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Liu Thai Ker

Architect, urban planner, and former NAC chairman.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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While we have to be highly reliable and pragmatic in our work, we must not forget the importance of imagination. Art helps to develop your imagination.

– The Straits Times, 29 Jul 1996.

Liu Thai Ker is a Singapore architect and urban planner who—through his service as CEO of the Housing Development Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Chairman of the National Arts Council—has made an indelible impact on the urban and cultural landscape in Singapore. The eldest son of pioneering Singapore artist Liu Kang, he envisioned and created Singapore’s early public housing estates and new towns in the ’70s and ’80s, and drove the development of the arts in Singapore. He also was founding chairman of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and currently the chairman of the Advisory Board of Centre for Liveable Cities.

Born in 1938 in Muar, Malaysia, Liu Thai Ker was the eldest of five children. He grew up watching his father, the pioneer Singapore artist Liu Kang, paint, and his uncle, Chen Ren Hou, practise Chinese calligraphy, often helping them wash their brushes.

When World War II ended, Liu moved to Singapore with his family where he would attend San San Primary School and then Chung Cheng High School. An excellent student, he was also a talented artist who won first prize in drawing and calligraphy in a school competition while in his third year. He also wrote poems and short stories for the school magazine.

After a brief stint as a substitute teacher at Kuan Hwa Primary School in 1955, he moved to Australia in 1956 to study at the Sydney Technical College in order to become matriculated and qualify for university enrolment. The following year, he enrolled in the School of Architecture at Sydney’s University of New South Wales and studied there for five years, while undergoing apprenticeships at Clement Glancey Architects (1958-1959) and Loder and Dunphy Architects (1960-1963). He also enrolled as a part-time student at the East Sydney Technical College between 1956 and 1959 where he did life drawings and painting. Upon graduation in 1962, he pursued postgraduate studies in city planning at the prestigious Architecture Graduate School at the University of Yale in the USA, and, in 1965, became an architect-planner at I. M. Pei and Partners, where he gained practical experience in architectural design and urban planning.

Through this period, Liu participated in occasional exhibitions of his art works. He exhibited his sketches of human figures in Singapore in the ’50s and exhibited watercolour paintings in Australia in the ’60s. But his architectural career took precedence as he grew to become a respected architect. He made his last painting—a pastel still life of flowers—in 1960.

In 1969, Liu returned to Singapore and began working at the Housing Development Board as the head of the Design and Research Unit. In 1975, he became Chief Architect, creating some of Singapore’s earlier public housing estates, which he planned as “self-sufficient new towns” that significantly contributed to the new urbanscape in Singapore. The following year, he assumed the role of deputy CEO and became the CEO three years later in 1979. For his contributions to Singapore public housing, he received the Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Emas) (Public Administration Medal [Gold]) in 1976 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1985.

After two decades of service at the Housing Development Board, Liu moved over to the Urban Redevelopment Authority as CEO and Chief Planner in 1989, just in time to halt the ongoing demolition of centrally located ethnic neighbourhoods and heritage sites under the urban redevelopment Concept Plan. He introduced the Conservation Plan the very same year, putting in place conservation policies and practices. Although a fair amount of architectural and cultural heritage had been removed, the Conservation Plan helped to save the rest, designating historic districts like Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, Singapore River—including Boat Quay and Clarke Quay—as well as residential areas like Emerald Hill, Cairnhill, Blair Plain, and secondary settlements like Joo Chiat and Geylang as areas to be conserved. He also revised the Concept Plan to better cater to and reflect the varied and diverse needs of the Singapore population.

Thanks to Liu’s efforts, the International Union of Architects awarded the Sir Robert Matthew Prize to the Housing and Development Board in 1990 for improvements of the quality of human settlement. The following year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority was awarded the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour for "undertaking a sustained urban redevelopment programme through innovative approaches and land policies and involvement of the private sector".

In 1985, Liu began his official involvement with the arts in Singapore, becoming a member of the steering committee of the Singapore Arts Centre, which would eventually become Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. In 1991, he became a council member of the National Arts Council. He chaired the Arts Housing Committee and implemented the Arts Housing Scheme, an idea that was born out of an unpublished draft plan for the Singapore cultural scene that he helped create for the Concept Plan. This began a successful birth of a scheme that would see many Singapore arts groups and organisations benefit from affordable housing in repurposed buildings. At the same time, Liu also served as a member of the Arts Development Committee of the Council.

In 1992, Liu left the public service to join RSP Architects Planners and Engineers as its director. In 1993, he was awarded the Second ASEAN Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions to architecture.

A year later, Liu returned to public office, this time as the chairman of the National Arts Council. As the son of Singapore art pioneer Liu Kang, he came to the role equipped with both a love for the arts and an insight into the Singapore arts scene. He also brought with him an understanding of how the civil service worked. With Liu at the helm, the Council developed its own concept plan for development of the arts in Singapore as well as ground-level policies and practice. These served to promote and grow Singapore artists as well as build wider art audiences through collaborations with other agencies such as the Ministry of Education, Singapore Tourism Board and the People’s Association.

The National Arts Council also began to develop more of a corporate culture, and invested resources in mapping out facts and figures pertaining to Singapore arts that were useful when the Singapore Government formulated the Renaissance City report in 2000. The report’s recommendations were then successfully implemented by the Council, resulting in the establishing of the Singapore Writers’ Festival, Singapore Art Show and the Singapore Biennale.

In Liu’s nine-year term as chairman of the National Arts Council, the Singapore arts scene became more vibrant and mature with an increase in both arts activities and arts audiences. The policies that were put in place also meant that more arts groups and companies were established during this period as well. The Council also broadened its scope, giving more recognition to film as an art form by opening the Cultural Medallion and the Young Artist Award to artists in filmmaking.

Outside of the National Arts Council, Liu also chaired the Censorship Review Committee of the Media Development Authority in 2002, resulting in an easing of censorship guidelines in Singapore. He also acquired customised printmaking equipment from American master printer Ken Tyler’s printing facilities in 2000 for the establishment of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Liu served as founding chairman of the Institute, which contributed to the development of contemporary printmaking in Singapore.

Since 2008, he has been the founding chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities, a role which sees Liu contributing to the formulation of a vision for Singapore as a liveable and sustainable city of the future. He is also currently an adjunct professor at the School of Design and Environment and at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is also the adjunct professor at Nanyang Technological University and Xiamen University, China.

A fan of Western opera, Liu also regularly attends English theatre performances and concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Since his last painting in 1960, Liu has been making sketches in his architectural notebook of churches he encounters around the world, which he prints on his personal Christmas cards every year.

Timeline

23 Feb 1938

Born in Muar, Johor, Malaysia.

1945

Moved to Singapore with family.

1946 to 1949

Attended San San Primary School, Singapore.

1950 to 1954

Attended Chung Cheng High School, Singapore.

1955

Substitute teacher, Kuan Hua Primary School, Singapore.

1956 to 1959

Attended East Sydney Technical College, Sydney, Australia. Studied art part-time.

1957 to 1962

Attended School of Architecture, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Graduated with Bachelor of Architecture.

1958 to 1959

Apprentice, Clement Glancey Architects, Sydney, Australia.

1960 to 1963

Assistant Architect, Loder and Dunphy Architects, Sydney Australia.

1963 to 1969

Attended Yale Architecture Graduate School, USA. Graduated with Master of City Planning.

1965 to 1969

Architect-planner, IM Pei and Partners, Architects and Planners.

1969

Head, Design and Research Unit, Housing Development Board.

1975

Chief Architect, Housing Development Board.

1976

Deputy CEO, Housing Development Board.

Received Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Emas) (Public Administration Medal [Gold]).

1979 to 1989

CEO, Housing and Development Board.

1980

Attended Stanford INSEAD Advanced Management Program, Fontainbleau, Paris, France.

Chairman, Advisory Committee, National University of Singapore Architecture School.

1985

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

1985 to 1990

Member, Steering Committee, Singapore Arts Centre.

1989 to 1992

CEO and Chief Planner, Urban Redevelopment Authority.

1991 to 1995

Council Member, National Arts Council.

Member, Arts Development Committee, National Arts Council.

1992

Director, RSP Architects Planners and Engineers.

1993

Received Second ASEAN Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions in architecture.

1995

Received honorary degree of Doctor of Science, University of New South Wales, Australia.

1996 to 2005

Chairman, National Arts Council.

2000 to 2009

Adjunct Professor, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore.

2001

Received Gold Medal Award, Singapore Institute of Architects.

Received Medal of the City of Paris, France.

2002

Chairman, Censorship Review Committee, Media Development Authority, Singapore.

Chairman, Design Jury, Beijing Olympic Master Plan competition.

2005 to Present

Adjunct Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

2008 to Present

Founding Chairman, Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore.

2009 to Present

Adjunct Professor, College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences Nanyang Technological University.

2009

Adjunct Professor, Xiamen University, China.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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