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.

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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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Gibson-Hill’s collection

For this short blog post, I will focus on Lim’s anthropological materials. There are two main sets of materials in this category. The first is what Lim inherited from Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill’s collection. According to Lim, a year after Gibson-Hill’s sudden suicide in 1963, George Thompson called Lee Kip Lin and Lim up and entrusted them with the materials Gibson-Hill left behind. According to Lim, Lee took away the materials he was interested in — primarily those concerning Singapore’s history — and left him with the rest. Some of these materials include beautiful measured drawings and photographs of Malay houses and mengkuang mat weaving patterns, such as those below:

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On seeing these, I immediately associated them with the famous mengkuang-inspired tile patterns at the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (see below). So I asked Lim if he was inspired by these drawings. “No, the design came before I saw these drawings,” came his reply. Indeed, if Lim only received those Gibson-Hill’s drawings in 1964, the design of the Singapore Conference Hall would have been completed as it was already under construction. Nevertheless, there are some uncanny similarities.

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Southeast Asian Cultural Research Programme

The other set of anthropological materials was from the Southeast Asian Cultural Research Programme. Lim was the (honorary) project director of the programme that was hosted by the Institute of Southeast Asia in the early 1980s. The main bulk of the materials in this Toyota-Foundation-sponsored project was from Dorothy Pelzer (1915-1972), an architect-researcher who spent years in the 1960s documenting traditional houses in Southeast Asia. Pelzer and Lim were linked through their MIT connections — they both studied architecture at MIT and knew and/or taught by György Kepes. I didn’t get to go through the materials in great detail but I found a few exhibition brochures and some detailed photographs of wood carvings from traditional houses in Southeast Asia.

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I am no anthropologist nor am I a scholar of traditional architecture in Southeast Asia. So my primary fascination with these materials is how they might have informed the modern architectural designs that Lim produced. Interestingly, one of Lim’s teacher at MIT was Bernard Rudofsky. Rudofsky is perhaps better known as the curator of the famous “architecture without architects” show at MOMA but he was also a noted “humane designer” of modern houses.

So how would these anthropological materials contribute to an understanding of Lim and his work? As I am only in my initial research stage, it is probably too premature for me to even speculate, let alone make a well-substantiated argument. Furthermore, any speculation on my part would depend on me going through the materials in other categories of Lim’s archives. This is especially important for a person who is a self-styled “comprehensivist” ( a term he borrowed from his good friend Bucky Fuller).

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Photo above: Lim Chong Keat (second from right) with Bucky Fuller (second from left) and others posing in front of a Rumah Karo(?), undated, probably 1970s. 

Postscript

Lim’s interest in traditional houses was also reflected in the way he taught during his brief stint at the Singapore Polytechnic. He organised a fieldtrip and brought a few of his students to Malaysia. Among the different activities undertaken was the survey of “Malay houses”. The photograph below (from Tay Kheng Soon’s collection) shows Tay, Wee Chwee Heng and two others at a Rumah Melaka. Wee’s measuring drawing of the building was later to become the masthead of Rumah magazine:

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