Sustaining Publics and their Spaces: William Lim’s Writings on Architecture and Space

In Public Space in Urban Asia, William S.W. Lim, ed. (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2014), 194-99.

The dilemma of ‘order-words’ according to Gilles Deleuze is that it not only defines a problem but also over-determines the answers to that problem. For Deleuze, the order-word simultaneously refers to a word that constitutes a command, as well as one which creates its own universe of order. 1

In this sense, society’s ‘order-words’ ultimately control not only how we can articulate a problem (our forms of expression), but also restricts what we can know (our forms of content). Recently, ‘sustainability’ has been circulating as the order-word of the moment both in architectural academia and in practice. An important concept which rallies around the urgent protection, continuity and cultivation of our rapidly depleting natural resources, ‘sustainability’ is subsequently associated with specific tools, methods and outcomes which are used to preserve the natural world.

Thus, when retired architect, activist and writer William Lim critiques that environmental sustainability achieved primarily through technological measures may ‘displace historical, social and cultural traditions’, he does not just knowingly muddle up the use of ‘sustainability’ but simultaneously expands its reach and relevance towards non-ecological and non-natural areas, which Lim argues, are equally in need of protection. Contentiously, Lim maintains that a nation’s culture, history and society must be included within sustainability discussions as these aspects are equally at risk. He advocates that architecture must necessarily tackle the issue of sustainability within this expanded field. To do so, architects need to adopt a much broader social and cultural remit, which extends far beyond the formal aesthetics and fiscal concerns that dictate much of quotidian architectural production.

At a glance, Lim’s writings, which accompany other essays on public space in this volume,  appear dissipated in their focus. From the articulation of global issues pertinent to the Singapore built environment and economy, to deliberations on space and its happiness quotient, rights to the city, and the indispensability of creativity as a way of life, his voice is lucid and insistent. The texts position Singapore at the cusp of something new and exciting — a global player to be reckoned with, and chart its steady progress from periphery to centre on the world stage.  Yet Lim is anxious that these shiny trophies may jeopardize the real McCoy which is about  building a space, a city, and a home that draws people to plant roots, grow families, be happy, grow old, live meaningful lives, and be able to grasp a foreseeable future.

‘Sustainable’ space and architecture, in Lim’s argument, must be available to the masses. It must be made public. In another recent article, Lim warns of the impending standardization and inequality that accompanies the culture of ‘star architecture’ tethered to capitalist profiteering:


Notwithstanding the dramatic aesthetic experiments by star-architects, the overall generic similarity of these projects in these sites can be easily substituted for each other. Furthermore, these public spaces are generated and moulded according to the needs of capitalism and subordinate to the logic of maximum profits. They are highly regulated and unaffordable to the lower-income. 2

Lim dangles other trade-offs as incentives for better design, more inclusive spaces, a city which is accommodating and forgiving in its embrace of the non status quo including migrants, older people, and the creative set. He proposes the organic development of the city from a bottom- up approach, citing a more vibrant and productive society as sustainable and lasting outcomes.

Over the last half decade, Lim has fervently charted social change in relation to rapid urbanization and globalization of Asian cities, with particular focus on Singapore. In fact, as early as in 1966, Lim and his ex-partner Tay Kheng Soon started an independent multi-disciplinary think tank to discuss the consequences of urban planning in Singapore. Called the Singapore Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) group, the quorum independently conducted in-depth research on issues such as public housing, industrialization, land use, transportation and population projections as a means to understand how planning could be equitable and egalitarian. It published its findings in two journals (SPUR 65-67 and SPUR 68-71), forwarding recommendations and criticism on landmark projects such as the relocation of the proposed international airport from Paya Lebar to Changi, and the implementation of an island-wide mass rapid transit system.

In that sense, Lim’s current musings in this volume — some implemented, others speculative — may be read as alternative tributaries into rethinking how space and architecture can be sustained, and remain sustainable, for future generations in land-scarce Singapore. He has actively lobbied for a fundamental rethinking of the role of architects, planners and citizens in the mutual shaping and occupation of public space. Blunt as they may be in comparison with the latest technological apparati for climate control and carbon footprint, his writings (which incidentally recapitulate the sharpness but also the naiveté of the SPUR papers) advocate the relevance and survival of public space as a site for hands-on action and participation that will, in turn, sustain the fragile city and its surrounding areas.

Yet what is ‘public space’? Who is invoked by ‘the public’? Where is it located, particularly in the Asian context where the dichotomies of private-public hold vastly nuanced meanings from their non-Asian counterparts? These are all problematic questions just as ‘public opinion’ is ‘“present as such in none of the spaces” where it is held to be’. The Asian home, for instance, is often the site of inter-generational occupation and state intervention, and under these circumstances, one may feel it is even more ‘public’ than the street wherein individual identity and anonymity.




1. In his notes to the translation, Brian Massumi suggests that the ‘order-word’ is used by Deleuze and Guattari literally in a double sense: ‘a word or phrase constituting a command or a word or phrase creative of order’. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus:

Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated  by Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press, 1999, p.76 and p.523

2. William Lim, “Public Space in Urban Asia”, unpublished draft, 6 December 2012.

3. Derrida, Jacques. “La démocratie ajournée,” in L’Autre Cap. Paris: Minuit, 1991, p.103, cited in Robbins, “Introduction”, p.xii

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