Born in 1932 in Hong Kong, William S W Lim graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and subsequently completed his graduate degree at the Department of City and Regional Planning, Harvard University. Returning to Singapore in 1957, Lim apprenticed with English architect James Ferrie before setting up his own practice, Malayan Architects Co-Partnership (MAC), with two contemporaries. Highly successful with their experimentation of modernism within a local context, MAC designed a number of residential houses and large-scale projects, including the Singapore Conference Hall in 1962. Inspired by the granting of self-government to Singapore in 1959, MAC sought to implement a national architectural identity in their designs, using vernacular influences and indigenous local materials – an innovative idea for the time. MAC dissolved in 1967 and in its wake Lim established Design Partnership Architects, a company that thrived on modernism and experimentation. Two of Lim’s most iconic structures were designed whilst at Design Partnership – The Golden Mile Complex and the People’s Park Complex. Developed as mixed-use structures (both shopping precinct and residential housing), Design Partnership implemented features that responded directly to the tropical climate, including atrium’s (first in Singapore), natural ventilation and sunlight, whilst providing communal spaces for social interaction of residents. Both buildings are now noted as early examples of high-rise living and in many ways set the precedent for shopping centre design in the Asian region. Urban development has always been a key interest of Lim’s, most specifically in the Asian region. Concerned by the rapid pace of building in Singapore in the 1960s led Lim to establish the group Singapore Planning and Urban Research – a group that discussed, examined and popularised many issues relating to architecture, planning and the urban environment, often raising ideas that were not necessarily approved by the authorities. In more recent years, Lim has established the not for profit organisation Asian Urban Lab, an organisation committed to; promoting greater awareness and understanding of contemporary urban issues in Asia; facilitate multidisciplinary research and discussion on topics related to trends and directions of modern Asian urban life and architecture; and to disseminate the results of this research to as broad an audience as possible. At the core of Lim’s theories on urban development is the idea of regionally specific architecture and planning, as he states himself, “Asian intellectuals-particularly those educated in the West are often unable to divorce themselves from the influences of Western thought, social and cultural theories and lifestyles… to interpret non-Western realities, it is essential for Asian intellectuals to consciously challenge the voices behind the theories, if not the theories themselves.”
Lim has engaged with this idea, incorporating the local identity into his designs to “express the social aims in the form of the architecture itself.” Traditional vernacular, such as verandahs, courtyards, sun shading devices and the use of local materials all feature as part of Lim’s desire to adapt local idiom in new creative modernist ways. Lim proposes that architectural design requires the balance between the global and the local, a ‘glocal’ kind of space that maintains the identity of the local but enages with the modern advancements of the global. As Lim emphasises, “as globality has evolved around the world, the deep histories and rootedness in many cities have been abandoned and removed… it is now recognised that the deep histories matter for survival and are important in strengthening the uniqueness of each city.” Lim’s commitment to such ideologies has encouraged him to constantly challenge and participate in contemporary cultural discourse on Asian architecture and urbanism, as well as postmodernism, glocalities and social justice, whilst simultaneously campaigning for heritage conservation in Singapore. Lim is currently an Adjunct Professor at RMIT (Melbourne) and Guest Professor of Tianjin University (China), as well as the author of six books, including; Cities for People: Reflections of a Southeast Asian Architect (1990); Asian Ethical Urbanism: A Radical Postmodern Perspective (2005); and Incomplete Urbanism: A Critical Urban Strategy for Emerging Economies (2012).