Approach city design with the mind of a scientist
Real Estate

Approach city design with the mind of a scientist

Meet Dr Liu Thai Ker, an 85-year-old architect and the Father of Urban Planning in Singapore. He is not just an architect planner but also an artist who travels the world, capturing the essence of cities through his sketches of historical buildings. During his 23-year civil service care...

Meet Dr Liu Thai Ker, an 85-year-old architect and the Father of Urban Planning in Singapore. He is not just an architect planner but also an artist who travels the world, capturing the essence of cities through his sketches of historical buildings. During his 23-year civil service career, Dr Liu served as Chief Architect and CEO at the Housing and Development Board, contributing significantly to Singapore’s public housing and the ‘Home Ownership for All’ policy. He later became Chief Planner and CEO at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, spearheaded the creation of Singapore’s 1991 Concept Plan as well as the conservation guideline. After his public service, Dr Liu served as Senior Director at RSP Architects, Planners & Engineers until 2017. In 2017, he founded Morrow Architects & Planners and serves as its Chairman. His impressive portfolio includes 18 architectural projects in Singapore and 15 architectural and 109 urban planning projects for an accumulated number of 250 million people in 15 countries, 60 cities worldwide. In an exclusive conversation with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN during his recent visit to India in Mumbai, Dr Liu shares his vision for cities, cultural and environmental preservation, intelligent urban planning, public housing provision, and imparts advice for city design. How have career milestones shaped your views on urban planning and architecture? Each milestone has left a lasting impact on my approach to urban planning and architecture. Let me delve into a few key moments. Back in time, when I returned to Singapore and joined the Housing and Development Board, I encountered the government’s vision of building New Towns, a concept imported from the West. However, the term “New Town” was often used without a clear definition, leading to confusion. I realised the importance of understanding these terms to avoid causing harm to people. Additionally, I became fascinated with the concept of a “Highly Self-Sufficient New Town”, which emphasised providing comprehensive facilities within a New Town, thus improving the quality of life and reducing the need for extensive travel. For both challenges, I work with my colleagues to produce well documented specifications to guide planning and development. How did you balance world-class standards and affordability in transforming public housing during Singapore's housing challenges? Design housing that was efficient, durable, and affordable was crucial. When I started in the 1960s, Singapore had a significant portion of its population living in slums and squatter areas. By 1985, we had successfully eliminated slums and squatters as well as integrating people from different ethnic backgrounds and preventing the formation of ghettos. To do so, while we must insist on world standard for facilities and floor area per person, we also tried hard to keep the construction cost low and affordable for the people. This approach contributed to Singapore’s transformation into a modern city. This achievement prompted the government to reevaluate urban planning, leading to the creation of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1989, with a focus on long term citywide planning as well as detailed planning, urban design, conservation of heritage, clarifying planning parameters. Could you explain the transition from planning for New Towns to planning for an entire city? This was a significant shift. In New Towns, the focus is on addressing the basic daily needs of residents. However, in a city, one must consider the more diverse needs of all its inhabitants, including those in business districts, industrial areas, and various sectors. This expanded my understanding and skill in creating a functional city. Explain the concept of a ‘Constellation City’ and how it addresses the issues of megacities? Certainly, the concept of a ‘Constellation City’ addresses the complexities of megacities. Rather than treating a megacity as a single entity, it is broken down into a few individual cities, each functioning relatively independently. This approach prevents the overload of a single massive city, akin to a human body carrying the mass of five to six people. Breaking it down into individual cities allows each to function as a healthy entity within the larger framework. How do your architectural principles of modernity, local context, and heritage preservation guide your design philosophy? My architectural principles are rooted in three essential aspects: planning with modern materials and techniques, respecting local factors such as materials, climate, lifestyle, and vegetation, and incorporating the local architectural design genes in aesthetic expression. I do not adhere to a personal design style; instead, I design for cities, emphasising modernity, locality, and architectural genes. How do you apply your theories and principles to address today's challenges like an ageing population and technological advancements? This is crucial. For instance, addressing the ageing population requires careful wholistic consideration. Technology’s rapid evolution necessitates planning for unpredictable future land use needs. Despite these considerations, I firmly believe that the basic principle of urban planning remains constant – urban planning should attempt to create a durable system that does not require constant change. What is your vision for the future of cities? Planning cities should be based on basic unchangeable human needs rather than trying to predict an uncertain future. Cities exist to fulfil these enduring needs, such as housing, work, and education. By planning with a focus on basic unchanging human needs, we create cities that remain relevant for generations. That is why I emphasise building for present yet durable needs. If that is well taken care of, we by and large take care of the future. Share your insights on preserving cultural and environmental sustainability in urban planning. Identifying and safeguarding unique natural environments and historical heritage within a city’s boundaries is the first step. These areas should be marked as off-limits for development. New development areas should then locate outside these boundaries. In my mind, nature is the soul, heritage is the memory of a city, new development must be functional and yet with distinct local flavour. Lastly, discuss innovative urban planning concepts to address housing scarcity in densely populated areas. Addressing housing scarcity requires a comprehensive approach. Planning should encompass essential infrastructures like traffic systems, metro systems, and public housing. Creating a well-designed system would help a city to function efficiently, including minimising traffic congestion. While this approach is easier in countries with government-owned land like China, it may also be achieved in countries with private landowners, such as India with the help of some legislative changes. Additionally, high-rise buildings have proven effective in Singapore’s Housing for All initiative, even though they faced criticism initially. Encouraging homeownership has been a significant achievement in Singapore. In a large country like India, it is necessary to build mainly, not totally, high-rise housing, public or private. Homeownership gives people a sense of rootedness. The residents also would be more likely to protect their properties better. Any final thoughts or advice to share? Certainly. Approach city design with the mind of a scientist, considering each part as a well-functioning machine. But do not forget the heart of a humanist, prioritising the well-being of people and sustainability of the land. Finally, when placing the urban machine onto the ground, you need to have the eye of an artist to romance with the land.

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