Friday 17 April 2015

The Shophouse: Singapore's Architectural Gem

Singapore is famous for spectacular modern buildings along its waterfront, such as the Marina Bay Sands resort.

It also has well-regarded older grand structures such as the Raffles Hotel, and the National Museum (a former library):

Fair enough. But on my recent visit to the city state, I fell in love with the humblest of its buildings: the shophouse. 

In the years before high-rise was possible, the shophouse was a very common style of retail building. 

Generally two or three storeys, it was literally a melding of shop and house - the shop at ground level and the residence of the shopkeeper's family above. 

Tightly packed together, these can't have been very roomy places in which to live. 

People generally don't live in them today. But they still do serve as shops, and you'll find a fair number of them in older low-rise areas such as Jalan Besar and Joo Chiat. 

What they are also particularly good for - and why I felt so attracted to them - is housing modern cafes and bars. 

There's something about the space - not too big and with an attractive mix of old-fashioned earthiness and authentically retro architecture - that lends just the right vibe to such a venue. 

One such shophouse I visited was home to Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a hip cafe:

Another had been converted into a cool contemporary bar, Nutmeg & Clove; in this pic you can see the ceiling above the barman has been partly removed to open up the space:

And there were plenty more of these facades around Singapore to admire:

I think the human scale of these compact former dwellings is why I liked them so much. 

Where modern mega-structures can be alienating, these simple buildings were easier to relate to, and connected me emotionally to Singapore's past.

Disclosure: On this trip I was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, the Raffles Singapore, and the Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen.

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