Dr Lilian Chee

Lilian Chee & Wong Zi Hao, Model-drawing image (2020)

Lilian Chee & Lin Derong, Worm’s eye view drawing (2020)

An architecture of intimate encounter: Plotting the Raffles Hotel through flora and fauna (1887-1925; 1987-2005)

Second supervisor(s)
Professor Barbara Penner

This thesis reconstitutes the ‘architectural subject’ by placing the intimate encounter between the experiencing subject and the architectural object as central to the architecture of the Raffles Hotel, a colonial monument in Singapore.

By expanding Julia Kristeva’s notion of ‘the semiotic’ through the context of feminist architectural theory, this thesis theorizes the original concept of an architecture based on intimate encounter – a method, which emphasizes the agency of the experiencing subject and relational modes of architectural interpretation.  The intimate encounter may be broadly surmised by three key aspects – the relational role of the experiencing subject, the construction of architectural histories and theories through a chronologically complex spatial armature, and interpretations of the intimate detail, an object central to the experiencing subject’s architectural experience.  Working through academic methodologies, historical-theoretical speculations and performative textual strategies, the investigation combines modes of historical, theoretical and inventive architectural interpretation and production.

The hotel’s two key spaces – the Palm Court and the Billiard Room – are interpreted through their floral and animal ‘plots’, that is, architectural concepts based on metonymical and metaphorical relationships.  Although the investigation through flora and fauna relates to a ‘tropical’ situation, this methodology ultimately critiques prevalent regionalist architectural discourses common to the hotel’s geographical context.

This research has five main objectives.  It develops a theoretical framework that critically accounts for subject positions outside those of the architect’s.  It expands the repertoire of evidence relevant to architectural research.  It employs modes of interpretation and writing, which draw on knowledge and techniques from architectural theory, history and criticism, feminist and literary theories, and philosophical ideas.  It suggests that architectural history and theory is an imaginative spatial enterprise involving diverse times, spaces and subjects.  Finally, it innovates a creative architectural typology for the hotel, based on its floral and animal plots.


The architecture of intimate encounter is played out conceptually through three key aspects.  The first is the relational experiencing subject, described through the figurative spider and her web.  The second is an architectural interpretation that takes place in a ‘time-out-of-joint’, and the third, is the critical role of the intimate detail. In this thesis, I advocate a method – the intimate encounter – which unfolds through a relational configuration between the experiencing subject and her architectural object of study. Ultimately, the construction of the architectural subject is affective. The figure of intimate encounter is the spider and her relational web of subjects encountered. The web’s configuration reflects the spider’s inventiveness in spinning new constellations of architectural relationships while allowing specificities of the encountered space to manifest itself.  The intimate encounter takes place in a time-out-of-joint where the time and space of the experiencing subject is juxtaposed against a network of overlapping and adjacent spatiotemporal contexts. Thus, while the subject matter encountered may be historical, the architectural interpretation here is nonlinear.

The investigation is driven by an intimate detail. This detail is affective and akin to Roland Barthes’ punctum. While peripheral to architectural knowledge, the intimate detail is an occurrence which grabs our attention, and which persistently lingers even after we find our way to these spaces. One of the most difficult aspects of this research has been to re-articulate my position in relation to architectural history and theory. How might a historical past encountered in the contemporary present be critically expressed and articulated in its complexities of intersections of time and space? The project was driven by the question of what it means to think ‘historically’ in the epistemological mode of ‘architecture’ – a discipline which embraces the experiential and projective. In this sense, the method here challenges how historical research is conveyed and conducted, looking at how the affective intimate encounter brings the historical and the contemporary into an entangled, relational configuration.


Structure (1)

Structure (2)

Related publications




Lilian Chee is Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore, where she co-leads the Research by Design Cluster. Her research connects embodied experience and affective evidence with architectural representation and feminist politics. Her award-winning film collaboration 03-FLATS (2014) has screened in 16 major cities. She is on the editorial boards of Architectural Theory ReviewAustralian Feminist Studies, the idea journal and advisor for the Bloomsbury Architecture Library. Her current book projects are Architecture and Affect (Routledge), and Remote Practices: Architecture at a Distance (Lund Humphries). She is co-directing a series of short films Objects for Thriving (2021) which explore objects, domestic spaces, structures of feeling and the elderly. She was Visiting Fellow at Future Cities Lab Singapore-ETH Centre (2018) and Honorary Senior Research Associate at Bartlett UCL (2018-2019). Her forthcoming research explores the intersection of home-based work practices with domesticity through an affective-feminist perspective.