Tag: William Lim

William S.W. Lim: A Poet of Cities

“The Future of Asian Cities”

An essay commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Singapore for the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s “IDEAS FEST 2016/17: CITIES FOR PEOPLE”.

Even before “creative”, “walkable”, “high-density”, and “liveable” became recent buzzwords for Singapore’s future as a city, architect William Lim Siew Wai had advocated for such a vision almost five decades ago.

As part of the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), a non-governmental think-tank a young Lim co-founded with other architects in the 1960s, they laid out “The Future of Asian Cities”—a visionary 1966 essay which reads like how Singapore now envisions to become.

“Imagine a city where…” work, play and living is mixed and concentrated, everything is connected by an efficient rapid transport system, and clean parks as well as open spaces are abound. Concerned about Asia and Singapore’s then rapidly growing population and massive industrialisation in the 1960s, SPUR dreamt up such “radical transformations” to modernise the region, but in a manner sensitive to the local way of life.

This was not the development path the Singapore government eventually chose, however, a divergence we can see in the city today. With the help of the United National Development Programme, the resulting Concept Plan 1971 resettled the population across neatly divided areas of singular function, all served by an island wide system of expressways—a Western model that has since proven inadequate for the Singapore of tomorrow.

Despite the city’s rejection of his ideas (SPUR was dissolved in 1975 partly due to opposition from the government), Lim never stopped dreaming of a utopia of Cities for People, also the title of his 1990 book. As an architect, he helped design People’s Park Complex (1972) and Golden Mile Complex (known as Woh Hub Complex when it opened in 1974), two pioneering mixed-use developments where bustling street life defined its interiors. As an urban activist, Lim made a stand on the value of built heritage amidst a city then fervently razing everything old for the new. In 1982, he worked with poet and entrepreneur Goh Poh Seng to conceptualise Bu Ye Tian, a proposal for the conservation and adaptive reuse of Boat Quay. Two years later, he helped produce Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage, a book that sparked the city’s conservation movement.

Underpinning Lim’s architecture and advocacy are the many books he has authored and edited, an endeavour he is dedicated full-time to since retiring from practice in 2002. While his writings can be frustratingly broad, Lim has clearly and consistently built the modern Asian city with his words. Against the rise of starchitects and globalised architecture, he has preached for ethical urbanism and the contemporary vernacular. And while governments increasingly turn to corporations and consultants offering cookie-cutter urban solutions to build their cities, a then 70-year-old Lim started the Asian Urban Lab in 2003, which brings together artists and intellectuals to critically and creatively consider urban life in all its complexities.

Far from being prophetic, Lim has simply been poetic—like his generation of intellectuals in Singapore—in envisioning what their city can and should be. In 1968, Singapore’s then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, declared in a address to university students that, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”[1]. Only a year earlier, Lim had pleaded otherwise when outlining the future of tomorrow’s cities: “We must plan for people and not population, to create places with spatial relationships, not voids between buildings and achieve quality and sophistication, not just pure function,” he said.

“We need poets and visionaries. Poetic reality is all embracing. It takes into account the total personality of every individual.”[2]

 

With Or Without the People

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.

Incomplete Urbanism exhibition at the 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.

Read the full review in CUBES #84 (Feb 2017/Mar 2017)

S.P.U.R: The Future Was Already Here

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.

A photo posted by Justin Zhuang (@justinzhuang) on

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.

(Clockwise, left to right) Golden Mile Complex (1973), rendering of Bedok Mall (completed 2013), People's Park Complex (1973), and rendering of Northpoint City (expected 2018). | WIKIMEDIA/SENGKANG
(Clockwise, left to right) Golden Mile Complex (1973), rendering of Bedok Mall (completed 2013), People’s Park Complex (1973), and rendering of Northpoint City (expected 2018). | WIKIMEDIA/SENGKANG

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.

Front and back cover of the inaugural SPUR publication.
Front and back cover of the inaugural SPUR publication.

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.”