The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.
Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.
Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.
It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.
The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.
The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.
While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.
The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.
What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.
The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.