We express our sadness in the passing of the architect, urban theorist, and advocate William Siew Wai Lim. “Willy,” as he was affectionately known by everyone who knew him, passed away on January 6, 2023, at the age of 90. Born in Hong Kong in 1932, he was in the first cohort of students in our Department of Architecture. As one of Singapore’s most respected pioneer modernist architects, he was involved in the design of some of the country’s most iconic buildings, including the Singapore Conference Hall (formerly known as Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House) (1965), the People’s Park Complex (1973), the Golden Mile Complex (formerly known as Woh Hup Complex) (1974), Tanglin Shopping Center (1980), Tampines North Community Center (1987), and Marine Parade Community Building (1999). An outspoken public intellectual and prolific writer, Lim authored and edited numerous books and articles and lectured around the world on architecture, urbanism, and culture in Asia including current issues relating to postmodernity, glocality, social justice, and sustainability. His books include Equity and Urban Environment in the Third World (1975), Cities for People (1990), Asian Alterity (2008), Incomplete Urbanism (2012), Public Space in Urban Asia (2014), and many more. He also established and participated in multiple platforms and forums on architecture and urbanism in Asia.
Education & Practice
Lim began his foundation year studies in the newly established Department of Architecture at HKU in 1950, following a chance meeting with Professor Gordon Brown. In 1951, he transferred to the Architectural Association in London. At the AA, he was taught by Alison and Peter Smithson, John Killick, Jillian and William Howell, who were influential figures in his education, practice and teaching. In 1956, Lim began his graduate studies as a Fulbright Fellow in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Harvard University, along with Frank O. Gehry. He met and studied with Walter Gropius, José Lluís Sert, Sigfried Giedion and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, who expanded his understanding of the modernist movement. Through Tyrwhitt, he met Constantinos Doxiadis who founded the World Society for Ekistics and became a member and contributor of the journal.
In 1960, Lim co-founded Malayan Architects Co-partnership (MAC) with fellow architects Lim Chong Keat and Chan Voon Fee, whom he met while studying in London. MAC’s first public project was the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (gazetted as a national monument in 2010). After the dissolution of MAC, Lim set up Design Partnership with two MAC associates Tay Kheng Soon and Koh Seow Chuan. The new firm went on to design some of Singapore’s most iconic buildings representative of Singapore’s nation-building years. The firm was renamed DP in 1975, and Lim left in 1981 to take a break from commercial work and taught briefly at the National University of Singapore. Later that year, he formed William Lim Associates (WLA) with his NUS students Mok Wei Wei, Richard Ho and Carl Larson. In 1984, at the invitation of Professor Eric Lye, head of the Department of Architecture, Lim delivered a public lecture on the new work of WLA in HKU.
Writing & Advocacy
In 1965, Lim formed the independent think tank Singapore Planning Urban and Research Group (SPUR) with other young architects and planners to discuss and debate issues on the planning and urban development of Singapore. In the 1970s, Lim formed the Southeast Asia Study group with key social activists and intellectuals from the region’, and led the formation of the Asian Planning and Architectural Collaboration (APAC) with Koichi Nagashima. APAC members included the architects Charles Correa (India), Sumet Jumsai (Thailand), Fumihiko Maki (Japan), and fellow Harvard alumnus Tao Ho (Hong Kong). In 1983, when Tao Ho co-founded the architecture and design magazine Vision, Lim and the others served as their countries’ correspondents. They would continue their intellectual exchanges and friendships for the rest of their lives. In the ensuing years, Lim made periodic trips to Hong Kong for family visits and met with Ho and other colleagues.
In 1986, Lim co-founded and was chairman (until 1997) of the Singapore Heritage Society, focusing on research, public education and advocacy. In 1990, he established and was president of AA Asia with other graduates of his alma mater to create a platform for architectural discourse in Asia. Retired from architectural practice in 2002, he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Architecture by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). In 2003, he co-founded and was chairman of Asia Urban Lab, focusing on intercultural issues in architecture and urban development in Asia. In 2013, Lim returned to HKU as a keynote speaker at the 2020 Housing China Symposium. This was his final visit to Hong Kong.
Lim’s lifework was an unstoppable tour de force. His rich, complex oeuvre and international network brought together individuals and groups of cultural practitioners and theorists, architects, planners, artists, and scholars. He was a proponent of diversity, multiplicity, and interdisciplinarity and an ardent supporter and patron of Singapore’s arts and culture. Lim practiced what he believed was an architect’s moral conscience, modeling the importance of intellectual generosity, social consciousness, understanding privilege, and advocating for the overlooked and under-represented. His demise signifies the passing of an era where professionals saw their roles as much more than rulebook service providers. His legacy continues in the buildings, writings, events, platforms, and people from around the region and the world he brought together. To quote the architect Tay Kheng Soon, “Willy was a great convenor.” Asia will miss an architect, public intellectual, and committed convenor.
Dr. Eunice Seng, 11 January 2023, on behalf of the HKU Faculty of Architecture