Built Environments and the Power of Change

Written By Chessa Lim

13th Dec 2016

Category: Feature

It is not uncommon to find construction sites all around Singapore. As a millennial, I am fortunate to live in a city that reaps the hard work of the older generation in advancing the economy. In tandem, my generation bears witness to the rapid transformation of built environments, and how this plays an integral role to the growth of our country.

Distilling development to a simple thought process, transitional aspirations of the present leads to a formation of built environments, which capacitates change in their function. It is through the careful selection and placement of elements in the specificity of a site, together with the influences from social, emotional and psychological experiences in the given space, that paths the way people behave and seek urban development.

During Singapore’s nation-building phrase, communities such as the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) arose and helped realise many architectural breakthroughs. An influential member to SPUR and prolific contributor to urban development in Singapore and around Asia is architect, urban theorist, and activist, William Lim Siew Wai. Throughout his life journey, Lim has been heavily involved in the architectural arena, contributing as an initiator in a multitude of ways. His key advocacies comprise of heritage conservation and the necessity for architecture to be a “contemporary vernacular”.

Golden Mile Complex was completed in 1974. Image courtesy of DP Architects

One of the many iconic landmarks Lim and his peers designed was the Golden Mile Complex. The complex pioneered an integration of multiple operations in a single building, comprising offices, shopping, entertainment, and residential living; a vertical city on its own. Its architecture is also exemplary of the Metabolist Movement—a post-war Japanese architectural movement that combined ideas of architectural megastructures with those of organic biological growth. While the movement hardly materialised in Japan, the Golden Mile Complex, along with People’s Park Complex and Pearl Bank Apartments lay testament. What Ivan Png (then Nominated Member of Parliament in 2006) referred to as a “vertical slum” was previously cited as a bold experimental structure by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 1995. Ten years later, the description “slum” has made way for “Little Thailand”, also invigorated by the opening of The Projector next door. Few architectural landmarks possess a history this reflective of Singapore’s cultural landscape, eyesore or not.

Singapore Conference Hall. Image source: Wong Yun Chii, Singapore 1:1, 2005

Other projects of Lim’s include the Singapore Conference Hall as well as the LASALLE College of the Arts. Throughout the years, Lim's buildings never grow cold in its ambition to retain the flavor of culture, yet at the same time maintain its practical function attuned with current living demands. Turning 85 this year, Lim is still a spring full of energy pressing for his architectural ideals no less.

Incomplete Urbanism: Attempts of Critical Spatial Practice, 29 October 2016 –29 January 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Inspired by Lim and the Asian Urban Lab that he started with his peers, the NTU Centre of Contemporary Art Singapore (CCA) invites us into their current exhibition, Incomplete Urbanism: Attempts of Critical Spatial Practice. The exhibition takes Lim's concept of “indeterminacy and changeability of urban living” from his similarly titled book Incomplete Urbanism: a critical urban strategy for emerging economies as a base for reflection. This exhibition is a laboratory of sorts with explorations put together by various participants as a response to the key ideas of Lim's practice and his contributions to urban development.

Although viewers may find the space a bit of an information overload, they may find fulfillment experiencing the space as a library with a myriad of resources to further enlarge their own explorative journey into the built environments they frequent. Produced by a prolific team of multidisciplinary researchers, the exhibition displays carefully selected quotes and writings tracing Lim's work and ideals, moving images that records how people use living spaces on various screens, and an exploration on the influence of smells in a space. Visitors can expect a multi-sensory expression of “indeterminacy and changeability of urban living”. With comfortable chairs and cushioned platforms for the mind to rest and wander, this multifaceted experience in the exhibition space instigates reflective dialogues. It also helps one to be more aware of our participatory roles in built environments and other constituents that propagate greater possibilities for living in these spaces. Making tangible the invisible hand of architects, the exhibition invites one to ponder contributors such as William Lim, whose built environments continue to spur motivation in reaching higher heights.

Incomplete Urbanism: Attempts of Critical Spatial Practice, 29 October 2016 –29 January 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

In conjunction with this exhibition, NTU CCA has also curated a series of film screenings which highlight the human-city relationship in Singapore, bringing the contemplative arc of built environments full circle. Upcoming titles include 12 Storeys (1997) by Eric Khoo, Eating Air (1999) by Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng, and Singapore Dreaming (2006) by Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh.


Other than the exhibition, NTU CCA also launched NTU Ideas fest 2016/17: Cities for People, a lineup of activities that encourages a deeper immersion of the topic through dialogues and experiential learning. Part Two, which includes workshops and a summit will take place in January 2017.

More information can be found on their website here.


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