“Whatever you do today, you have to take a photo of the lake.”
That is one of the first things Liu Thai Ker tells us when we meet him at his alma mater Chung Cheng High School (Main) on an overcast morning for this photo shoot. Yes, the school’s Goodman Road campus has a lovely lake, and it gives the grounds quite the air of scenic serenity.
Of course we want to take a picture of him by the lake. But we peer out at the gentle drizzle, and say without much confidence that hopefully the rain will let up soon. “Well, I think it looks quite nice like this,” Liu says in his understated way. “So I hope it doesn’t stop raining.”
One doesn’t usually expect this kind of puckish playfulness from public figures of his stature. More than two decades after he left government to join RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, Liu is still widely remembered and deeply respected for his contributions in shaping Singapore. His stint at the Housing & Development Board (HDB)—first as architect-planner, then as CEO—spanned two critical nation-building decades starting from 1969 that saw the completion of two dozen new towns and over half a million public housing units.
As chief planner and CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1989 to 1992, he spearheaded the major revision of the Singapore Concept Plan and consolidated conservation policies and practices. His influence also extends beyond these shores—as RSP’s senior director, he has led master planning and urban design efforts in over 30 cities around the world. He is also a trustee of Urban Land Institute.
The foundations for this illustrious career were laid right here in Chung Cheng. “The education I received here had a major impact on my life,” he says. Many of his teachers were university professors who had left China when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. “Can you imagine the depth of understanding they had about Chinese culture? I was so lucky to be taught by them. In class, they were able to really help us read much deeper into the meaning of the texts we studied.”
His education in Chung Cheng has taught him the importance of strong language skills and how that could help foster a deeper understanding of different cultures. These tenets have served him well, especially during his years abroad while studying architecture in Australia’s University of New South Wales, then city planning at Yale University, and also throughout his career. “Good language skills and cultural understanding help to build trust, and in business, mutual trust is very important.”
His lifelong love for the arts is also closely tied to his years in Chung Cheng. In Liu’s day, there were small huts, which the students nicknamed Mongolian yurts, around the lake. “After class, some of us would play sports around the lake, others would go into the yurts to paint,” he reminisces. His father, pioneer Nanyang artist Liu Kang, taught at the school, and Liu also learned painting from an older student, Lim Tze Peng, who became renowned for his Chinese ink paintings. “I’m grateful for what I’ve received here, and that a place like this that can help younger Singaporeans understand Chinese culture still exists,” says Liu.
At one point in his youth, he even considered becoming an artist, but was persuaded by his mother to take up a profession that could help lift the family out of poverty. Singapore’s urban landscape in its nascent years of independence thus came to be shaped by a technocrat whose world view was steeped in the arts and humanities.
“People sometimes ask me why I did not follow my father’s career as a painter. I always say that I’m a painter. It’s just that my father’s canvas was a few square metres, while my canvas is a few thousand square kilometres,” Liu muses. “When you do city planning, you need to worry about functionality and liveability; but you also need to treat the city like a piece of art. It requires a humanist’s heart, a scientist’s head, and an artist’s eye.”
When he was planning new towns, he took into account studies that showed people would not feel strong emotional ties to neighbourhoods that were too big. Through continuous research and inquiry, that led to residential areas known as precincts, which were 2 to 4ha and housed up to a thousand residents. “That was the right size for people to feel that they belonged to a community. In other words, we did not design the space purely to accommodate things, we designed them as places to create community relations.” Each precinct had congregation spaces where residents could get to know one another—playgrounds, sports fields, void decks. In the 1980s, the idea of segmented corridors with six to eight units was introduced to each floor in a housing block because studies showed that was the optimal number for fostering stronger neighbourly ties.
“People sometimes ask me why I did not follow
my father’s career as a painter. I always say that I’m a painter.
It’s just that my father’s canvas was a few square metres, while
my canvas is a few thousand square kilometres.”
- Liu, on his choice of career
“I also wanted every town centre to be a civic centre, in addition to being a commercial centre,” he says. That meant designing communal spaces such as plazas and making room for coffee shops. “Look at the cafes in Paris. They have been there for hundreds of years because they are a way of life, a civic activity. I decided coffee shops were our way of life. We need a certain number of shopping malls, but these should not replace the coffee shops, eating houses and hawker centres.”
Conservation is also an important part of his legacy, and an issue he still feels strongly about. Speaking at the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum in May, Liu made the news when he said he wished he had protected a small part of Singapore’s squatter areas. “I’ve been regretting that for a long time,” he says when we ask him what prompted the thought. “When I first became chief planner, with help from my colleagues, we presented a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of National Development on what buildings we must preserve and what the proper process of conservation should be. But I guess I was too preoccupied with that, and I overlooked the need to preserve other things. In 1960, three out of four people in a population of 1.65 million lived in squatter areas. If we had preserved 1 or 2ha, it could have shown young Singaporeans today, this is where we came from. Then we’ll appreciate what we’ve achieved even more, and love this place even more.”
He did manage to preserve one important corner of the island, “which almost nobody recognises”, he says with a laugh. Along Changi Creek, 2km of Singapore’s original shoreline still exists, a rare sight for this much-reclaimed island. “I asked myself, how do I help Singaporeans of the future see the original beach of Singapore. It’s very beautiful; I’m dead scared it will be reclaimed.” He has spoken before about the need to plan for a future population of 10 million, but is also emphatic about the simultaneous need to retain all conservation areas and important water bodies, hills and forests. “Nature is the soul of the city. Heritage buildings are the memories of the city. For people to feel this is a special place, we need both.”
“Look at the cafes in Paris.
They have been there for hundreds of years
because they are a way of life, a civic activity.
I decided coffee shops were our way of life."
- Liu, on the importance of creating social spaces.
Ask him about the ongoing project to make Singapore a loveable city, and he points to two important, but rarely mentioned concepts in urban design today—romantic and picturesque. Romance can be something as simple as making sure there is easy visual and physical access to Singapore’s seashores (“this is an island, and people like the sea”). “And you can create picturesque cities even with modern architecture. Stand in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, and look at the HDB flats there. The skyline and colours are very picturesque,” he points out. Can we afford to be romantic even as the pressure to maximise land use builds? “Of course we can. It’s a matter of putting your heart into designing it.”
A week after our interview, he speaks at the 2017 Urban Land Institute Asia Pacific Summit in his capacity as the founding chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities’ advisory board. He takes the audience through the story of Singapore’s public housing programme and the factors behind its success. It is a familiar story, but this telling has a touch of poetry. At the end of his presentation, Liu flashes a slide of a painting by his father—National Day 1967, which depicts the current National Gallery Singapore back when it was still the Supreme Court and City Hall buildings. Colourful pennants emblazoned with the five stars and crescent moon fly behind towering trees and a multiracial crowd; it brims with optimism for an unfolding future.
Liu doesn’t say much about the painting, but I think back to our conversation. Creating a loveable city doesn’t mean sacrificing liveability, he had stressed. “We need both. You have to make the place workable as well. Don’t just chase after the latest thing and forget about everything else.”
In other words: remember where we started, and all the steps it took to get here. Remember that love has always been a part of this story.
Photography Darren Gabriel Leow, assisted by Chong Ng
Fashion direction Desmond Lim, assisted by Joey Tan
Grooming Grego/Indigo Artisans, using Glamour Salon System and Parfums Christian Dior