Home News The architect who made Singapore’s public housing the envy of the world

The architect who made Singapore’s public housing the envy of the world


These high-rise apartments (some with sweeping views of Singapore’s tropical cityscape) are airy, light-filled and spacious enough to comfortably raise a family in. They’re also public housing, and for decades have been affordable, contributing to Singapore’s enviable rate of homeownership.

Now, however, at least a few apartments are selling for something that would have been unthinkable not long ago: more than $1 million.

“I’m sad to see this happening — because public housing must be equated with affordability,” said Liu Taige, an urban planner credited with creating the country’s A widely praised practice Provide housing for its citizens.

Mr Low, 86, is considered the architect of modern Singapore because he built about half of the more than one million public housing units in the tiny, prosperous nation of 5.6 million people.

But in the 1960s, the country’s economic situation was very different. It was one of Southeast Asia’s poorest cities, with three-quarters of its residents living in crowded and squalid slums in ramshackle, tin-clad homes known as “squatters”.

At the time, Liu was working in the New York office of architect I.M. Pei and had just graduated from Yale University with a master’s degree in urban planning.

“After four years, I felt that the United States really didn’t need me anymore, they had too many architects,” he said. “So I started thinking about returning home.”

In 1969, he returned to Singapore and became the head of the design and research department of the Singapore Housing and Development Board.

One of his main tasks was to create a “new town” for Singapore, a planned urban center, even though no one could explain what it would look like. So he had to figure it out.

After some research, he believes the new Singapore will include highly self-sufficient communities with schools, shops, outdoor food stalls and playgrounds.

Liu also wants to avoid the kind of public housing he has seen in the United States and Europe, where apartments face each other with a corridor in between, are dimly lit, and low-income people live crammed together, creating what he calls “concentrated poverty.”

He also wanted to inspire a sense of community among residents. To figure out how to do that, he asked sociologists to estimate how many families should live in close proximity to maximize social interaction. The answer was six to eight, so each corridor would share six to eight units; that way, neighbors could mingle.

As public housing in line with his vision began to be built and its success was recognized, Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, set an ambitious goal for Mr. Low: to relocate all those still living in slums by 1982.

By 1985, almost every Singaporean had his or her own home.

“He once told me that the symptoms of a backward city are: one, homeless people; two, traffic jams; three, floods; and four, air pollution,” Mr Low said, referring to Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

in Singapore Led by Mr. Li — who has been both criticized for suppressing freedoms and praised for transforming the country into a global economic powerhouse — public housing is about furthering his government’s agenda and providing places to house people.

The government has tied these affordable homes to its pro-family policies, support for the ruling People’s Action Party and further integration.

In 1989, a year before Mr. Lee stepped down as prime minister, his government enacted a policy requiring that each neighborhood or neighbourhood must have a balanced mix of residents from the city’s main ethnic groups — Chinese, Malays and Indians — in an effort to prevent racial segregation.

Mr Low said he supported the idea of ​​integration because Singapore had experienced intense racial conflict before and after its independence in 1965.

“Western experts condemned this as social engineering because it interferes with individual freedoms,” Mr. Liu said. “But we did it, and it worked.”

Mr Liu came to Singapore from Malaysia in 1944 when he was six years old. His father, Liu Kang, was an accomplished artist in Shanghai who fled to Malaysia during World War II.

After his mother asked him to study architecture to help the family earn money, Liu won a scholarship and enrolled part-time at the University of New South Wales in Australia, working while studying. He graduated with first-class honors.

Mr. Liu then went to Yale University to study. After graduation, he could choose to continue studying urban design at Harvard University, or Ieoh Ming PeiHe chose the latter.

This was an important milestone in his life. Mr Liu said that from Pei, he learnt the importance of “flow” and “harmony” in architectural design, concepts he later put into practice in Singapore.

Mr Low was director and chief planner of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1989 to 1992. In 1991, he drew up a “concept plan” that divided Singapore into five districts, each a small city in itself, so that people would not have to leave a district to go shopping or see a doctor.

“The convenience we enjoy in Singapore today is largely due to Dr Liu and his team,” said Professor Wang Caiqiang, provost of the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Engineering.

After leaving the public sector, Liu worked as an urban planner in about 60 cities across China, including Fuzhou, where he befriended Xi Jinping, the city’s top official. Xi asked him to design the city’s airport, a project Liu initially turned down because he had never designed an airport before.

A few months later, Xi Jinping, China’s future leader, came to Singapore and asked Liu to reconsider, according to Liu. This time, Xi agreed.

Mr Liu, 79, has started his own consultancy, which now advises the governments of Fiji and China’s Sichuan and Guangdong provinces on urban planning. He works five days a week, which he says “slows down the aging process in my brain and body”.

Mr. Liu said one of his main tasks while in charge of affordable housing in government was to ensure that housing prices “rose, but slowly,” so that homeowners felt they “had something of commercial value.” But he also wanted to make sure prices did not rise so quickly that “they could not afford affordable housing.”

Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and while record prices in the secondary market have heightened concerns about rising living costs in the country, public housing remains generally affordable — at least for those who qualify for government subsidies to buy homes.

Today, nearly 80% of Singapore’s residents live in public housing, with about 90% of the units having 99-year leases.

“The government remains committed to ensuring public housing is affordable for Singaporeans,” the Housing and Development Board said in a statement. Government officials said million-dollar apartments sold in the secondary market account for only a small portion of total transactions; as of May, 54 such apartments had been sold for more than $1 million.

Households that buy homes on the secondary market can receive housing assistance of up to about $60,000, but must meet income caps.

From the second half of this year, single people over 35 will be eligible to buy a one-bedroom apartment from the government anywhere; before the new rules they could only do so in certain areas.

Mr Liu said Singapore’s model could be replicated in other countries, but acknowledged that his path was smoother because the government enforced a law allowing it to buy land at market prices, which also made it easier for him to secure development plots.

“It’s hard to do this in most other democratic countries because the landlords would protest,” Mr Liu said.

Asked if he had any regrets, Liu mentioned two: He should have built bike lanes for the city and, he said, “kept a few hectares of shantytowns and dirt roads and so on so that the younger generation could see them.”

He added: “That way they’ll really know how far we’ve come.”

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