On pioneer Malayan architect Lim Chong Keat

Thanks to the “Pioneer architects lecture and dialogue series” organised by Tay Kheng Soon, I have the privilege of listening to Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat’s lecture last night at the URA Centre and participating in a dialogue with him earlier today at the School of Design and Environment, NUS.

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Tay Kheng Soon introducing Lim Chong Keat.

2-20150303_102725061_iOSLim Chong Keat talking about his influences. 

Lim Chong Keat (b. 1930) is probably not a name that is familiar to the younger generation of architects and architectural students in Singapore today. But Lim is undoubtedly a very significant architect in post-independent Singapore’s architectural history. Educated at the University of Manchester and MIT, Lim was the principal architect behind many of the most significant buildings completed in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (completed in 1965 under Malayan Architects Co-partnership with his partners Chen Voon Fee and William Lim), Malaysia Singapore Airlines (completed in 1969 under Architects Team 3) and Jurong Town Hall Building (completed in 1974 under Architects Team 3). Besides being a prominent practitioner, Lim was also an influential teacher who taught the first few batches of architectural graduates at the Singapore Polytechnic. Among his students were Tay Kheng Soon, Tan Cheng Siong and Wee Chwee Heng. Internationally, Lim also played important roles at the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA) and ARCASIA. He was the chairman of the Commonwealth Board of Architectural Education (CBAE), which was part of the CAA, in the 1970s and a founding member of ARCASIA.

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An aerial photo of the Robinson Road and Shenton Way area showing the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines building on the left (the one with a tower block) and the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on the right. (Source: taken from Lim Chong Keat’s lecture slide). 

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A Street view of the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines building (Source: SIAJ, 1970). 

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View of the front elevation of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House.

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Model of the Jurong Town Hall building that was a part of the competition entry (Source: SIAJ, 1970)

During his lectures and dialogue, Lim covered a wide range of topics. What fascinated me personally are the following themes –

  • His emphases on the international context and the “universal”. Lim spoke at length during the lectures of his international influences and his internationalist orientation (that was previously covered in his 1980s essay). When asked by a member of the audience about his architecture and the question of “national identity”, he was explicit that “buildings should not be about identity” and there was “no nationalistic intend” behind his designs. That was the case even for a building like the Singapore Conference Hall with its mengkuan mat-inspired mosaic pattern (see image below). Lim also saw himself as contributing in a “universal” – rather than local or national – sense with his architecture despite the inclusion of paintings and sculptures by local artists and furniture and fittings made from local materials by local suppliers in the buildings he designed.

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The mengkuan mat-inspired mosaic pattern on one of the exterior walls of the auditorium at the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. (Source: taken from Lim Chong Keat’s lecture slide). 

  • His relationship with colonial architects and architecture. Although Lim confessed that he might have appeared “anti-colonial” at times – which is probably most evident in his criticism of “post-colonial politics” of the CAA and his response to Julius Posener and Lincoln Page’s negative reviews of buildings in Singapore and Malaysia designed by local architects in the 1960 special issue of Architectural Review on Commonwealth Architecture – he said that he wasn’t really anti-colonial. In fact, he was only against the “mediocrity” perpetuated by the colonial architects. For the same reason, Lim did not look at the colonial architecture or the modern architecture produced by colonial architects. He chose to ignore the colonial architecture rather than react against them.

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Lim Chong Keat (third from the right in the second row) in a group photo taken during the Conference of Commonwealth and Overseas Architectural Societies held at the RIBA, London, 21-25 July 1963. This Conference led to the formation of the CAA subsequently. (Source: University of Liverpool library).

  • On being a “comprehensivist”. Lim proclaimed that the architect should be a comprehensivist, rather than a generalist or a specialist. Terms like generalist and specialist were a part of the post-War debate on architectural education and the profession in Britain and the Commonwealth. In putting forward the notion of a comprehensivist, Lim was probably responding to that debate. But I think it was also his own self-image. As a young architect, Lim was very well read and had extensive knowledge of the arts and sciences. (Lim is one of the foremost botanical researcher in the region and he has one of the largest private collection of art works by regional artists.) As a young architect, Lim already had in-depth knowledge of structure, building services, landscape and climatic design. According to Tay, Lim’s knowledge was reflected in his large scale drawings that showed construction details and even the types of plants and trees in the landscape.

Given Lim’s importance, I am surprised that there is no proper — in the sense of rigourously researched — account of his architecture. At a time when Singapore is celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence, we still know very little of its post-independent architectural history beyond what has been written in a few exhibition catalogues, a small number of old unpublished PhD theses and research reports, and the official histories of the government agencies involved in housing and urban development.

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3 Responses to On pioneer Malayan architect Lim Chong Keat

  1. Lai Chee Kien says:

    There’s always a plausible and explainable reason for large voids.

  2. jiathwee says:

    Kheng Soon has just obtained a grant from the Department to edit the video recording and transcribe the interview. Hopefully they will be posted online in the near future for researchers to refer to. Perhaps some of the large voids might be filled?

  3. tay kheng soon says:

    thanks jiat hwee for a succinct report of the talk. I should be lengthened and published? ks

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