Sensational Singapore

Beyond the dizzying skyscrapers, Singapore's traditional architectural delights stand to ensure the past is not forgotten in the modern metropolis.

Singapore’s highly publicised Marina Bay Sands resort — the $5.5 billion mega structure built by Vegas casino giant Sands — which opened in 2010 with its SkyPark and breathtaking infinity pool sitting atop its roof, has done little to change the often-held opinion of Singapore as an anodyne city-state: a strip of land that is all glass and steel, a modern metropolis dominated by office towers and the multi-level shopping malls that line the famous commercial strip of Orchard Road.

But it’s quite an unfair view of this complicated, highly progressive society that barely covers the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. Singapore is not a one-note stopover destination; it has rich layers of history, myriad cultures closely jammed up against each other and, naturally,  incredible cuisine.

And, just like hunting around for a bargain on Orchard, if you take the time to look beyond the glossy new buildings, you will discover that Singapore actually has a wealth of fascinating architectural history. Walk the streets and you will see everything from traditional Chinese shophouses, to colonial-influenced homes dating back to the 19th century, as well as the square and imposing black-and-white buildings, which served as status-symbol housing for the rich, and barracks for the military, built right up to the end of World War Two. Each architectural style has much to admire, whether it’s the innovative reuse of heritage sites or the brave modern additions.

So, when you are all shopped out or have slurped your last Singapore Sling, tracking down some of the country’s traditional buildings is a great way to see another side to Singapore.

In the House

True to its name, a Singapore shophouse is a hybrid of commercial space and a home for the merchant. Shophouses reflect an authentic style of Singapore living because they make good use of what little space is on offer, combining retail and home and, having survived a bout of bulldozing to make way for modern shopping malls, are now being preserved in ways both residents and visitors can appreciate.

One of the best examples of this is at Bugis Junction, a shopping centre where three rows of shophouses have been restored to their former glory and topped with a glass ceiling. It’s a bold addition in the spirit of the Louvre’s glass pyramid. Its historical feel and ultra-modern shops give you the best of Singapore old and new, making Bugis Junction one of the island’s busiest shopping areas — as well as putting to use iconic buildings for the very thing they were originally intended: trade. Elsewhere, brightly painted and renovated shophouses with louvred windows flank Singapore’s pristine streets, and are still used as homes. Many more rundown affairs operate small businesses, such as tailors or cafes, a large number of which are in Chinatown. But to get a real feel for the traditional interiors, head to Emerald Hill.

Emerald Hill is like an oasis from the shopping onslaught that is Orchard Road. It is a tumbledown street located only a five-minute stroll north from the bustle of the commercial superhighway. The small street was laid out in 1901 and feels a world away the moment you arrive. Look up to the surrounding colourful shophouses that snake along its narrow sides, ornate louvred windows swinging open in the hope of some breeze among the heat, the street shaded by gnarled trees and tall palms.

The area is a microcosm of Singapore’s old-meets-new ethos, particularly cocktail bar No. 5 Emerald Hill which allows you to soak up the atmosphere of a Peranakan shophouse while sipping on a Singapore Sling that rivals that at the more famous Raffles hotel where the cocktail was invented. The staff even let you shell your own peanuts and toss them wantonly on the floor, like in Raffles’ Long Bar. Music floats down from upstairs, that Singaporean staple of vintage American rock done well, and the room is moodily lit to accent the dark wood. The ornate floor-to-ceiling windows are the focal points — save a few framed pictures on the wall — and glow red from the Chinese lanterns outside.

Little Britain

Much of Singapore’s architecture comes from the British occupation of the island between 1867 and 1942 and while the city has taken pains to preserve these markers of its colonial history, it’s also recognised the need for modernity. Sentosa’s slightly misguided overhaul attempts in the late 1990s resulted in a dorky fun-park image, but the island resort’s recent mega-makeover has turned this ugly duckling into a profitable, shiny new swan. Sentosa’s golf courses, five-star hotels and much-lauded Resorts World Sentosa, which even features a Universal Studios theme park, have set a new restoration benchmark.

While the casino continues to draw all manner of tourists to its shiny lights, there’s also a different breed of developers excelling at turning old barracks into top-notch getaways. Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa was designed by Japanese architect Masaki Miyake, but its bones are a renovated two-storey 1930s barracks that served as sergeant’s quarters. The building is in the Singapore colonial style, a pristine white affair with roof-high palms protectively standing guard. Amara has also resurrected the groomed colonial gardens and, with the requisite rooftop infinity pool, spa and wellness centre, is surrounded by verdant tropical foliage.

The award-winning Capella, which sprawls over several hectares of rainforest, has an original 1880s colonial foyer, smartly enhanced by a seductively sinuous design from British architecture firm Foster + Partners. Its modern wing features terracotta-coloured metal and aluminium louvres that echo the original 19th-century design. Inside the resort, the 112 guestrooms are styled in subtle shades, letting the rolling view from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the rainforest and multi-layered pools do the decorating.

Life in Monochrome

The poster children of colonial Singapore are its black-and-white houses, palatial monochrome bungalows nowadays being turned into restaurants and bars. The most authentic examples of these one-time residences of the empire’s elite are found in Holland Park.

Black-and-white houses fuse both Britain’s arts and crafts and art deco movements, but they also hold true to the traditional Malay tenets of local architecture, such as building on stilts to avoid tropical flash flooding. As drainage improved over the years, many were filled in with brick to give them the blocky appearance they have today — arresting, yet homely. The stark monochrome not only makes them stand out but gives the illusion of cool in the hot afternoon.

Black-and-whites were also favoured by the military, and the end point of our tour is Dempsey Hill, once a barracks for the British army. It was here young Singaporeans used to report for national service when governed by the empire, and the rows of monochrome mansions were no doubt commanding to them.

Now, however, the buildings comprise a charming village that huddle together among manicured lawns, tourists and locals strolling the area to select a spot to dine, or just to simply admire the architecture. The entire area is a retail and dining hub, including one of the city-state’s most famous restaurants, Jumbo seafood restaurant, housed in a beautifully restored old black-and-white with a garden dining area.

Take an outside table under a palm tree where a frosty Tiger beer goes someway to combating the almost constant humidity. And if you steer clear of the better-known chilli crab and instead go for the black pepper crab, the dark spice against the white meat makes a fitting echo to
the day’s architecture lesson.

Cheers to That

The best places to soak up Singapore’s history — and an expertly mixed drink.

Singapore is a small, yet crowded, island; land is scarce, so it stands to reason if you want to keep an historic building, you have to put it to good use. In recent years, as the Lion City has tried to shake off its yawn-worthy image, high-end cocktail bars and fine-dining restaurants are turning
up in the most interesting places.

Top of the list is The White Rabbit. It’s found just off Holland Road, housed in a high-ceilinged chapel that stood abandoned for a decade and a half before morphing into a fantastically surreal bar and dining hall. Diners are bathed in the glow of leadlight windows with a lush tropical garden and a cocktail list that threatens to send you down a rabbit hole of your own making.

From Tanglin Road, it’s a short cab ride to Killiney Road. The nocturnal draw here is KPO, situated in the old Killiney Road Post Office (hence the acronym) at the junction of Killiney, Penang and Orchard roads. The bar, helmed by the same group behind popular club Balaclava and bars 1128 and Wala Wala, keeps the post-war façade of the original post office fully intact.

For a more relaxed vibe, Wild Oats is set in an elegant, sprawling colonial mansion with a tranquil terrace, hidden away within the residential maze of Mount Emily. Modern comfort food at its best.

Words by Paul Chai - Published in Voyeur October 2012
Quick Facts 
Population 3 million
Area 712 km2
Time Zone GMT + 8
Languages Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English (official languages)
Currency Singapore dollar (SGD)
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