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Past and Presence - Much is being done to restore the original architecture of Singapore


Words: Daven Wu    Illustrations: Caleb Ming


Despite its ultra-modern skyline, much is being done to restore the original architecture of Singapore – the narrow, terraced dwellings known as shophouses

A quick scan of Singapore’s extraordinary skyline reveals an unexpected panorama of period architecture amid the sleek, gleaming skyscrapers that dominate the horizon. Along Boat Quay in the shadow of towers built by the likes of IM Pei and Kenzo Tange, stretch rows of quaint three- and four-storey shophouses.

Hugging the sinuous curve of the Singapore river, these 19th-century buildings used to be shops, warehouses, offices and homes for the merchants who made their fortunes from the trading barges that pulled up here. Today, they have been converted into busy pubs, cafés and restaurants. And across the river, the imposing civil offices of the old colonial British administration have been meticulously restored and repurposed to house world-class museums, swanky restaurants, art galleries and drama centres.


Echoes of the past:Baba House is a stunning example of a period building. Meanwhile, the Old Supreme Court is undergoing transformation

Elsewhere, in the historic districts of Tanjong Pagar, Tiong Bahru, Club Street, Chinatown and Emerald Hill, shophouses are quietly being converted into beautiful homes and boutiques, tapas bars and offices that combine millennial comfort with old-world grace. A quirky example has been the sudden blooming of speakeasy bars and restaurants hidden away behind unmarked shophouse entrances. At the Library in the city’s former red-light district of Keong Saik Road, guests find the entrance to a lively bar serving killer mojitos behind a bookshelf in a sleepy little design bookshop. At 28 Hong Kong Street, an inconspicuous shophouse door leads into a mood-lit bar helmed by a bona fide mixologist who shakes out a mean Martini.

Teh Lai Yip, the Senior Director of Conservation at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the body responsible for Singapore’s urban planning, remembers a time when these same shophouses were “considered by most Singaporeans as worthless relics of a colonial past. Today, almost everyone celebrates the shophouse as an embodiment of Singaporean culture.” Amidst this nostalgia, the word du jour across the island is “conservation”, whether in Chinatown, where Indian and Chinese temples have become significant tourist draws, or conservation areas such as the East Coast and Tanjong Pagar, where Peranakan terrace houses are a reminder of a British colonial past when Singapore was a leafy community of nutmeg plantations and towering stands of traveller palms.

Today, almost everyone celebrates the shophouse as an embodiment of Singaporean culture

The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Baba House is a high-water mark of conservation in Singapore. Built around 1895 by Wee Bin, a wealthy Peranakan shipping magnate, the building is a stunning example of a period terrace house whose architectural details are predominantly Chinese. Most of the grand restoration projects are taking place in the Raffles Place and City Hall quarters. In a year or so, the old Supreme Court and City Hall, two grand neo-classical piles built in the early 20th century, will reopen as Singapore’s first National Art Gallery. The massive project, designed by Studio Milou, will link the two
buildings via a giant glass canopy.


New creations: Bincho is a modern bar housed in a 70-year-old coffee shop

In the Malay quarter of Kampong Glam, 10 shophouses have been transformed into the Sultan Hotel – its interior décor of Dutch-Javanese day beds and Islamic wallpaper motifs is the perfect foil for the daily echo of the muezzin’s call to prayer from nearby Sultan mosque. Meanwhile, the historic Capitol Building and Stamford House will be unveiled in December as a sprawling mixed-used development, designed by Richard Meier, that includes the grand Patina hotel, private residences,
retail outlets, a cinema and restaurants.

For Teh of the URA, older buildings “become a repository for personal memories, and preserving them helps to transmit these memories across the generations as stories are told and retold”. Such is the case with Raffles Hotel. Since 1887, it has epitomised the ideal of a grande dame hotel – a quality that has survived the intervening century. Its first owners, the Sarkies brothers, were four savvy Armenian businessmen who spotted an opportunity for fine, first-class accommodation in the then fledgling British colony.

Since 1887, Raffles Singapore has epitomised the ideal of a grande dame hotel - a quality that has survived the intervening centuries

They picked Beach Road, a quiet stretch facing the sea, to run their modest 10-room bungalow hotel that was designed by RAJ Bidwell, a well-known British architect. The hotel was an instant hit and became a byword for luxurious, modern accommodation. So much so that within the first decade, two extra wings comprising 22 new suites had to be added. Today, those wings are the oldest parts of Raffles. The Bar & Billiard Room was added shortly after in 1896.

Living legends:the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall; Raffles hotel, whose resident historian is Leslie Danker

By 1905, Raffles sprawled over 200,000sq ft of prime waterfront real estate. Its views and impeccable service were applauded by all, especially for the electrical lights and fans that had been unveiled in 1899. In the following century, the hotel went from strength to strength. And when it reopened in 1991 after a S$160m renovation, it effortlessly staked its claim as one of the world’s grandest hotels – quintessentially British in its façade, but unmistakably oriental in its welcome.

The hotel still evokes a nostalgic charm. The suites feature old-fashioned ceiling fans, timber window shutters and creaky floorboards, and the famed Tiffin Room still hosts its daily Raj-inspired lunches. Indeed, the hotel’s resident historian, Leslie Danker, ascribes the hotel’s long-lived glamour to a very respectful sense of its past. “Raffles is soaked in a rich history that no other hotel can boast. The building itself is remarkable and the way it took shape is unique.

Raffles is a genuine icon beautifully maintained in its original style

As the hotel grew, the architects – all of them British – ensured that there was continuity of design.” As the hotel’s general manager, Simon Hirst, observes, Raffles is “a genuine icon beautifully maintained in its original style. It is not just an hotel, it is an atmosphere, a feeling, an emotional place”.

In many ways, Raffles is a handy metaphor for Singapore’s efforts to anchor its headlong rush into the future to its historical past. As Teh puts it: “For conservation to be successful in any city, the conservation planner must be a daring visionary, to be ahead of the taste curve – to protect the best of ‘today’, which is currently under-appreciated – but which we believe will be of value in the eyes of the next generation.”

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Raffles. Legendary service since 1887.