By SGN | 16 Oct 2023
Within just a couple of centuries, Singapore has transformed itself into a modern city that holds its own in the world. But how can one begin to understand the nuances of its complex history?
Instead of hitting Wikipedia or the textbooks, let’s explore the island’s architecture – the enduring edifices that have borne witness to its triumphs, its struggles, its diverse influences, and its continual evolution.
Dong Ya Building
An iconic heritage shophouse in the Art Deco style
At the confluence of Keong Saik Road and Teck Lim Road in Chinatown stands a building familiar to Singaporeans. Built in 1939, Dong Ya Building is an Art Deco-style shophouse that was, for three-quarters of a century, home to famed kopitiam Tong Ah Eating House.
Older generations will remember it frequented by families and workaday folk alike. In the post-war era, when the area was in thrall to gangsters, it also saw customers from the seedier side of life!
The neighbourhood has long since been gentrified, and the iconic building is now prime real estate. Tong Ah has relocated across the road, while its former premises have transformed into a trendy nightlife spot, Potato Head – a stylish destination for younger patrons to meet, eat and make memories.
Shophouses like Dong Ya arose between the 1840s and the 1960s. Row upon row of these low-rise buildings were erected to house a growing mercantile population, their styles reflecting diverse influences through the decades.
The earliest type of shophouses can be found along Erskine Road, also in Chinatown. These are in a comparatively minimalist style imported from southern China – but modified for the tropical heat, with open stairwells and skylights to keep the building well-ventilated.
Tastes gradually evolved to favour ornate and colourful embellishments such as Peranakan tiles, French windows and Malay timber fretwork. The result was a riotous, eclectic and charming feast for the eyes.
Eventually, shophouse styles settled down to adopt the sleek, geometric lines of the Art Deco movement, with the Dong Ya building being a classic example.
Heritage shophouses are now marked for conservation, many repurposed by contemporary boutiques and eateries. A stroll around the fine examples in Joo Chiat, Clarke Quay or Emerald Hill will no doubt evoke a rich sense of history and culture that recalls Singapore’s immigrant beginnings.
A stately colonial mansion within the Botanic Gardens
Atop a gentle slope in the Singapore Botanic Gardens sits one of Singapore’s oldest colonial mansions. Completed in 1898, Atbara House was designed by Regent Alfred John (R. A. J.) Bidwell, who was just 29 when it was built.
He was the same architect who would go on to design Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and many other black-and-white bungalows that epitomise British colonial architecture in Southeast Asia.
The bungalows in Singapore incorporated Anglo-Malay and Anglo-Indian design elements, borrowed from other parts of the British Empire, that withstand tropical heat and torrential monsoons. These include lofty ceilings, tiled roofs, deep overhanging eaves, raised floors and broad verandahs. Their black-and-white aesthetic was achieved by contrasting whitewashed walls with mock-Tudor dark timber beams.
Colonial architecture features Anglo-Malay and Anglo-Indian elements that withstand tropical heat and torrential monsoons.
Among colonial mansions, Atbara House is grander than most, with grand echoes of Empire emanated by features such as the Neo-Mughal arches along its base. Even its name is a commemoration of British victory in the Battle of Atbara in Sudan, which took place the year the house was completed.
Initially built for John Burkinshaw, a founding partner of one of Singapore’s oldest law firms, Atbara House later housed the French Embassy for 60 years. Today, the building is home to the Forest Discovery Centre in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As with shophouses, these striking black-and-white buildings have been gazetted conservation status. Some are occupied by embassies, others by the well-heeled, and yet others by restaurants and bars in areas such as Dempsey Hill, Rochester Park and Seletar Aerospace Park.
Brutalist skyscraper marking Singapore’s post-independence stride
Clean lines, geometric shapes, functional layouts. These Brutalist characteristics that prevailed in post-independence Singapore marked the country’s path to becoming a global financial hub and prime destination for multinational headquarters.
When it was built in 1976, the 52-storey OCBC Centre became a symbol of national progress and the tallest building in all of Southeast Asia. Nicknamed the Calculator because of its button-like window protrusions, the headquarters of Singapore’s OCBC Bank was designed by celebrated Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei.
You can see many other landmarks in the Brutalist style elsewhere on the island, including the Singapore Conference Hall (1983), also designed by I. M. Pei.
Other examples include two mixed-use developments completed in 1973. People’s Park Complex held the honour of being Southeast Asia’s first shopping centre, while Golden Mile Complex was a Thai enclave for decades before an exodus of tenants and residents in 2023, following the building’s sale.
Singapore’s successful public housing programme also features the efficient architectural principles of the Brutalist style – especially in the ubiquitous point-block and slab-block typologies of apartment buildings. Far from ‘brutal’, however, these vertical ‘kampungs’ (villages) were designed to foster a sense of community, complemented by pleasant landscaping, communal spaces and essential services within easy reach.
The emergence of a Postmodern, 21st-century skyline
21st-century Singapore has been described as an architect’s dream canvas. The city-state welcomes bold innovation, soaring architectural creativity and new ways to incorporate smart technology.
The likes of Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and the ArtScience Museum have dramatically redefined the city’s erstwhile conventional downtown skyline – conveying a sense of futurism as well as of cultural flowering.
The Postmodern style – eclectic, idiosyncratic, whimsical – is now favoured by new venues promoting leisure, discovery, culture and the arts. The ArtScience Museum is a fine example of how this flight of imagination is given form in architecture.
Seen from a distance, the landmark resembles a lotus flower floating upon the water. Its structure consists of ten ‘fingers’ that house a series of exhibition galleries, rising from an open palm. Skylights at the ‘fingertips’ illuminate the curved walls within, while rainwater falls 35 metres into a reflecting pool, from where it is recycled.
Opened in 2011, the Museum invites visitors to explore the realms of art and science. It has showcased works by the world’s greatest artists – da Vinci, Dali, Warhol, Van Gogh, Escher – and its experiential exhibitions frequently employ cutting-edge digital technology.
Biophilic icon for a blossoming environmental consciousness
Photos: Finbarr Fallon
Can a Garden City get even greener? Certainly.
Singapore is now among the world’s leaders in biophilic architecture. This is the emerging field where a building’s design serves to connect the occupants to the natural environment through landscaping, lighting and ventilation.
For many visitors arriving in Singapore, Jewel Changi Airport might be their first experience of the Garden City through biophilic design. Opened in 2019, it’s a breathtaking encapsulation of paradise that brings the outdoors in, with a lush, sprawling valley and a massive waterfall set beneath a jewelled glass roof.
In the heart of the business district is CapitaSpring, a biophilic skyscraper that houses more than 80,000 plants in over 8,400 sqm of landscaping, 140% of the building’s footprint. The building’s pinstripe facade pulls apart to reveal green spaces at the base (linear park), in the middle (sky terrace) and at the top (roof garden).
Designed by Danish firm BIG and Italian architect Carlo Ratti, the tower is a powerful expression of tropical urbanism. In 2023, the project clinched ArchDaily’s Building of the Year (Offices) and was named a Design of the Year by President’s Design Award.
Shoring up Singapore’s biophilic credentials is a growing number of net-zero buildings, in line with the city’s Green Building Masterplan. By 2030, targets include improving energy efficiency in existing buildings to meet best-in-class green standards and having the majority of new developments be Super Low Energy (SLE).
Gaia at Nanyang Technological University is Asia’s largest wooden building.
Among the newest is Gaia, which opened in May 2023 as the new home of Nanyang Technological University’s business school. Designed by influential Japanese architect and Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Toyo Ito, the development has the distinction of being the largest wooden building in Asia.
Terraces, skylights, airwells and large windows keep the building naturally cool and well lit, while power is entirely supplied by rooftop solar panels. Fire resistance is a built-in feature, given that mass-engineered timber does not burn but chars at a very slow rate.
As biophilic and net-zero design advances, Singapore continues to punch above its weight in the field, leading the globe in defining sustainable architecture for the 21st century.