Tag: William Lim

How People and Time Can Save Bad Design


Try calling the old National Library a “monstrous monument” and “a picture of total failure” today, and one can only imagine the uproar it will cause amongst nostalgic Singaporeans. But that’s exactly what architect William Lim and others of his generation had to say about this now extinct building after it was unveiled in 1960.

“A visit to the inside confirms without any doubt the complete and absolute failure of the architect to create the necessary atmosphere and delight for both the readers and the library staff.” — William Lim (1960)

“Aesthetically, the design and exterior materials used, which are in juxtaposition to the soothing, pleasing National Museum, constitute what might be harshly termed a major architectural abortion.” — Cecil K Byrd (1971)

Similar sentiments were shared when the government announced in 1999 that the library would be demolished  to make way for the development of the Fort Canning Tunnel. The Urban Redevelopment Authority felt the library did not deserved to be conserved because “it was not of great architectural merit”.

But the outpouring against the library’s demolishment and declarations that it was a national icon shows how insignificant design is when compared against how it was used by people and remembered over time. While the criticisms of its architecture are fair and justified, but in this instance, those who supported the library’s conservation  saw its value beyond architecture.


This also explains the struggle with buildings like Golden Mile Complex → ,in which sentiments are reversed —  the architecture community thinks it is a gem, but the public find it an eyesore because it is seen as a home for a foreign community.

Granted that the quarrel is not about the criteria to assess design, but rather what is the value of a building. However, should our critiques of design be purely based on its design? Or should it be broadened to include non-design factors, in this case its value as a piece of Singapore’s social memory? Even so, there is also the question if such feedback be meaningfully incorporated into a design process or practice.

One recent project that addresses some of these issues is FARM’s effort to remember the National Stadium through “bench“. Designers were given old planks of the stadium seats to “recapture and rethink this piece of memory” of the stadium. The result are 30 benches inspired by the stadium’s architecture, its role as a sports centre, and also a community space. Most of the pieces are visual translations of these messages, and often at the expense of the seating experience. The designs also turned out looking rather similar, which could either hint at how narrow the brief was or how unifying the National Stadium was as a memory.

A side project of bench, WOOD, was much more interesting. Hans Tan led a design studio where 18 students from the Division of Industrial Design explored the materiality of the planks and essence of the stadium to greater detail. Freed from the need to create piece of furniture, the students pushed the experience of memory beyond visual objects and instead engage other senses such as smell and interaction. Do check out the exhibition of their works  in The URA Centre till 31 May 2013.

Singapore Alternatives

dsc_0001How else can Singapore look like today?

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.

imageAn 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.