued by architecture’s role in humanitarian work.
“I worked with a number of organisations over the years…Along the way I began to develop interest in a people-centric approach to designing, and more importantly, in exploring how architecture can contribute to creating ‘homes’ for people,” Bernard said.
A fourth-year project at NUS motivated him to seek out opportunities abroad. “The project was a collaborative studio between NUS and Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung, Indonesia to develop design proposals for two villages in Bandung. This experience gave me insight into how architecture can develop homes for people, and how it is like to work in a different context,” he shared. Deciding he wanted to further understand and learn on a larger international scale, he applied intensively and managed to secure an internship with UN-Habitat.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, he thus went to Kenya with UN-Habitat to help support efforts on refugee settlements.
Over the six-month stint, Bernard used what he learned at NUS to support the team with graphic work, urban design, research and evaluation, as well as reports. “My architectural background provided me with experience in working with communities on the ground, and strategies to understand the local context. Moreover, it gave me a systematic means of understanding the various socio-economic-political forces acting on the built environment, which was especially critical because refugee settlements are an outcome of these complex forces,” he said. His people-centric design focus was vital in the preparation of research materials and proposals from the perspectives of communities on the ground.
His duties included interviewing refugees to determine the conditions they were living in and their day-to-day activities. “Because most of the interviews tended to result in conversation, I got a glimpse into their lives in the settlement, such as their concerns and the things they do,” Bernard shared. He recounted moments of lightness such as discovering that the youths actively played soccer every evening in the compound and even organised major leagues where they would compete for championships. He recalled also that the diverse refugee nationalities gave rise to occasions where the interviewee shouted for another more English-fluent refugee to help out with the interview. “Stories like these give a different perspective to refugee settlements and insights into how the refugees are adapting to their situations,” he said.
When Bernard started his Master’s programme at NUS after returning from Kenya, he continued to funnel his passion for humanitarian work into his thesis which delved into the context of the refugee settlement and the architectural implementations for safe spaces for women and children. “The thesis provided me an opportunity to explore the potentials of architecture in the humanitarian field, and my internship provided me with a base to develop a more grounded thesis — which was critical to this topic,” he shared.
The exchange of ideas and criticisms in the open studio setting of his Architecture education in the University were integral for the development of his thesis. Interaction with his studio mates and being exposed to relevant new case studies enabled him to improve his ability to resolve challenges in his project.
One memorable experience at NUS was his final thesis critique by the panel that provoked him to reconsider the proposed design for refugee communities. “I could tell they were genuinely interested in developing me as an individual for my work in the humanitarian field,” shared Bernard.
Now that he is graduating, Bernard aims to continue his work in the humanitarian field, and is currently applying for a position in the Kenyan refugee settlement to contribute his portfolio of experiences.