SEAARC Session Report 1

We will be publishing a series of session reports in separate blog posts in the next few weeks. Following these session reports will be an overall reflection piece on the issues raised at the first SEAARC symposium and perhaps another piece on which direction should SEAARC be heading. This is the first report on Session 6: Architectural Networks, Circulations and Translations, written by the session chair Lee Kah Wee, NUS. 

One locus of debate during the conference centres on the pluralization of modernity and what that means for scholarship on Southeast Asian architecture. Sir Bannister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture” was mentioned during the conference as a teleological picture of world architecture where only the West experienced historical progress while other civilizations were cast as timeless or static. A similar picture created by Modernization Theory has been attacked since the 1970s in favor of Dependency Theory or more South-South dialogue or other trajectories that do not conform to a standard core-periphery structure. Collected as part of the “mobility turn” in the social sciences, these debates remind us that theory production has a geography, and it is important to recognize that certain cities or buildings continue to serve unchallenged as “truth spots”, in the words of Thomas Gieryn, that overdetermine the ways historical materials are interpreted and what count as significant evidence in the first place. Foregrounding mobility as an analytic rather than a given seeks to problematize these invisible canons and replace origin-stories with networks of contingency. In this critical endeavor, the mobility turn in the social sciences has thrown up new concepts and methodologies, some of which feature prominently in the papers of this conference.

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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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Introduction to SEAARC

(Introductory speech at the inaugural SEAARC Symposium by Chang Jiat Hwee)

Good morning friends, colleagues and guests. Once again a very warm welcome to the inaugural SEAARC symposium.

I have been tasked to introduce SEAARC – the acronym in the title of this symposium. Another acronym in this world already full of acronyms.

Another just-enough-alphabets-to-say-who-you-are in this city-state that values efficiency that abbreviation brings and apparently loves confounding acronyms too. On your way here, you would most likely to have encountered quite a few of these acronyms – ECP, AYE, MRT, SBS, NUS, SDE and so on and so forth.

Though many acronyms may seem like enigmatic signifiers that refer to abstract and obscure entities, some acronyms refer to very real and widely-known entities, such as large organizations with vast bureaucracies, massive physical presences and are endowed with real power. Like everywhere else, Singapore has many of these entities known primarily by their acronyms and they loom large in our popular imagination. Even my late grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English had no problem recognizing state-linked acronyms like HDB and, of course, PAP.

SEAARC is obviously not one of those acronyms. To begin with, it has 6 alphabets instead of 3, so it is rather lengthy and easily mis-spelt, as it has been on numerous occasions by various people, including ourselves. Furthermore, SEAARC has only 3 members – Imran, Kah Wee and myself, 3 untenured faculty members who are also the convenors of this symposium. In our case, convenor is really a shorthand for saying that we are the ideologues, the secretariat, the event organizers and the odd job labourers all rolled into one.

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Conclusion of the Inaugural SEAARC symposium

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The inaugural SEAARC symposium has just concluded. We would like to thank all speakers and participants for contributing to the incredibly stimulating discussions and debates at the symposium. We will be publishing a report of the symposium, summarising some of our thoughts and reflections of the historiographical and theoretical issues raised by the various speakers during the symposium in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, you can download the programme book with the abstracts here — programme & abstract book final

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SEAARC Symposium Poster

Poster designed by Loh Kin Kit.

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Post-symposium tour: “Reclaiming the past: The royal port town at Kampong Glam, and the Precinct N1 and Golden Mile schemes”

by Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen, NUS

(Signing up details to be announced at a later date)

Saturday, 10 January 2015, 9am-12pm (with a short break)

Nineteenth-century Singapore once operated as a dual port with twin settlements, one centred around Singapore River and controlled by the British, and another centred at Kampung Gelam, a royal town with adjoining merchants’ districts facing the harbour at Kallang Bay and a now obscure Rochor River. More than half of this historic settlement of Archipelago traders has been demolished to make way for Singapore’s earliest large-scale modernist public housing scheme within the old city area, Precinct N1 (Crawford estate), while the former harbourfront at Beach Road now features the skyscrapers of the Golden Mile scheme, an urban redevelopment strip that includes two mixed-use mega-complexes: Golden Mile Complex by local architects Gan Eng Oon, William Lim, and Tay Kheng Soon,  and The Concourse by Paul Rudolph. The remnants of the old town, including the former palace, is now a conservation district emptied of its former community, while the public cemetery is under threat. The walk will take us to these aspects of the town in turn.

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SEAARC Symposium Abstract 28: “Constructing Paradise: Australian-Asian Networks in the Cultivation of the Bali-Style”

by Dr. Peter Scriver and Dr. Amit Srivastava, University of Adelaide

The dissolving of the European colonial empires in the years following World War II left a patchwork of new nation-states whose boundaries subsumed or were superimposed upon other patterns defined variously by ethnicity, region and geography. Sate-craft in the initial period of postcolonial independence was much pre-occupied, therefore, with mitigating and transcending these internal tensions. Accordingly, as previous scholarship has  emphasised, the development of modern infrastructure was frequently conflated with issues of national identity, and architecture, among other disciplines, was employed both literally and metaphorically as a tool of ‘nation-building’.

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SEAARC Symposium Abstract 27: “Constructions of an Asian Woman Architect: Minnette de Silva, Architecture, and History”

by Dr. Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, Bryn Mawr College

Much recent attention has been paid to an erasure of Minnette de Silva’s work from a global canon of modern architecture. This reading of exclusion has been predicated in part on the demolition and neglect of Sri Lankan buildings within her vast yet little-known architectural portfolio, and her eclipse in the literature by narratives that foregrounded South Asian peers whose work may have been more easily consumed, through European, masculine, or chauvinist lenses. In spite of a spectacular biography rich with intersections with major figures in politics, culture, and architectural modernism (for example, Le Corbusier and Vikram Sarabhai), and a career that placed her in a constellation of sites and circles meaningful in the pantheon of twentieth century architecture (from Bombay to Paris to Hong Kong, and from MARG to the AA to CIAM), her copious output yet curious omission from canonical histories may illuminate central problems in narratives that treat Southeast Asia, as well as fundamental historiographical challenges in study of the period’s modernisms, feminisms, and architecture. Based upon a survey of extant archival materials in Sri Lanka, correspondence held in institutional and private collections, and examination of de Silva’s architectural projects and remaining buildings, this paper will attempt to historically situate her career, works, and active engagement in contemporary
discourses on tropical architecture and regional modernisms—while using this case to investigate the theoretical and methodological problematics of a study that hinges upon cultural activity in pan-Asian networks, particularly, de Silva’s specific location and
activation of categories of Asianness, of feminism, and of “architect” in the construction of a global cultural sphere.

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SEAARC Symposium Abstract 26: “A Throne Hall and a Temple: The Public Works Department and the Construction of Modern Siamese Identity, 1889 – 1910”

by Dr. Pirasri Povatong, Chulalongkorn University

This paper examines the establishment and operation of the Siamese Public Works Department (PWD) during the latter half of the reign of King Rama V (r.1868-1910), in order to understand the intricacies and effects of the intersection between the Siamese elites’ siwilai –the indigenized conception of civilization and progress–mission, and the growing global flows of architects, technology, and aesthetics, under the conditions of the High Colonial period in Southeast Asia. In addition, the paper also critically examines the architectural design of two major landmarks in Thai architectural history: Anantasamakhom Hall, and Wat Benchamabophit. As both buildings were designed by the collaboration between the Siamese elite and the PWD Italians, the paper presents an alternative reading of the two buildings, in order to understand the paradoxical ways in which traditional and modern spatial constructs coexisted.

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SEAARC Symposium Abstract 25: “Beyond Southeast Asia: Repositioning National and Regional Identities through Architectural Discourse”

by Assoc. Prof. Anoma Pieris, University of Melbourne

The study of Southeast Asian architecture suffers two limitations. It has and always will be constrained by a legacy of area studies foci that governs empirical research on Asia. Despite the regional definitions and trans-national connections that saw its emergence as a postcolonial political category, the pull of other distinctions that are climatic, cultural and historical construct it as bounded and nationally inscribed. As China and India rise as economic giants the fear of being marginalized will provoke further self-definition. Regionalism, in this context is both a burden and a defense. Southeast Asian architecture is also driven by insular national agendas that foreground urban, technocratic development goals. The uneven terrain of identity politics, of Indigenous, gendered and laboring bodies is subsumed by the aspiration for intellectual location within global, metropolitan and multi-cultural discourses. The industries that give visibility to Southeast Asian architectural practice – urban, government and tourism led projects suppress and subsume marginal economies. Agrarian environments, disaster ecologies and urban poverty become the polemical counterparts to mainstream discourse. Discourses on modernism, sustainability and urbanization dominate, stifling the critical and poetic potential of architectural practice.

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