Transcript: Lim Chong Keat interview

Lim Chong Keat: Building Singapore and Malaysia

(Original language: English)

LIM CHONG KEAT: I think actually I belong to the whole generation from this country that went overseas to become professionally competent, so as to be useful at home. Although we were British subjects, we were part of the world to be relevant in our own country.

So working on residences was actually a very important total experience. We were able to practice our own ideas about architectonic building, where structure, form, function, and the use of materials were very clear.

The conference hall competition was the first major truly open competition. It was very obvious that everybody had to go for it. We actually deviated from being just a conference hall to really becoming a concert hall. The public spaces, exhibition spaces, the whole parade of visiting a building, were part of the inspiration.

It was very unusual that a mosque was part of an open competition. The fact that it was actually awarded openly to, in this case, architects who were not Muslims. It was becoming for the early days of the nation. It began like that, with a very open society.

The MSA building on Robinson Road, it was really our first major urban project after the conference hall. It was there that we began to innovate about the urban form, the idea of the podium, the roof garden, and solar shading consideration for tropicality in the design.

When we designed bank buildings, like the UOB and DBS, it was very definitely in an urban context, where you had to take part in the urbanism and the controls. The context was very well studied and hopefully provides a lesson of that era.

The competition for Jurong was a target project for almost all the firms in Singapore. The first thing about the shape was actually two blocks which formed a shape with a hole in between. The essential feature mentioned, about a clock tower, become almost like, I suppose, the periscope of a ship or submarine, and it had to be high enough to be seen from everywhere.

Bucky [Buckminster Fuller] is more than a futurist, he's a humanist. By chance we met. In fact, I can say that I was one of his closest friends in the last decade of his life. The relationship with Bucky of course taught me a lot of things. The philosophy was actually the most important impact. The idea of the world for you and me, an integrative world, sharing the world. His geodesics of course was another area of synergetics that we shared, and I went about recreating some of them in the dome form. The most significant one was the bamboo tensegrity dome in Bali, which we built for his birthday in, was it ’77? But I think the exposure, the empathy, the actual livingry of people, his experience with us, was very meaningful to him.

The key thing about being a Malayan or Malaysian architect is not so much what you did, but your integrity. The quality of your work, not the style, not the stylism. Your architecture has to have an integrity and hopefully an originality. But my inspirations were universal because I had an international background and I saw its relevance, but without being derivative, without being stylistic, following fashions and so on.

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