Architects who helped build nation

Members of Spur, a think-tank on urban planning issues in the 1960s and 1970s, reunite for a panel discussion as part of the NUS Museum's Foundations Series

Veterans reunite: (from left) Architects Koh Seow Chuan, Tay Kheng Soon, Edward Wong, William Lim, Wee Chwee Heng and architectural historian Lai Chee Kien at the panel discussion.
Veterans reunite: (from left) Architects Koh Seow Chuan, Tay Kheng Soon, Edward Wong, William Lim, Wee Chwee Heng and architectural historian Lai Chee Kien at the panel discussion. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

If the name Spur does not ring a bell for Singaporeans born after independence, then consider the well-known names behind the independent think-tank, a major voice on urban planning issues in the 1960s and 1970s.

Architects William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Koh Seow Chuan were among the members of the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group, Spur for short, who reunited for a rare panel discussion at the NUS Museum on Wednesday.

Mr Edward Wong, the former president of the Singapore Institute of Architects, and Mr Wee Chwee Heng were the other veteran architects who spoke at the event commemorating the 50th year of the group's formation.

During the lively discussion, they revealed how the authorities once thought Spur was a front for the United States' Central Intelligence Agency.

At one point, doubt was also cast on their political affiliations, with some officials believing they had links with communists.

Spur often butted heads with the Government on issues such as housing and transportation between 1965 and 1975, after which it de-registered as a society.

"That was the Government's attitude in those days. You were either for me or against me," said Mr Lim, one of Spur's core members.

He, Mr Tay and Mr Gan Eng Oon are the architects behind Golden Mile Complex, completed in 1973 and still one of the country's most distinctive buildings.

Among Spur's notable achievements was convincing the authorities, including then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, to relocate the airport to Changi, instead of expanding it in Paya Lebar where it posed a nuisance and danger to residents.

Mr Koh, one of the founders of DP Architects, said Spur conducted noise pollution studies on different parts of the airbase to demonstrate to the authorities the impact of an airport near residential zones.

"We felt that expanding the airport would sterilise a large portion of the Paya Lebar area. Mr Lee appreciated the principle of extending the airport to the edge of the island," said Mr Koh.

The think-tank had its first formal meeting at Mr Lim's Orchard Road apartment on April 7, 1965. Over "beer and wine", ideas were developed to contribute to a newly independent nation finding its footing in the world.

Its subsequent activities included talks, forums, exhibitions and publications, through which it engaged the Government and the public.

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien organised the session as part of the NUS Museum's Foundations Series, a programme that contextualises art and artistic practices against the backdrop of independence and nation building.

Spur members set out to address what they described as "two dimensional plans" at that time, where land use was segregated into different pockets for residential, recreational and commercial use. They proposed instead multi-functional areas and a multi-layered city, as well as long-term planning which they felt made sense for land- scarce Singapore.

Dr Lai said: "In those years, the contributions of the think-tank were welcomed by the authorities, but there were other considerations in place before the suggestions could be incorporated into the Government's existing work plans."

Mr Wong, who is the managing director of AWP Architects, noted that the situation then was grim as Singapore was a third world country burdened with a 70 per cent unemployment rate.

When asked by audience members for advice on how the young today can contribute to discourse, and if there was a need for a Spur 2, the panel said the group was a historical event and could not be replicated.

Rather than a single group, they believe what is needed today are proposals from a network of people. While the problems now, such as expensive housing, are more sophisticated and harder to solve, they think the Government is more open to alternative ideas.

Encouraging young people to contribute to civil society, Mr Tay, an adjunct professor at the NUS School of Architecture, added: "People think that Singapore has accomplished so much and there's nothing they can contribute. That's not true."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2015, with the headline 'Architects who helped build nation'. Subscribe