Singapore Storeys

Renowned architect-planner Dr Liu Thai Ker is widely recognised for his role in shaping the urban development of Singapore. Beyond our shores, he has also influenced urban landscapes in cities across Asia and the Middle East.

He is often hailed as Singapore’s “father of urban planning” for his role in shaping public housing policies. Find out how Dr Liu Thai Ker, the former chief of the Housing & Development Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, shares the country’s experience in building communities with the world while upholding the Singapore brand overseas.
 

BY YONG SHU CHIANG
PHOTO ALECIA NEO
 

Dr Liu Thai Ker is the brains behind several iconic buildings around the world, including the Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore in the background.

 

C

reating liveable cities that are aesthetically and functionally harmonious, and responsible to the environment, is the continuing ambition of Dr Liu Thai Ker, 77, who is widely recognised as the architect and master planner of modern Singapore.

With a distinguished career in urban planning, Dr Liu was architect-planner and CEO of Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) from 1969 to 1989, and later, CEO and chief planner of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) from 1989 to 1992.

He is closely associated with the successful implementation of public housing in the nation – overseeing the completion of more than half a million housing units – and was instrumental in shaping its urban landscape. Beyond bricks and mortar, he is focused on building communities that are emotionally connected to their environment.

Now senior director at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers (RSP), some of his achievements include being the first local architect to be involved in designing the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, as well as the upcoming China Cultural Centre on Queen Street.

He was also chairman of the jury for the master plan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Park, and was planning adviser to more than 30 Chinese cities, including Yangzhou in Jiangsu and Zhuhai in Guangdong. For his role in sharing Singapore’s urban development experience with China since the 1980s and contributing to Sino-Singapore relations, he was awarded the top honour for excellence at the 2014 Business China Awards.

On the cultural front, he has served as chairman of the National Arts Council and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.


1. What do you consider to be your most important contribution to Singapore?

There are several that I consider to be important. I was involved with HDB for 20 years, and then with URA for four. At HDB, I planned and helped to develop 23 new towns.

At URA, I prepared the 1991 Concept Plan (a strategic land use and transportation longterm plan reviewed every 10 years), firmed up urban conservation policy for old buildings, updated planning regulations and streamlined processes for planning approval.

At URA, I prepared the 1991 Concept Plan (a strategic land use and transportation longterm plan reviewed every 10 years), firmed up urban conservation policy for old buildings, updated planning regulations and streamlined processes for planning approval.

We relocated whole neighbourhoods and created new communities, not isolated “dormitory towns”.


2. In those days, how did the Singapore Government influence your approach?

First, the Government laid out very clear policy directions.

Its vision was for HDB to house everybody, to make sure no one was left homeless. Our primary objective was to create good liveable environments with a sense of community for our multicultural society, and with facilities to fulfil daily needs, such as schools and shops, that are linked by bus services, as well as job opportunities. And we had to keep our costs as low as possible to allow the maximum number of people to afford such housing.

Second, there was strong support from the Government. Whatever HDB needed, the Government facilitated through various measures. We may think this ought to happen anyway, but getting such governmental support should not be taken for granted.


3. You studied and trained in Australia and the United States, two decidedly “Western” entities, but you built your career in the East. What do you think of this seeming cultural divide, in terms of urban planning?

I feel indebted to the West for providing a basic grounding of urban planning theories, as well as new town concepts. They have a long tradition and understanding of urban culture. They know what makes a good city and have developed basic planning theories.

The fact that Singapore was a British colony is one key reason why we had a much better start on our urbanisation. Our first-generation planners already understood urban culture, and I was a product of that.

Asia is very different, with very high population densities. Western planning principles do not work wholesale here; they need to be adapted.


4. What is your philosophy as a planner and architect?

If you look at historical cities in Asia and Europe, the beauty is in how all the buildings collectively form a piece of artwork. Imagine the buildings of a city as members of a choral group. Only a select few should be landmarks – they’re the soloists. But today, everyone wants to be a soloist; you end up with an architectural junkyard. I have been careful to avoid this.

As a student, I was taught that “form follows function”, that a building’s form should be an expression of its function. I want to add to that the experience so that “form follows function follows fun”.

The ultimate goal of architecture to me is to create a nice experience. You want to avoid the trend of “form follows fame”, whereby the architect does whatever he wants for personal fame.


5. What defines the Singapore brand?

Singapore is already a big brand name. When you tell people you’re from Singapore, you’re part of the brand. I feel highly responsible for protecting it. When I work overseas, I try to work politely and cooperatively.

But on rare occasions, I’ve had to walk away from a job because I was asked to do something significantly against planning principles and my planning values. I chose to walk away rather than risk spoiling the Singapore brand.


6. Tell us about some of the friendships you have formed through your work and collaborations.

Being Chinese-educated, when I went to Australia to study, I decided to learn to speak English as well as the locals. I wanted to understand their way of thinking. I made many good friendships that have lasted until today.

In recent years, because of my work overseas, principally in China, I’ve made many friends there. Because of my Chinese education, background, language skill and understanding of the culture, I was able to forge genuine friendships.


7. Singapore is partnering the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to develop a new capital city, 10 times the size of Singapore. What is the significance of this for Singapore?

As a Singaporean, I’m very proud that Andhra Pradesh has invited us to create a new city for them. It’s an acknowledgement of our planning (experience). For the last 10 years, I’ve highlighted the concept of constellation cities in my work in China.

In Asia, we have a lot of megacities of more than 5 million. If Beijing and Shanghai had been planned as collections of five or six constellation cities, rather than huge individual cities, they would be able to solve their urban problems better.

Similarly, in Singapore, we’ve broken the country into five regions and 25 new towns. I hope the parties to the collaboration understand (the planning behind) what makes Singapore special.


8. What role do the arts have in bridging communities and uplifting lives?

Art is a kind of common language that is universal worldwide. Someone once said to me: while politics divides nations, art brings nations together, and I totally agree with that. Art helps to bring people together. For example, I was happy to learn that the Singaporean play, Emily Of Emerald Hill, was translated into French and performed in Paris as part of the Singapore Festival in France from March to June this year.

Being able to appreciate art helps make life more meaningful. We cannot simply focus on material things in life and evaluate everything in dollars and cents. Art helps to embellish one’s quality of life.


9. Is it important for you to impart your vast experience to the next generation?

I feel that I know a thing or two about urban planning and urban design, which has been applied and proven to be well received. I certainly want to explain how these ideas worked, not only to Singaporeans but also to others. I think not many Singaporeans really understand how the city was put together.

That’s why I’m in the process of writing a book, to help Singaporeans know what went on behind what you see on the surface today.

SG50 is a great impetus to write about our past experiences. I hope there will be many more good books on how the city came about, and younger Singaporeans read them.


10. You still keep regular office hours at RSP and are involved in various projects. Why is that?

The Singapore Government has given me great opportunities to learn about how to put a city together well, so I want to share this experience of creating a beautiful, liveable city that works well, has low carbon emissions, and is protective of the ecology.

If I can create successful cities in different parts of the world, hopefully they can become prototypes for others to emulate. People have told me that what works in Singapore won’t work in their country.

The only way to prove them wrong is to help them to develop it on their soil. By doing so, I hope to help make a better world. It is a lofty desire, but that’s what I’m trying to do.

 


Please Login to post your comment...

Loading comments...


PREVIOUS ISSUE

MORE +

2017 . Issue 2

10 Questions

Engaging the World

Professor Kishore Mahbubani on leveraging friendships to promote international cooperation.
READ MORE

2017 . Issue 1

10 Questions

Bonding through Clay

Master potter Iskandar Jalil shares how he brings communities together through a love of...
READ MORE

2016 . Issue 3

10 Questions

In Good Company

Social entrepreneur Elim Chew on mentoring youth and running businesses that do good.
READ MORE

2016 . Issue 2

10 Questions

The Art Of Tact

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong on bringing different communities together.
READ MORE

Popular & Most Read

2017 . Issue 1

Bonding through Clay

Master potter Iskandar Jalil shares how he brings communities...READ MORE

2017 . Issue 2

Engaging the World

Professor Kishore Mahbubani on leveraging friendships to...READ MORE

Get your free
subscription here!