Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Malayan Architects Co-Partnership 1960-1967

A critical retrospective of the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership's (1960-1967) oeuvre is overdue. In an era when architecture was an expedient instrument to project national identity, the firm's work - self-assured and fluent in the modernist language of pilotis, parasols, free-standing walls, and servant cores - influenced a generation of local practitioners in both Singapore and Malaysia.

Modelled on Walter Gropius' TAC (The Architects Collaborative) and the Architects Co-Partnership in the UK, the firm designed a body of work across Malaya (present-day West Malaysia and Singapore) and was started by foreign-trained architects William Lim, Lim Chong Keat and Chen Voon Fee in 1960. William Lim studied at the AA in London which exposed him to Team X functionalists like John Killick, James Stirling, Peter & Allison Smithson. His subsequent year at Harvard enabled interaction with other late modernists like Sert and Maki. Lim Chong Keat studied at Manchester University and at the MIT and was influenced by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who directed the AA Tropical Studio.

Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon writes an illuminating account of his time as an employee of the firm in the 1960s, including personal rivalries. British architectural historian Mark Crinson also writes a convincing narrative of the firm's magnum opus - the Singapore Conference Hall - against a backdrop of nationalism. The MACs work is self-assured in the language of modernism - their oeuvre demonstrate careful references to modern masters like Corbusier, Kahn, Mies, Candela.

Below are some images of their work. RL


Singapore Conference Hall / Trade Union House
(image source: Singapore National Day Commerative pamphlet 1966)

Singapore Conference Hall / Trade Union House perspective

Singapore Conference Hall / Trade Union House elevations

Singapore Conference Hall / Trade Union House plans

MSA (Malaysia-Singapore Airlines) Building, Shenton Way

MSA (Malaysia-Singapore Airlines) Building under construction.

State Mosque - Negri Sembilan (1963 competition, completed 1967)

Dr A F H Aeria House, Penang (1963)

Plan of Dr A F H Aeria House, Penang (1963)
Note the references to Mies' Brick County Villa.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A different kind of tropical high-rise

View of tower in skyline

I came across this project by Toyo Ito for a spec office tower at Market Street (Singapore) in a recent issue of GA Document. I do not know whether it will be constructed or if it remains a proposal, but it's definitely an interesting addition to current discourse on tropical high rise architecture. This is especially so since most of the successful tropical high-rises so far (especially the towers by WoHa) have been residential, and therefore deploy architectural elements more suited for residential architecture like terraces, balconies, fenestration.

This is the first example I'm seeing of a commercial spec office tower, which given its highly prominent (and costly site), is subject to rigorous market efficiencies and lease step dimensions that limit the "playing room" for generous brises-soleils, balconies, etc that mediate the tropical sun and the internal enclosure. Toyo Ito proposes a formalistic interweaving of two kinds of walls - a screen wall and a green wall - to create an abstract figure in the skyline that speaks to the kind of fluid, naturalistic "weak architecture" that is a prevalent theme in his current work. Its form-driven approach makes it a very different animal from the organisational, program/performance-based (or even utilitarian) rigour that characterises works like Newton Suites or the Met by WoHa.

Among today's contemporary starchitects, I reserve my greatest respect for Toyo Ito. Yet, I often doubt if the kind of lightness, fluidity, subtle complexity and ephemerality (a la Maurice Merleau Ponty) that Ito seeks can be accomplished outside of Japan. In a different construction culture (or even in a different climate), the roughness and speed of local construction result in a rough outcome that is less than fine. Even in the intensity of Singapore's sweltering sun, any intended lightness and ephemerality can be easily lost. I remember comparing Ito's Vivocity shopping mall as built with an image of the original architectural model (that really conveyed a light fluid eggshell feel). The two could not be more different and the built shopping mall could not be more underwhelming.

But I leave you to judge the project below and form your own opinions. On paper at least, it's a welcome addition to the architectural candy store. RL

Architectural Model


Terrace View

Rooftop Garden view

Monday, July 11, 2011

Singapore - Evolution of a Planned City

Cities always begin somewhere. Sometimes they begin with a plan, sometimes the plan is imposed after the fact. Paris may be thousands of years old, but we can't seem to dislodge our understanding of Paris from the boulevards and axes planned by Baron Haussmann. Nor can we separate New York's ubiquitous street blocks from the Commissioner's Plan of 1811. The following images give a brief glimpse of Singapore's planning trajectory beginning with the Raffles Town Plan of 1822, giving us a sense of how this city came to be. RL

1822 Town Plan, Singapore

1842 survey map

1963 Ring City proposal by UNDP team led by Otto Koenigsberger

1971 Singapore's First Concept Plan (adapted
from Koenigsberger's 1963 Ring City proposal)

2003 Concept Plan

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Beyond "The Singapore Songlines" (S,M,L,XL) into a Post-Generic City

The Singapore Songlines - from S, M, L, XL by Rem Koolhaas

For architects partaking in Singapore's urban metamorphosis, the cast of architect/theorist Rem Koolhaas' looms ominously. We are only beginning to break the stranglehold of Koolhaas' highly acerbic (even if illuminating) 1995 essay "The Singapore Songlines - Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis" (published in his book- S,M,L,XL). For many, Koolhaas' essay discomfited many because he succeeded in portraying Singapore as what he called "a Barthian slate" (after Roland Barthes) devoid of authenticity, where "even chaos is planned chaos."

To him, Singapore represents the kind of generic city that is the model for China's behemothic urban transformation, elaborated in his subsequent book Mutations. In fact, his other essay "The Generic City" in S,M,L,XL used generous illustrations of scenes from urban Singapore, as if to prove that Singapore's is the generic city par excellence. (Recognise Tange's UOB tower and the Meridien hotel at Orchard Road in the images below?)

Images of Singapore from "The Generic City", S,M,L,XL

Undeniably, Singapore's politics of urban development (and hence, architecture creation) is closely tied to global capitalism. Architect Toyo Ito himself lamented this observation in a recent issue of Japan Architect magazine. The URA Sale of Sites process, whereby the authorities efficiently acquire, prepare (sometimes appending infrastructure) and auction land for development to the highest bidder is a systemic process that assures this continued urban metamorphosis - allowing more and more mixed-use "generic city" type developments to pervade at increasingly larger scales. A very similar model of urban development operates in other East Asian cities like Shanghai, which boasts its own land reserve system for urban development.

Yet, the passage of time always yields unexpected revelations. What used to be thought an immutable truth (or an inescapable fact) usually yields an unexpected outcome. Ten years after he wrote his super-critical "The Singapore Songlines," Koolhaas re-calibrated his position in an interview with a local newspaper, stating, "The issue of authenticity is ambiguous in itself because if you look at Singapore it has taken away a lot of what was there, but everything that is new and has existed for some period of time also has its new authenticity." He adds, "What I thought was (once) a tabula rasa [blank slate], but I discovered within that are now living intricate Asian forms of human interaction and existence." ("Kool Designer: Once Critical of Singapore, top architect sings different tune" 16 Nov 2005, Today [Singapore])

I am not convinced that Koolhaas' totalizing proclamations are the last word on Singapore's (or Asia's) urban paradigm. He ignores the fact that generic city processes like real estate capitalism can still engender original outcomes when the ingredients are right. For a developer-driven residential tower project (Moulmein Rise, by Woha), the architects used a local vernacular architectural device, a “monsoon window” for ventilation during heavy storms. The same window protrudes to give more perceptual space against the literal square footage of each unit, giving developers a selling point. Here, the hybridisation of a local, almost romantic, vernacular element with a ruthless real estate dollar sense yields a very specific outcome (that is anything but the neutral banality he proclaims).

Moulmein Rise and the monsoon window
(Woha Designs)

In his essay "The Generic City," Koolhaas proclaimed, “The Generic City is on its way from horizontality to verticality. The skyscraper looks as if it will be the final, definitive typology... The towers no longer stand together; they are spaced so that they don’t interact. Density in isolation is the ideal.” Yet it is anything but. The two examples illustrated below (Pinnacle@Duxton, Singapore by ArcStudio and The Met, Bangkok by Woha) demonstrate that the combination of developmental density pressures, climate, and demand for accessible (sky high) public space can sponsor new urban typologies that transcend the lone skyscraper type. Again, another Koolhaas-ian problamation is proven wrong.

Pinnacle@Duxton (ArcStudio)

The Met, Bangkok (Woha Designs)

What seems to be a tabula rasa (blank slate) isn't really a blank slate. The real challenge is to identify the real processes and factors underlying our urban context that allow us to determine an architecture that is specific to Singapore's unique context. RL

Architects' Words: Paul Rudolph on Singapore

The great architect of the late-modern period, legendary dean at Yale School of Architecture and mentor to many of today's influential practitioners (e.g. Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, etc) built some of his larger and more significant final works in Southeast Asia. While his magnum opus is undeniably the Art & Architecture Building at Yale University, his works in Singapore include the Colonnade condominium, the Concourse complex (its podium was recently torn down), and a few other as yet unpublished (or unbuilt) private residences. Here are some of his observations related to practising in Singapore. RL.

Paul Rudolph posing in front of his signature Corduroy Concrete walls

Paul Rudolph on the Colonnade Apartments on Grange Road

"I should say about Grange Road that this is a building that I have been thinking about for thirty years. It cannot be built in the United States because of the labor involved.....The forming of the concrete is, let's face it, very elaborate. There's a great deal going on in this building, for better or for worse. There are many different apartment types and structurally and mechanically it becomes tremendously involved. I was just saying that this was not at all off the top of my head. It's a marvelous example of a building that I'd really been thinking about in principle for a long, long time." (Source: Chicago Architects Oral History Project - interviewed by Robert Bruegmann -

Colonnade apartments perspective drawing

Colonnade apartments as built.

On the commercial shopping centre typology in Singapore

"Partially because of the competition they've negated their traditional life in Singapore. You almost think you're in the United States when you're in Singapore. The only viable thing really, from an economic viewpoint, is the shopping center. Therefore you will find great competition and, therefore, architecturally-elaborate interior spaces. Of course we see that in this country too, but only since World War II. There have been some great department store spaces and hotel lobbies. You can't say there isn’t anything else in the United States because, of course, there are museums and institutions that have great interior spaces. In Singapore, though, the commercial interior space is really it." (Source: Chicago Architects Oral History Project - interviewed by Robert Bruegmann -

On East Coast Parkway and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge

"That boulevard has organised the buildings on either side of it and ends in this bridge which is like a mountain. You get to the top and bingo, there's this marvellous skyline....You should make a splendid ceremonial gate at the top with a place where you can turn off and have a viewing platform over the bay and the city." (Source: "Who needs fancy pants" The Straits Times, 20th August 1989)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Complexity and Contradiction - the legacy of PoMo in Singapore

Unit 8 by William Lim Associates, 1983
(Image source: Innovative Architecture of Singapore by Robert Powell)

As the post-Modern movement in architecture of the 1970s and 1980s is being re-evaluated, I wanted to devote this post to an underrated building that has eluded most lists of significant architecture in Singapore - Unit 8 condominium (by William Lim, 1983) at Holland Road. This building remains unchanged and has aged well, even if overgrown trees have made the front facade difficult to photograph.

I once asked William Lim the circumstances in which he entered the so-called "post-modern" phase of his work and turned his back on Modernism that characterised his prior work like the People's Park and Golden Mile complexes. I don't remember his exact reply, except that after the Metabolist movement fizzled out with the 1970 Osaka Expo (coinciding with when he was finishing his two urban mega complexes), he visited the post-Metabolist work in Japan - presumably by architects like Arata Isozaki and Kazuo Shinohara - and that marked the start of this new phase that included some houses and a chapel at St. Andrew's Junior College.

Appreciating this building demands a familiarity with Robert Venturi's 1965 treatise, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which highlighted limitations in the dogma of the modern movement and unleashed post-Modernism. Venturi argued for a "both/and" approach to architecture, one that was complex, contradictory and could not be reduced to an "either/or" one-liner. Instead of Mies van der Rohe's "Less is More," Venturi advocated "Less is a Bore." My sense is that William Lim was paying attention to Venturi at this time since his speeches and writings from this period often referred to Venturi's arguments.

Plan and Elevation, Unit 8
(Image source: Innovative Architecture of Singapore by Robert Powell)

The building plays intelligently with the rift between what you see and what you get. The building's front facade is coded with various hints of what occur behind it but don't give too much away. The semi-circular pediment may just be a flat wall, but indicates the semi-circular lift lobby behind it. The fenestration (windows) are seemingly regular, yet contain subtle irregularities on the upper two floors to suggest that those two floors are different.

It is startling how the building synthesizes seemingly irreconcilable inconsistencies. The flatness of the front facade lends a false impression that the apartments behind are square to (perpendicular to) the street wall on plan, yet the two right-most apartments on each floor are tilted on plan. This information itself is subtly codified on the front elevation through the white break in the pink wall with 2 slightly canted walls (the break in the facade is unfortunately covered by trees in the first image). The verticality of the front gives way to a complete horizontality at the back. The straightness of the front gives way to curves at the back.

Back view, Unit 8
(Image source:

One notes that at this moment in Singapore's architectural history, discourse on either tropicality or local modernity in architectural practice had yet to evolve into maturity in Singapore. This building is rather the product of importing an intellectual trend/movement that began in the West (but carefully understood and rigorously applied) not unlike how Modernism in Singapore itself was an import that had its roots in Europe.

The post-Modern movement of the 1970s and 1980s was subsequently derided as being slavish, historicist or simply lacking in gravitas, yet few practitioners deny the impact and potency of Complexity and Contradiction to contemporary critical design practice. While the accomplishments of Unit 8 is largely forgotten or overlooked in Singaporean architectural culture, attempting to close-read the building yields rewarding insights into the kind of intellectually rigorous practice that remains in short supply among many local practitioners in Singapore.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Inaugural Post - Why this blog on architecture, and why now?

I care about architecture. And I care about Singapore. Little surprise then that these two topics converge into the question that I have spent the past few years researching and thinking about- what does it mean to design and practice architecture with sophistication in Singapore?

During my architecture graduate education, I had a graphic design instructor who taught an architecture book-design course who would always ask, "Why this topic? Why now?" My reply is that I have for years found myself restless, angsty and also excited and optimistic about the direction that architecture practice in Singapore is heading. This optimism includes how the terms for local architectural discourse are also gradually broadening.

My angst arises when my many questions and thoughts that remain off the discursive radar screen. Sometimes, something as petty as realising that the intellectual importance of certain buildings in Singapore I care about have not been duly acknowledged riles me. Other times, reading about how "iconic" ugly buildings like Moshe Safdie's Marina Bay Sands are actually admired by other architects kill me.

Most importantly, however, I write for myself - to develop my ideas and articulate my position on themes that will define my future design practice. An architectural academic once told me that creating time to write for yourself on topics that you care about is different from (and more difficult than) writing on topics that others commission you to do. I have contributed articles to Singapore Architect magazine over the past years, assisted in its editing for one year, and have still found it hard to fully develop my opinions/position within that framework, as rewarding as the involvement has been.

My posts generally assume a Singaporean architectural audience and hence may too often quote obscure local references that a foreign reader may find unfamiliar or plain esoteric. Where I am cognisant of this gap, I'll try my best to explain and insert background information. But I apologise in advance for any such gaps.

Few blogs last forever, and all are subject to the vagaries of available time (and inspiration). Let's hope this blog carries on for as long as it does, and that its discoveries will be meaningful. I leave with an image of a different moment in Singapore's architectural history, when currently strong personalities were a little more naive and less formed.

International Exhibition on work by Tropical Schools of Architecture
at Singapore Polytechnic, 1963. A young Tay Kheng Soon, proponent of urban tropicality,
second from right, explains a project (Source: National Archives of Singapore)