Building Relations from the ground up
Over three decades, architect Liu Thai Ker has established himself as a respected adviser to China's city and provincial leaders.
LIU Thai Ker was bestowed with an unexpected honour in the Chinese city of Guilin recently, when officials there asked him to don the traditional gown of an imperial graduate and nod his head in front of a statue of the famous philosopher Confucius.
"It was a gesture of appreciation and goodwill for the work I had done, and it makes me feel very happy that they treat me this way. My relationship with China is not just pure business," he said.
The anecdote reflects the standing that Mr Liu, 76, has with Chinese leaders and planners. It is no exaggeration to say that one of Singapore's most illustrious architects has played a key role in helping to shape China's urban landscape. And now, he has won the Business China Excellence Award.
The former chief architect of Singapore's Housing and Development Board (HDB) drew upon his experience of transforming Singapore's urban housing scene into a decades-long career advising many of China's city planners.
His professional relationship with China began on the rooftop of the Ministry of Development building here in 1978, where he briefed visiting Chinese premier Deng Xiao Peng on Singapore's urbanisation efforts.
"After Deng came to visit Singapore, he said one important thing for urbanisation was that China should learn from Singapore. That probably triggered off greater interest from the Chinese government in Singapore's urbanisation," said Mr Liu, who is now a senior director at RSP Architects Planner & Engineers.
Senior provincial and city leaders soon sought his counsel, and he landed his first job in China advising on the master plan for Fuzhou in the early 1980s. That was followed by a similar assignment for Xiamen Island.
Among other things, he strongly advised city planners to protect their historical sites without any major alterations.
"We always debated over whether to destroy the shophouses, but I told them that they would be a gold mine for tourism," he said.
These two projects cemented Mr Liu's reputation among China's leaders, who were impressed by his architectural and town planning skills, as well as his ability to converse fluently in Mandarin.
To date, he has been appointed as the planning adviser to around 30 cities, and was chairman of the jury for the Master Plan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Park. He noted that the new generation of Chinese leaders have leaned towards grander designs in their cities.
"China changes very fast. Fast forward to today, and they understand urban issues better and also have their own opinions. They tend to go for exciting, iconic architecture and pay less attention to fundamental urban planning issues," he said.
He was given the honour of being chief designer of the Chinese embassy in Singapore, which opened in 2002, and later the China Cultural Centre, both the first in the world to be designed by a Singapore architect.
"Singapore's relationship with China has always been good, and that was a big factor in considering a Singaporean to design a Chinese embassy," he explained.
Mr Liu also teaches at universities in Singapore and China to help boost cultural understanding between students of the two countries.
On his role in helping build Singapore-China relations, Mr Liu modestly claimed that there are many people – including Singapore architects and planners, developers and businessmen working in China – who have helped in this area.
"At my age now, I do not need to work. The reason I'm still doing work is that I feel that there are a few good ideas that I want to share with Singapore and other countries, not just China. It just turns out that China has given me the best opportunity outside of Singapore."
Courtesy of The Business Times, 19 November 2014