The Impossibility of Mapping (Urban Asia): Spatial Theory and Practice that Leaves Room to Breathe
After three years away from Singapore, in which time the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) has shifted forms but effectively closed shop, tracing the contours of this book feels like an impossible task. I am reminded of how art critic Corrie Tan (intimatecritic.substack.com) has talked about non-completion in gaming, and about letting things go, even though one is hot on completing.
Incompleteness and coherence, transparency and unfolding find some answers in this exhibition book that accompanies the CCA’s first major exhibition. It is particularly significant to pen this after the transformation of the CCA into a different kind of curatorial space, announced in 2022. In the words of Laura Miotto, who curated the exhibition, “When we start shaping an exhibition, we hardly know the space we are venturing into… It requires listening and discussing as much as imagining” (p. 84). Whether one sees the theme of incompleteness and uncertainty across the exhibition, the CCA’s next phase, or in the architectural interests of William Lim’s oeuvre, it does say something about the quest of shaping a critical practice in the climate of Singapore, and also of the region, where Lim carried out much of his work. The editors, Ute Meta Bauer, Khim Ong, and Roger Nelson reflect the impossibility of holding together “the irreducibility of complexity” of “Asia’s urban topography” (p. 19). Split into three chapters – “The City as Living Room,” “The City as Multiple,” and “The City as Stage” – the book reflects the exhibition’s themes: with upcycled material and negative and positive spaces that reflect Singapore’s public void decks, aimed at bringing Singapore into part of a global economy.
As the essays unfold, readers trace the architectural repertoire of William S. W. Lim – who passed in January 2023 – and the groups he founded. These differed from the dominant agenda of Singapore’s developmentalist phase, which was “to use architecture and the city to aid in the making of a consumerist middle class population” (p. 38). The critical intellectual think tanks he co-initiated and was equally influenced by – Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) and Asian Planning and Architectural Collaborative (APAC) – were part of an “emergent Asian avant-garde” which sought a “specific Asian or non-West modernism” (p. 38). Their social democracy aligned with ideas of socialism, the Second World, and humanist and utopian ideas. Influenced by the Metabolists in Japan and Team 10 in Europe, their utopian practices developed in reaction to the functionalism of post-WWII reconstruction and widespread urban renewal.
The Impossibility of Mapping starts, then, with the spirit of utopian grandness and the “super-large” that Lim and his peers brought to life: of megastructures that “corresponded with an epoch that believed that it was possible to intervene meaningfully on a large urban scale, and architects were considered to be active participants in the design of such urban environments” (p. 47).
Marc Gloede brings the filmic undertone of the exhibition into the foreground with a reflection on “film as a dream machine or the film industry as a dream factory” (p. 90). Lim’s challenge of developing a city yet-to-come gave him the license to dream and envision, unleashing the power to critique the present by giving wings to the subconscious. Gloede traces how film was introduced into the curatorial and exhibition space, to highlight and accompany the viewers as they move from “void to void,”1 Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. 2021. The Charged Void: Architecture. New York: The Monacelli Press. (Cited in Gloede, p. 93) to manifest a Deleuzian undercurrent of “becoming,” to “shift away from the objects and recognize the processes of experiencing and thinking in a museum” (p. 93).
Gloede’s words lead me to ask if these symbols of the Asian modern could be continually reinterpreted today to extend the movement of imagination. As Lim’s architectural thought and practice has continually expressed, form enables participation and responsiveness. May we neither get lost in the symbols of his firms’ work, nor celebrate his buildings as static entities to be copied. Rather, may we witness in his work – and in this curatorial book’s exhibitionary impulse – the form of thought that leads us away from the “habits that modernity/coloniality implanted in all of us.”2 Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 4. Is there a horizon beyond the struggle for national sovereignty that is the struggle for autonomy, safety, respect, and dignity?
Sacha Kagan’s orienting piece on the “critical imagination and urban spaces of possibility,” discusses William Lim’s architectural appeals for a critical imagination able to transmit qualitative complexity. Like Lim, Kagan advocates for a turn away from the “dominant and unsustainable model of the ‘creative city’ concept towards a more sustainable creative city approach: one involving indeterminacy and incomplete urbanism: to “learn together with many others to write that story, continuously, anew” (p. 107).
The second chapter draws together Thanavi Chotpradit, Chomchon Fusinpaiboon, Pen Sereypagna, and Simon Soon as early-career historians of modern Southeast Asian art, architecture, and urban form. Extending beyond a simple replacement of “nation” with “region,” their essays consider specificities of location, history, and politics, while seeing the creative energies that formed in Southeast Asia during the mid-20th century: with “anti-colonial struggles, intensive political modernisation movements, and the shadow of the global Cold War” (p. 117). Southeast Asia’s regional history foregrounds the intellectual and creative exchanges that manifested in built, physical sites. Architectural and infrastructural afterlives speak beyond the intentions of their design, either changing the legal codes that govern them (Chomchon and Chua), or the political work of states neglecting or willfully refunctioning sites (Tahnavi and Sereypagna).
Two essays on Thailand consider the way spaces emerge out of commercial and political means. Chomchon Fusinpaiboon notes the emergence of shophouses in Bangkok as provincial officers dispatched from Bangkok sought to invest in real estate, seeking shophouse designs more similar to Penang, Batavia (present-day Jakarta), and Singapore. These evolved after the 1855 Bowring Treaty with Britain converted the Siam court’s monopoly trade to fixed rate taxation. Chomchon locates the shophouse as a structure that supported the upward social mobility of some 448,300 Chinese migrants who moved to Siam from 1882–1917. Rather than the simplified ethnicisation of the shophouse, Chomchon shows that their production was embedded in the needs of new Thai and Thai-Chinese entrepreneurs keen to live and trade near old town centres. They were also part of an infrastructural fabric funded by the USA, which built roads for the Thai army to access so-called communist hideouts. Thanavi Chotpradit’s piece on the modernist architecture built during the People’s Party’s paradigm-shifting rule (1932-1947) in Thailand complements this, highlighting the reclaiming of space and aesthetic sensibility. Chotpradit’s essay moves across the marking of the constitution on plaques in public squares in Bangkok, to the Sanam Luang crematorium for commoner soldiers and policemen who died in the Boworadet Rebellion in October 1933 on grounds formerly reserved only for royalty, to the building of the Democracy Monument under the government of Phibunsongkram, carrying the visions of the revolutionary democracy movement.
Pen Sereypagna grapples with the compass of change, reading New Khmer architecture through a genealogical reading of rupture from traditional Cambodian forms. Finally, in his essay following the collective sale agreement of Singapore’s iconic Golden Mile Complex, Calvin Chua asks how iconic buildings, valued as parts of a city’s heritage, may be saved from demolition through adaptive reuse, the notion of the “city room” (such as public atriums in malls), and strata buildings.
Where informal practices grow within the cracks of built environment and detailed city planning, the essays by Yvonne P. Doderer and John Wagner ask how the global, cosmopolitan city (as abstract, universalised and imaginary as it is) interacts with participatory methods to engage public life.
The art duo indieguerillas, Lulu Lutfi Labibi, and Ari Wulu reflect on movement, performance, and the unsettled nature of musical creation in their work Datang Untuk Kembali (Arriving to Return), a commissioned performance on 13 January 2017. Speaking to the theme of “recycle,” they note, “we’ve been living our lives seeking for something that is hype at the moment… And tomorrow, we will run again, and again…” (p. 213). Nahshin Mahtani and Etienne Turpin write about the opensource flood monitoring and warning app, PetaBencana.id, which draws on crowdsourced information to deliver flood warnings to Jakarta residents (and now, beyond). While it redirects hegemonic attention ecologies, gives city residents the ability to create solutions for themselves, and has provided a platform for live communication between the National Emergency Management Agency of Indonesia and the Provincial Emergency Management Agency of Jakarta, the platform has also been influenced by the political reorganization of the latter agency. As they note, while “platforms… act as integrated organizational structures of the city, the simplicity evoked by their interfaces seldom communicate the necessary iterative complexities of maintaining the relationships that underpin them” (p. 228). Such relationships are both human and non-human, and they exist both in climatic and political environments.
The final chapter draws these theorisations to their practical, present conditions of possibility. As Khim Ong remarks in her introduction to the final chapters’ spread of photographs and essays, “advocacy and creativity, extant since independence, are not absent within the social domain despite the country’s urban and economic developments. It is perhaps in the informal spheres that advocacy and creativity most potently play out, as within these sites, the critical arts and civil society are the most crucial outlets of the citizenry” (p. 183). The closing of the NTU CCA after the 2010s’ arts and culture funding released by the Singapore Ministry of Education, and commented on elsewhere in Simone and Michael Douglass’ (2020) edited volume The Hard State, Soft City of Singapore,3 Simone Chung and Mike Douglass, eds. 2020. The Hard State, Soft City of Singapore. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. however, poses many more questions about the commoditization of the arts: improving global city rankings on one hand, and drawing forth feelings of participation amongst nascent civil society on the other.
Readers of urban planning, policy, and future imaginations of the urban will find that this volume encompasses a breadth of theory and practice that brings elusive questions of “indeterminacy,” “inconsistency,” and “changeability” into visible and sensory form. These are the very same ideas that illuminate William S. W. Lim’s work, as Lim notes in the book’s afterword, and ideas we need today to flow with the tides of the world to come.