Fundamentals crucial to building ideal city: Singapore city planner

21:30, April 29, 2010      

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Liu Thai-Ker, renowned as the " Father of Singapore's urban planning," is often credited with the successful implementation of public housing in Singapore, where under the "Home Ownership for All" policy, over 80 percent of its residents live in flats constructed by the government.

Having just wrapped up a visit to China on the eve of the Shanghai World Expo's opening, Liu shared his views on urban planning and what an ideal city is about.


The 72-year-old Liu was an architect-planner and chief executive of Singapore's Housing and Development Board and chief planner and chief executive of Urban Redevelopment Authority. He is currently the director of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers.

For Liu, fundamentals are, first and foremost, the pre- requisite to building a modern ideal city. Aesthetic architecture, on the other hand, is a feather on the cap, and one should not place the bull before the cart.

Liu said "An ideal city should have a pleasant environment, smooth traffic, pollution free and be an ideal dwelling where the people own their own houses. These are the fundamentals that must be put in place. Other distinguishing buildings such as sports stadiums, integrated resorts belong to the class of sexy things." Liu added that while residents are interested in "sexy" things, and the government will hold them up as a scorecard for political credits, the basic things are what the people will experience daily.

Taking Singapore as an example, Liu said that in the first 20 years of nation building for Singapore, it was through sheer grit, with the aim of building up an infrastructure. In the early days, foreign experts commented that Singapore is as boring as a hospital. "I told my colleagues not to listen to them!" Liu reminisced, "Our city is not Disneyland, we will continue with our own way, and they will regret what they say."

He said that people who visit Singapore these days say that the city is beautiful and that the architecture is full of characteristics. This is not true. "Buildings with high creative value are few and far between in Singapore. They are only good in the matter of planning and design requirements."

"I tell my Chinese friends, to be good in urban planning, fundamentals are crucial. If this is lacking, sexiness is superficial. For China, tidiness is a characteristic. If every house has its own characteristic, it will become a mess," Liu said.


For Liu, he felt that many modern cities are getting bigger in scale and the buildings are taller. Big cities need to build skyscrapers mainly because the cities are big, the land tension is great and prices are high. This is necessary in order to meet the need of residents' housing and employment requirement. But the problem arises when a city starts building sky-high buildings regardless of the size of the city.

Liu believed that every city has its own identity. He likens a big city to a tycoon, a mid-tier city a professor, and a small city a village girl. For the different identities, different personalities must be portrayed and hence, different strokes applied to city planning.

"It's like writing a letter to a tycoon, a professor and a village girl, the writing style must differ. In this way, Chinese cities are able to exhibit its multi-faceted characteristics."

Liu Thai-Ker said that Shanghai builds tall buildings due to many pressures. But a small city should make a Shanghainese envious, exuding a carefree, relaxed and romantic environment and feel.

He said that there can be three major types of characteristics to a city: natural environment, historical monuments and modern buildings. "Modern buildings are faceless, their structures globalized, materials globalized, and it is hard to break out of the globalized confines no matter what one does. To focus the local flavor on modern buildings is to be devoid of characteristics." He felt that some old dilapidated traditional architecture in China should be accorded their deserving respect as they represent the true cultural essence.


On the influence of modern technology on urban living, Liu Thai- Ker said that scientific development is of utmost importance to urban development, and "science" is more important than " technology."

He said that some modern architecture is not scientific due to over reliance on technology. "Technology provides the leeway to unreasonable design, after which the defects can be covered up using technology. For instance, if the building is not facing the right direction, the air condition can be set higher. But if the design is done scientifically, natural ventilation is good, and energy consumption will be lower."

Liu himself is a great advocate of "scientific development." He said, "Technology on its own may not necessarily be a boon, ' scientific development' is more important. We should leverage technology to help 'scientific development'. Technology on its own can be abused."

Liu Thai-Ker emphasized that developing the economy and improving the environment are not mutually exclusive. Using the Singapore experience as an illustration, he said that protecting the natural environment will not impede economic development. When the environment improves, many people would willingly stay here, which in turn generate many employment opportunities, thereby fostering economic development.

"(Environmental conservation) is a task that can be done, and it is a worthwhile effort!" he claimed.

Besides, he felt that while advancing the development of cities, China must at the same time pay attention to the environmental development of the towns and villages. After all, the local flavor can only be found in the towns and villages.

"Personally, one of the greatest flaws of Singapore is its lack of farms and villages. Hence, we are always envious of Malaysia when we visit them." Liu Thai-Ker said that where it is not too late, the traditional culture of the towns and villages in China must be properly preserved, which will in turn raise the living standards of the town residents and villagers.



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