Exhibiting a historian’s archives: Kenneth Frampton at the CCA

A historian typically explores archives of others. But what happens when a historian’s archive becomes the subject and object of exploration and even exhibition? I was recently at the Canadian Centre of Architecture for a seminar/workshop (on an entirely unrelated subject) and the workshop participants were given a guided of the on-going exhibition Educating Architects: Four Courses by Kenneth Frampton  by the exhibition curator Kim Förster. I thought the really well-curated and fascinating exhibition (based on the archive of Kenneth Frampton acquired by the CCA) provides some answers to the question I posed at the beginning of this paragraph. The exhibition features an array of diverse materials —  syllabi, models, drawings, sketches and writings — produced by Frampton and his students at Princeton and Columbia  Do check out the website as it provides an overview of the exhibition.

The curator Kim Förster giving us a guided tour of the exhibition. Photo by author.

Analytical model of Jørn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church by Frampton’s students at Columbia — Young Blu, Byeong-heon Jeon and Hangman Zo, 2003. Photo by author.

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Kumpulan Akitek: A pioneer architectural firm under the radar?

In the past few years, quite a bit has been researched and published — either online or through physical publications — on pioneer architects and architectural firms in Singapore. In my view, one of the important local firms that has been slightly under the radar in these publications is Kumpulan Akitek. It is true that one of their buildings, the Subordinate Courts (1970-75), now renamed the State Courts, has been gazetted for conservation and is also much loved and photographed. It is indeed also correct that one of its former partners Chan Sau Yan Sonny is still very active and has just been awarded the PDA’s Designer of the Year for 2011. But the firm Kumpulan Akitek itself — and two of its partners Victor Chew and Wee Chwee Heng in the Singapore Office — and the outstanding works that they produced during the 1960s and 1970s have not received sufficient attention. Perhaps this is because many of their buildings were demolished. Another plausible reason is that the partners are publicity-shy people.

Section and elevation of the Subordinate Courts, 1970-75. Source: Kumpulan Akitek brochure, circa late 1970s.

I have recently been interviewing one of its partners and learnt a lot more about the works of the firm. And through a colleague I got hold of a rather impressive and rare brochure of the firm from the late 1970s. By looking at their corpus of works in the 1960s-70s, I think we can better situate and understand the design and planning of their most famous work, the Subordinate Courts. It is with this in mind that I thought I would write a short post about the firm through a brief analysis of the plans of a few of their projects.

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Just released: A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new monograph — A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience. See the publisher’s website for more details. Below is a preview of the book from Google Books (although the layout is different from the actual layout of the book).



The book cover above and a few sample spreads below (please click the images to view higher resolution versions of them). The book has close to 100 black-and-white figures.


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The personal archives of Lim Chong Keat, part 2

In my previous post, I blogged about Lim’s anthropological collections. But the main reason for my visit to Lim’s archives is of course his architectural materials. And there are indeed plenty of materials on Lim’s architectural designs, including many previously unpublished photographs of houses he designed in the 1960s and 1970s:


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The personal archives of Lim Chong Keat, Part 1

Since the book that I have been working on for more than 10 years is finally almost done (it should be out in a few months time), I have recently embarked on a new research project exploring the post-independence architects and architecture of Singapore and the region. As one of the first steps of this project, I traveled to Penang to visit Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat and his personal archives last week. (By the way, I was not the only researcher visiting. A curator from Hong Kong M+ museum and a Kuala-Lumpur-based researcher who wrote her doctoral thesis on Malayan Architects Co-partnership were also there.)

Located at his house at Jalan Macalister, which he inherited from his parents, his personal archives consist of several collections of diverse materials that reflect Lim’s wide-ranging interests. Lim himself grouped the materials into four main categories  — Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Botany. I spent three days there but only scratched the surfaces of his vast archives.


Photos: On one side of the driveway into Lim’s compound is what Lim described as an ang mo lao (European house in Hokkien), an “Italianate style” colonial house (above) that Lim grew up in and currently occupies. On the other side of the driveway is an unmistakably modern house that is still incomplete (below). The modern house has two distinct parts – a lower rectangular volume with an octagonal volume hovering above it. For those of you who are acquainted with Lim’s architectural designs, the modern house should look familiar.


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The Singapore Conference Hall and the Singapore Polytechnic


Aerial view of the environs of Shenton Way and the Telok Ayer Basin, circa 1965, with the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House Building in the centre and the Singapore Polytechnic at the back (near the top right hand corner). Source: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat. 

I turned up for an organized tour of the former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House yesterday. The tour was organized as a part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the building by its current tenant, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. However, no one else turned up. Apparently I was the only one who signed up for the tour and the tour guide forgot (or could not be bothered) about it. The lack of interest is perhaps understandable. Although the building is the first post-colonial building to be gazetted as a national monument in 2010. The original building by Malayan Architects Co-partnership (with Lim Chong Keat, Chen Voon Fee and William Lim as the architects) has been renovated and “upgraded” with such insensitivity and disrespect to the original structural and spatial integrity that the current building is really a rather bad piece of architecture. Who else other than an antiquated architectural historian would bother to sign up for a tour of a lobotomized building?


The original naturally-ventilated atrium of the Singapore Conference Hall. Source: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat. 

Singapore Conference Hall

The same atrium today, air-conditioned and enclosed, with the original spatial fluidity and structural integrity compromised. Source: NHB

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T. K. Sabapathy on Michael Sullivan

Last night eminent local art historian/teacher/curator/writer T. K. Sabapathy delivered the NUS Museum Anniversary Lecture “About Michael Sullivan” at the University Cultural Centre. Although the title of the lecture is ostensibly about Michael Sullivan, the founding curator of the University of Malaya Art Museum (the predecessor of the current NUS Museum), the lecture addressed much larger themes that oscillates between the personal and the institutional, the biographical and the disciplinary, memory and knowledge, teacher and student, past and present. Rather than put forward a feeble attempt to summarise the lecture in its entirety, I will just jot down a few points in this blog post on what struck me and lingers in my memory.

1-20150430_125609425_iOST. K. Sabapathy speaking, with a slide showing him and Sullivan meeting in 2008, at a conference in Singapore, fifty years after they first met as student and teacher (source: author’s photograph).

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SEAARC Session Report 2

This is the report on Session 4: Modernisms and Modernities, written by the session chair Lawrence Chua, Syracuse University. 

The papers in this session grappled with where to locate Southeast Asian architecture within histories of multiple modernities and modernisms. They encountered three limitations related to the discourse of multiple modernities. The first of these was the problem of addressing the fundamental conceptualization of modernity itself. While allowing for the possibility of culturally different ways of being modern, the discourse of multiple modernities doesn’t critically address the relationship between economic and technological modernization and aesthetic modernism. It has been a limited discursive tool for understanding what happened in places like Kemalist Turkey, Thailand of the People’s Party, post-Merdeka Malaysia, 20th-century China and any other number of places outside of the so-called “West” where modernism was a “top-down” phenomenon and was not accompanied or produced by an industrial revolution, an autonomous bourgeoisie, or democratization. The second limitation these papers confronted was the ways that multiple modernities are often tied to an essentializing nationalist historiography that allows architects at the peripheries to “localize” universal forms that were authored in the modern “West,” adapting them to the moods of various national regimes. Such narratives fail to account for either the lack of a unified “local” vocabulary or the complex forms of agency and imagination that are produced through the global circulation of ideas, forms, capital, and labor in the 20th century. For example, there can be a Thai modernity, and a Chinese modernity but there have been few attempts to question how these two events informed and underwrote one another. The third problem of this plural approach to the fashioning of one’s own modernity that is different from a Eurocentric modernity overlooks one of the foundational meanings of modernity: the integration of diverse parts of the world into the global capitalist system through uneven geographical development. How does one argue for the production of modernism in Southeast Asian contexts while acknowledging that modern concepts like democracy have been unfulfilled. The presentations in this session used very different methodologies in pointing out some of the risks and rewards in using a pluralist historiographical approach to writing the history of Southeast Asia’s modern architecture.

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4th International Meeting of EAHN – Call for Papers

The 4th International Meeting of the European Architectural History Network (EAHN) will be held in Dublin, June 2-4, 2016. The Call for Papers has just been announced (see here). If the last EAHN conference held at Turin is any indication, the next EAHN conference will feature many good panels with a wealth of excellent presentations and thought-provoking discussions. Furthermore, many of conference events also took place in beautiful spaces, such as the Exhibition Building (below), 1948-50, designed by Pier Luigi Nervi.



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On pioneer architectural educator David Lim


Mr David Lim standing in front of his house, which he designed and was completed in 1968.

Earlier today Kheng Soon, John Chye, Imran and I interviewed Mr. David Lim, a pioneer architectural educator, at his house. Before receiving his formal education at the Architectural Association, London, from 1957 to 1960, he worked at the Singapore Improvement Trust (1941-2), which became a part of the Custodian of Enemy Property Department during the Japanese Occupation (1942-5), in the pre-War and War years. After the War, he worked for two of the most prominent colonial architectural firms – Swan and Maclaren, and Palmer and Turner. After he graduated from the AA, he rejoined Swan and Maclaren and was posted to Kuching for two years. After his stint there, he joined the School of Architecture at the Singapore Polytechnic and remained with the School until his retirement in 1984, when the School was already a part of the National University of Singapore.

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