Veteran architect Liu Thai Ker, 79, leaves RSP to start own firm: 'I'm the oldest man to start a company'

Former master planner Liu Thai Ker is leaving RSP to set up his own outfit, which officially opens on Friday (Dec 1). PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - At age 79 and after 25 years as senior director at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, former master planner Liu Thai Ker is starting afresh.

The man, dubbed the "architect of modern Singapore" after his influential tenures in HDB and the Urban and Redevelopment Authority, is leaving RSP to set up his own outfit, which officially opens on Friday (Dec 1).

The new practice, Morrow, is named after the studio his father, the pioneer artist Liu Kang, ran in the 1940s and 1950s.

For a start, it will occupy the seventh floor of Thong Teck Building on Scotts Road - Dr Liu's current office space in RSP. He also said that many of Morrow's initial 40 employees will be staff members from his team at RSP making the switch with him.

Dr Liu told The Straits Times that he felt it was time to strike out on his own as the parent company of RSP, investment firm Rowsley, had recently begun to organise the firm in a "more disciplined, corporate style".

"I felt that as a design firm, our hands would have been tied. In my 25 years at RSP, I have basically operated as an independent unit, so I thought it was time to leave," he said.

But he stressed that the split was taking place on good terms.

"My new office only features architecture and planning, but RSP also has an engineering side. So if I need engineering help, the first company I'll go to will definitely be RSP - provided they give me a good fee," he joked.

Rowsley chief executive officer Tan Wee Tuck similarly said the company looks forward to collaborating with Dr Liu in future.

Rowsley - the investment company controlled by billionaire Peter Lim - bought the architecture firm in 2013. Its director of planning, Ms Chen Hong, will succeed Dr Liu.

Dr Liu said he wants his new company to focus on imbuing the next generation of architects with his work ethic and design ethos.

"I have my own brand of planning theories and I know it's been proven correct, because Singapore today is a result of those theories I applied 30 years ago, and it has turned out to be a good city," he said.

He was concerned that many planners and architects around the world today do not appear to know how to build a city in a "scientifically correct way" - including the nitty-gritty of calculating how many schools or shopping centres are needed in each small town.

He also hopes his firm can help other cities to produce better plans, and also "architecture design that is not a direct copy of Western magazines."

He cited two of his designs - the China Cultural Centre on Queen Street that features a prominent Chinese lantern-like structure and HDB blocks with pitched roofs in Bishan that evoke Malay kampungs - as examples of modern buildings featuring distinctly Asian features.

Before joining RSP in 1992, Dr Liu helmed the HDB for two decades and then became chief planner and chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, where he oversaw the completion of over half a million homes and spearheaded a major revision of the Concept Plan.

And though he joked that he was probably "the oldest man to start a company", Dr Liu stressed that he has no plans to retire soon and intends to work for as long as he can.

He also dismissed any suggestion that it was too late to start a new chapter.

Asked why he was making this move now, he retorted: "Are you implying that I'm too old?"

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