Lee Kah-wee

Lee Kah-wee
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
Room 417, Knowles Building, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong
Historicity, Calculation, Gestalt: A Model of Modernity at Marina Bay, Singapore
Lee Kah-wee

Department of Architecture
Discussion Lecture Series

Lecture Abstract

How do certain architectural and urban forms emerge and come to stand in for modernity? How does the interplay of abstract concepts and concrete qualities become embedded within and generative of institutional processes? Learning from Science and Technology Studies as well as anthropologies of the state, my presentation proposes a way to understand the making of modernity as a multi-modal and contingent process. The case is Marina Bay, a prominent urban waterfront in Singapore and my analysis focuses on the planning bureaucracy as a contact zone where different sets of politics, values and techniques come into play that cannot easily be reduced to any single economic logic or hegemonic state ideology.

In three sections, I analyze the modes of practice as historicity, calculation and gestalt. As historicity, the plans and subsequent reports produced since the 1980s expressed a pastoral aesthetic of seamlessness where historical change, urban form and visual relations were organized in a coherent spatial-temporal pattern. As calculation, these plans became integrated into bureaucratic practices and policies that rationalized urban space as the interplay of values, numbers and forms at multiple scales. Such practices transformed Marina Bay into algorithms of supply and demand as well as basic urban forms generated from these calculations. Finally, as gestalt, the plan alluded to elusive pictures of modernity that emanated from and floated above the visible elements of the plan. That planners saw different pictures through the same plan is key to understanding why nothing inscribed on its surface could accurately anticipate the final product.


Lee Kah-Wee is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore where he teaches history and theory of urban planning in the Masters of Urban Planning programme. Kah-Wee’s research straddles between the contemporary expansion of the casino industry in Asia and the history of the control of vice. He is particularly interested in how abstract concepts such as morality, citizenship and order become spatialized, and his work has covered a wide range of experts from architects and planners to financial analysts and lawyers. He has published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Environment and Planning A and C and Geoforum, and is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled “Las Vegas in Singapore”. Kah-Wee is a founding member of the Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative housed in NUS, as well as a member of the Tan Kah Kee International Society which organizes events related to youth and education.