Architect William S.W. Lim’s radical ideas on the Asian city were the subject of a playful exhibition on city life at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.
That no architecture models could be found in an exhibition about an architect speaks volumes about the work and diverse influences of William Lim Siew Wai. Though the Singaporean architect has practised for over four decades—having worked on projects ranging from the brutalist mixed-use icon Golden Mile Complex (1974), to the recently demolished postmodern Gallery Evason Hotel (2000)—Lim is best known today as an advocate. His message is that cities in Asia can develop their own urbanism and people can be involved in building cities.
Integrated developments that combine retail, residential and transport such as the recently opened Bedok Mall and the upcoming Northpoint City in Yishun may now be presented as a solution for a denser Singapore, but it is an idea that is almost five decades old.
Back when the newly independent Singapore was drawing out plans for its future city, a group of architects and planners—William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon, Koh Seow Chuan, Chew Weng Kong, Chan Sau Yan, amongst others—formed the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (S.P.U.R) in 1965 to study and develop proposals for the nation’s city development. Anticipating a future where the world would only become more densely populated, the group imagined a “true city” to be a “congested city”, one where people would live in higher concentration and on land that was intensively used for multiple functions.
This was a vision S.P.U.R sketched out (above) for Asia Magazine in May 1966—and some of its members eventually built it out in the forms of Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex. Completed in the 1970s, these buildings that combined offices, residences and shops stood apart for decades in a city that became carved out for single land uses, or what the group warned in their article as “out-dated planning principles that seeks to segregate man’s activities into arbitrary zones, no matter how attractive it may look in ordered squares on a land use map.” But as Singapore’s population has almost tripled from 1.9 million in 1966 to 5.5 million today, the state has shifted its urban planning approach, which echoes S.P.U.R’s proposals for the future Asian city. The Golden Mile and People’s Park complexes are no longer eccentric anomalies of the city but architecture templates for Singapore’s future.
Not all ideas by this non-governmental organization were rejected by the state at first. During the 1970s debate over expanding Paya Lebar airport or moving it to Changi, S.P.U.R made a public case for the latter—and they were vindicated. With the on-going expansion to build a fourth airport terminal, Singapore must be glad to have made the move. This was also to be one of the group’s last contributions to the nation’s urban planning discourse as it de-registered in 1975. Its members, however, carried on their activism in different forms, continuing to publish books and proposals about the city’s future.
Many of S.P.U.R’s proposals and activities were documented and published in two journals the group released. The pages may be in black and white, but they vividly show how Singapore became, or is only now becoming. Alas, their contribution has received much spotlight until now. NUS Museum is hosting a 50th anniversary reunion for the group next week, and it will be a fantastic opportunity to revisit a declaration they made in their inaugural publication: “We are at a cross-road between the old and the new Singapore and the planning and environmental decisions which we make today must be with vision and foresight, as future generation will judge as we judge our predecessors.”
This is a question lacking in the Singaporean psyche today. The Peoples’ Action Party’s version of the Singapore success story has been so entrenched as the only possibility that such a question often paralyses us. A nation that was not meant to be yet enjoying such stellar success today is such a amazing tale that we often see no need to revisit the what ifs. Even when we did try to re-imagine our present, we tend to fear a lack of success than imagine other possibilities of success.
Yet, if we look back at our history, there were choices and possibilities that could have led to a very different Singapore today. It was not simply just a choice between a communist or the democratic socialist one today as is so often told.
“Singapore – A Decade of Independence” is one book (left) that gives us a peek into these possibilities. It was published in 1975 by the Alumni International Singapore, an organization representing the old boys of tertiary educational institutions from eleven countries. In it are various essays written by figures such as Robert Yeo, Francis Thomas, Professor S.S. Ratnam and William Lim that propose alternatives to government policies then. These include the criticism on policies to control the growth of the population as well as calls for more support for the arts, raising the standards of the public transport and encouraging citizenship participation in policy-formulation. If anything, it shows that these issues, which are as pertinent today, have been a problem since ten years into our independence.
An interesting point to note was how this book was meant to raise funds for the organisation to built a “Monument to the Early Pioneers” that never came true. All that is left of this effort is a foundation stone (right) that is found in the National Archives today. It was originally located at the waterfront side of Collyer Quay and was relocated to its present location because of road works there.
Another group that proposed an alternative vision of urban Singapore was the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (S.P.U.R.) that was set up in 1965 by a group of architects and planners. Its more prominent members include William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon. Its ideas and works can be found in “SPUR 1965-1967” (left), a self-published report and you can still purchase limited copies of it at Select Books. The proposals of this group are a clear alternative to Singapore’s urban renewal strategy that if implemented would have given a very different-looking city. For instance, they made calls for HDB neighbourhoods to have more distinct identities to better foster community-bonding, something that has only been implemented in recent times. Other more radical suggestions included questioning the plan to build distinct areas of work and living. S.P.U.R. pushed for the idea of housing work, living and play all in one mega structure so as to avoid transport congestion issues that we face today. For a sense of these structures, think of mixed-use buildings like People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile. The ability to do all three in one place eliminated the need for travel to a city centre for work and out of it to go home.
These books are but two examples of alternative visions of Singapore. I think the ability to imagine another Singapore is something fundamentally lacking in many of us. This apathy in imagination is probably because Singapore is so well run that it doesn’t need its people. Add to that, the fact that we can export our public sector expertise to other countries like Dubai and China shows how little Singaporeans can factor in the policy-making process. It is important to have alternatives in case things fail, and the seeming lack of it today is probably because Singaporeans have forgotten how to imagine.