The fire station at the 8th mile

9 06 2015

One of those things almost every young boy dreams of becoming is a fireman. I had myself harboured ambitions of becoming one at different points during my childhood; the inspiration coming from picture books and what I must have caught on the television and perhaps from the constant reminder I had in the form of the rather eye-catching Alexandra Fire Station, which was close to where I lived in Queenstown.

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys.

The fire station at the 8MS, Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys and a fire station of old marked by a distinctive hose-drying tower.

Sadly, that station is long gone. The monster of a building that replaced it, besides housing a fire station, also has a police centre operating from it. Without the distinctive hose-drying tower and red doors, the new building, unlike the stations of old, is no longer one to fuel the aspirations of childhood, and certainly not one in which I am able to reconnect with days that I often wish to return to.

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That connection to my youthful days can fortunately be found in several other fire stations of old. Of these, the pretty red and white Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest and now a National Monument is still in operation. That, in the days of my childhood, loomed large at the far end of a street now lost, Hock Lam Street, along which I often found comfort in a bowl of its famous beef ball soup.

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Two others that I regularly set my eyes upon, while still around, are no longer operational. One is the red brick former Serangoon or Kolam Ayer Fire Station, along Upper Serangoon Road. Now reassembled, having been moved due to the construction of a road where it had stood, the station was one that was close to my second home in Toa Payoh.

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The other was Bukit Timah Fire Station. Sited at the 8th milestone Bukit Timah, it was close to the giant Green Spot bottle that stood tall at the Amoy Canning Factory (see: a photograph of the Green Spot bottle  on James Tann’s wonderful Princess Elizabeth Estate blog) and was at the foot of Singapore’s highest hill. The station stood out as a landmark in the many road journeys of my childhood. The pair (the station and the giant replica bottle) seemed then to mark the edge of the urban world and on the long drives to the desolate north and the wild west, the sight of them would represent the start of the adventure on the outward journey, and would signal the return to civilisation on the journey home.

The former station, just after its closure (online at http://m5.i.pbase.com/u41/lhlim/upload/22296575.DSCF0029_02.jpg).

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station has a mention in the National Heritage Board’s Bukit Timah Heritage Trail booklet. This tells us that it was in 1956, the fourth fire station to be built; a fact that I assume is in relation to the stations that were built for the Singapore Fire Brigade, coming after Central Fire Station and the sub-stations at Geylang and Alexandra. Kolam Ayer (Serangoon), built for the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service in 1954 would have already been standing at the time. That only came under the Singapore Fire Bridage in 1961, following the disbandment of the volunteer force. Another station that would have existed, was the Naval Base Fire Brigade’s Sembawang Fire Station. Built in the 1930s, the station’s building is now conserved.

Signs of very different times.

Signs of very different times.

Bukit Timah sub-station’s appearance, is perhaps one of the strongest clues to its vintage, its clean and understated elegance is typical of the 1950s Modernist style. One of the few adornments on its uncluttered façade, is a coat of arms. That of the Colony of Singapore, it is also is a telltale sign of when the station would have been commissioning – the coat of arms was in use during the days of the Crown Colony from 1948 to 1959.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station’s grounds, also speak of the past. Besides a sign slowing us down to 20 miles per hour, there are many other signs of the times, the most noticeable of which would be the now recoloured low-rise apartment blocks. The blocks provide evidence of days when the various services provided for the accommodation needs of servicemen and their families as well as point to a period in our history when Singapore, even if administered by the colonial masters as a separate entity, was a part of the greater Malaya. It would have been common then to find men in service hailing not just from the Crown Colony but also from parts of the Federation. The seven three-storey blocks, each with six comfortably proportioned apartments, are in the company of a single storey house at the back, which would have been the residence of the station master.

The former firemen's quarters, seen in 2010.

The former firemen’s quarters, seen in 2010.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

A view through a wall to the former station master's residence.

A view through a wall to the former station master’s residence.

Having been in operation for close to half a century, the station was to close its red doors for good in 2005 when a larger and modern replacement at Bukit Batok Road was built. Missing from the new station was the hose-drying tower that once seemed to be the defining feature of a fire station. The introduction of machines to handle tasks such as the drying of hoses meant that stations built from 1987, starting with the one in Woodlands, would take on a new appearance.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower – something firemen are no longer required to climb.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

One of several former stations still standing, only the buildings belonging to Bukit Timah have found interim uses. These were initially leased out by the State for three years in April 2008 to serve as a venue for corporate events, adventure camps, arts, education and sports.

A world recoloured.

A world recoloured.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Since then, the premises has seen a second master tenant leasing the property on a 2+2 year term, with whom it was relaunched as a lifestyle and education hub in 2012. Besides the take-up of units in the former quarters by businesses running enrichment activities aimed at the young, there is also a food and beverage outlet that now operates out of the station’s former garage.

The former station's red doors, seen in 2010.

The former station’s red doors, seen in 2010.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

As of today, the buildings do not have conservation status. There is hope however for their future retention, even if the current edition of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan seems to suggest otherwise. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Concept Master Plan for the Rail Corridor initiated by the URA identifies the former station as one of four activity hubs for which shortlisted teams are required to submit a concept design in which the buildings are retained and “repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor(see A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins).

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

It would certainly be a cause for celebration should this happen. The station, as one of the last to survive from an era during which the area developed as a industrial corridor and as a prominent landmark, serves not just as a link to the area’s development and history, but also as a reminder of a Singapore we might otherwise be quick to forget.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

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RAF Seletar’s last barrack block

26 05 2015

A part of Singapore that has seen a transformation in recent times is Seletar. The area was once occupied by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar station or RAF Seletar, which at its establishment in 1928, held the distinction of being its largest station in the Far East. Vacated by the British during the 1971 pullout of forces, the former air base was used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as Seletar Camp, home to several units including ones that I was most familiar with from my involvement professionally in floating military bridges, such as the Combat Engineers.

A survivor of RAF Seletar.

Block 450, one of the last survivors of RAF Seletar.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

The charm the area long had a reputation for and its laid back appeal provided by the  generously spaced clusters of old world military buildings and dwellings, retained even during the days of the SAF military camp, is now fast being lost. The transformation it is now seeing, involves not just an expansion of its now civilian airport, Seletar Airport, but also the development of a 320 ha. industrial Seletar Aerospace Park. These developments has left its scars on Seletar, a Seletar but for a few reminders of the old world, is one now hard to recognise.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

One part of the former RAF station that serves to remind us of the old military installation is the iconic entrance  complex with its gate and guardhouse – although a two-storey building that somehow provided the camp’s entrance with some of its past flavour has since been lost. It is beyond the gate house, past what some may feel is Singapore’s equally famous Piccadilly Circus, down the Piccadilly – the road to the East Camp; even if it deceives at its start in evoking a sense of the old world, that the visitor is confronted by the changing face of Seletar.

The entrance gate in RAF Seletar days.

It was down the same Piccadilly, at least what it had been before the recently introduced confusion of roads, that a group of servicemen past and present, gathered to celebrate the past as well as a survivor of the past, a barrack building, that if not for it, might have made the celebration’s venue – now dominated by new roads and newly turfed spaces, not such an obvious choice.

The barrack building, Block 450.

The barrack building, Block 450.

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RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

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The barrack building, Block 450, more affectionately referred to as “Alpha”, was at the heart of the area that was not only the birthplace of the servicemen’s unit, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 160 Squadron in 1970, but also that of the RSAF’s air defence set-up. Its heritage, that of the RAF air station, and 160 Squadron,  Singapore’s first and longest serving air defence unit, celebrated with a heritage storyboard for which the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the 160 Anti-Aircraft (AA) Alumni and 160 Squadron came together to produce.

The 160 Squadron's 35mm Oerlikon AA gun - the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

The 160 Squadron’s 35mm Oerlikon AA gun – the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

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The launch of the heritage storyboard, by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was the highlight of the gathering. It provided an opportunity not just to learn about the unit and its role in the air defence of Singapore – something Minister Chan emphasised in his speech by saying how, put less crudely, our young now have a greater chance of being hit by droppings from airborne beings of an avian kind than ones with more destructive potential; but also to have a more intimate look at the barrack building through the Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar staged by the 160 AA Alumni.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition, from the use of the OHP, 35mm slides and printed material, in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibition of photographs.

An exhibition of photographs.

An improvised fire-alarm.

An improvised fire-alarm.

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Typical of barrack blocks built during the Far East military build-up in the 1920s and 1930s, blocks such as Alpha – of which there were at least ten in RAF Seletar, provided shelter not just for the Anti-Aircraft gunners of 160 Squadron – who moved out in 2002, but also to numerous men in the service of His (and later Her) Majesty’s Government. Built in 1930, Block 450 is the only one in Seletar to have survived, having been gazetted for conservation as part of the 2014 Master Plan together with Block 179 – the former Station Headquarters, along with 32 bungalows in the former air base.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

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Architecturally similar to many other barrack blocks put up in the era – I had the experience of it from my reservist days in Sembawang Camp (the former HMS Terror)  before it was renewed, the block is an example of the tropical military architecture of the age. Those were times forgotten when it was desirable to maximise comfort levels of the buildings’s occupants, without an over-dependence on high levels of energy consumption. Measures typically employed to provide maximum ventilation and shade is seen in the wide verandahs and in the provision of ample openings, is a very noticeable feature of Block 450. Some of this is also described in the URA’s Conservation Portal:

Like the former Station Headquarters, this building was designed in the tropical Art Deco style that was favoured by the British military. The use of traditional timber windows and doors with the then relatively new medium of reinforced concrete demonstrates a combination of traditional and modern design approaches.

As a response to the humid tropical climate, the building has long and continuous covered verandahs complemented by inner facades featuring timber-louvred windows, doors and pre-cast concrete vents to promote cross-ventilation. Other features of the building include moulded Art Deco style motifs at the top of every column which help to adorn this otherwise simple yet functional building.

A view of a sister block, H Block in the West Camp, in its early days (online at http://81squadron.com).

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

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Abandoned by its one-time companions, which I am told in the days of 160 Squadron would have included a parade square in its shadow, as well as building housing the squadron headquaters, the ops room and also hangars where the guns were stored across the Piccadilly, Block 450 now stands alone, out of place against the now vastly altered surroundings. It may be a shame that we are are unable to hold on to spaces such as Seletar with its rich history and its unique and now hard to find charm, but we have to be thankful for the conservation of buildings such as Block 450. While it will not come anywhere close to reminding us of the beautiful space Seletar once was, we will at least have several reminders that tell us of a history that will otherwise be forgotten.

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Further information on Block 450 and conservation within the former RAF Seletar:

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The vermilion bridge in the naval base

19 05 2015

The vermilion bridge, of a style and colour that is distinctively Japanese, stands almost garishly out of place in the expansive garden of an equally generously sized colonial house. Set in an area whose flavour is overwhelmingly one of the days of the empire, the bridge, and the landscaped area it arches across, is said to have been constructed through the efforts of Japanese Prisoners-of-War (POWs). It is one of at least two structures that the POWs built in an area that was at the heart of the huge British naval base, the other being a swimming pool on the grounds of Old Admiralty House.

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The house with the bridge, is one of many in the “black and white” style, commonly employed in the construction of homes for the colony’s senior administrators and military men, to be found in the area. Along with several residences with red-brick faces influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the “black and white” houses, in lush green and spacious surroundings, served as married quarters for the base’s senior officers. The house, the largest in its cluster and located so that it commanded a view of the base’s former stores basin and dockyard, was reserved for the dockyard’s most senior officer, the Commodore Superintendent.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent's residence.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent’s residence (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook Group).

The dockyard passed into the hands of the then newly formed Sembawang Shipyard in 1968 and the base saw its last days in 1971 with the British pullout, and the ownership of the house was transferred to the State, but with an arrangement that it, along with several other similar property be made available for use to the United Kingdom and also to Australian and New Zealand Forces deployed in Singapore under the Five Power Defence Arrangement. It perhaps is due to this that the house, which subsequent to the pullout, served as the residence of Commander of New Zealand’s Force SEA, and the brightly coloured bridge, set in an area that the the URA’s 2014 Masterplan tells us is “Subject to Detailed Planning”,  still stands today in a part of Singapore in which the winds of change are now blowing ever stronger.





The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe  two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.





The last of the grand Teochew mansions

4 05 2015

Occupying a prominent position at the corner of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue, an old temple like structure stands on its own, seemingly out of place in the surroundings of the modern city. The structure, a house that in its past has often been referred to as “Temple House” for its resemblance to a southern Chinese house of worship, will for those of my generation, be remembered as the headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The last of the "four grand mansions", the House of Tan Yeok Nee on Penang Road.

The house once known as “Temple House”, once served as the Headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The house is a traditional southern Chinese courtyard house, one of a handful that were built in Singapore in the 19th century, a fact that makes its survival all that more remarkable. Built from 1882-1885 for a wealthy Teochew merchant, Tan Yeok Nee, its stands today as the last of its kind on the island, the last of four houses of Teochew merchants that have collectively been referred to as the “four grand mansions and has since 1974, been listed as one of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The three other grand Teochew mansions have over the course of the 20th century, all made way for redevelopment, the last being the former Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCCI) building on Hill Street, which in 1964 was replaced by the current one. That, had started its life in 1878 as the House of Wee Ah Hood.

House of Wee Ah Hood used as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, c. 1930s. (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

The first to go was Tan Seng Poh’s 1869 house at the corner of Hill Street and Loke Yew Road, which came down in 1904. The second to be built, the 1872 house of Seah Cheo Seah (one of the sons of Seah Eu Chin) was along North Boat Quay.

House of Seah Cheo Seah along North Boat Quay, c. 1913 (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

It is probable that Tan Yeok Nee’s house might have suffered the fate of the other three, well before its architectural and historical value could be recognised in 1974, if not for the transfer of its ownership following Tan’s 1902 passing (some would attribute its survival to the house’s good feng shui). Acquired for use by Singapore’s first railway, it served as the residence of the stationmaster from 1903 when the first section of the Singapore Kranji Railway, which terminated at Tank Road, opened. That lasted until 1912, after which it passed into the hands of the Church of England when it was used as a home and girls’  school. The Salvation Army was to take over in 1938. Except for an enforced break during the Japanese Occupation, the house was where the organisation had its headquarters until 1981.

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The house must surely have been a symbol of its owner’s wealth and standing at the time of its completion, both of which Tan Yeok Nee had no shortage of. Having had humble beginnings as a cloth peddler, Tan was quick to find success, making his fortune from the gambier and pepper trade as well as the lucrative opium, spirit and gambling franchises or farms in Singapore and in Johor.

The first courtyard.

The first courtyard.

Tan’s successes in Johor were possible due to close relationship he had established with the man who would be the first modern day Sultan of Johor, Maharaja Abu Bakar. This had its roots in Tan’s days as a cloth peddler, when the then heir to Temenggong Ibrahim, resided at Telok Blangah.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

Tan held multiple rights to kangchus in Johor, all of which were granted by the ambitious Abu Bakar and served at one point as a Major China. He was also conferred a “Dat0-ship” by Abu Bakar and is also known as Dato’ Tan Hiok Nee across the Causeway. A street, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in Johor Bahru, is named after him.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

The Central Hall

The Central Hall as seen from the first courtyard.

Temple House, as one would expect, has its halls laid out symmetrically along a central axis as is typical of southern Chinese architecture. Also typical of such structures are the elaborate decoration work that the house is known for, seen in places such as the walls, roof ridges and supporting structures. An example of this is found on the wooden beams in the Central Hall, which feature gold painted decorations as well as intricately carved creatures. One such creature is the aoyu (鳌鱼), a carp with a dragon head that as myth would have it, is one of few carps who are transformed after successfully swimming against the flow and leaping the waterfall of the Dragon Gate.  The creature is often is used to symbolise courage, determination and accomplishment.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as 'inlaying porcelain'.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as ‘inlaying porcelain’.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

Seeing the house, there will be little doubt of Tan Yeok Nee’s accomplishment. This can be seen not just in the symbolism of its decorative elements, but also in a rather explicit expression of it that is seen above the house’s entrance portal. There, the characters 资政第 “Zi Zheng Di” are prominently displayed, giving us a sense of its occupant’s high ranking. The characters, which tell us that the house is a residence of a Qing Dynasty Second Ranked Official, also remind us of one more thing – how ties with the lands of the ancestors were maintained by many who embarked on their journeys into the new world, all with the hope that they would find success and bring that back home with them.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

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A window into its roof supports.

A window into its roof supports.





The very grand house that Brewer built

2 04 2015

Perched on a small hill just south of hills given to the those who have passed on at Bukit Brown, is a place built as a dwelling for the living, so grand, that it has had members of royalty, a president as well as many powerful military men, find shelter within its walls. The dwelling, Command House, is well hidden from the public eye. It only is on the incline of its long driveway, well past the entrance gate at Kheam Hock Road, that we get a glimpse of its scale and appearance; the drive in also provides an appreciation of the expanse of the sprawling 11.5 acre (4.5 ha.) estate the house is set in.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

The scale of the mansion, built in 1938 with six bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a huge wine cellar as well as servants quarters and other service buildings laid out over its grounds, must impress. It however is its simple but aesthetically pleasing design that catches the eye. Said to have been inspired by the Arts and Craft movement of which its creator, the well respected Singapore based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and MacLaren, was a keen follower of, the mansion features elements of Brewer’s interpretation including the distinctive exposed brick voussoirs that is also seen in other Brewer designed houses (some examples: 5 Chatsworth Park and 1 Dalvey Estate).

Many of Brewer's work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

Many examples of Brewer’s work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

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Several recognisable architectural contributions have been attributed to Brewer. In Singapore, these include the Cathay building and St. Andrew’s School. Visitors to Cameron Highlands would not have missed another of his works, the Tudor style Foster’s Smoke House, a landmark in the popular Malaysian mountain resort.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Built as Flagstaff House, the residence of Malaya’s most senior military commander, the importance placed on its intended occupants can be seen in the house’s grand appearance, as well as in its expansive setting and its somewhat lofty position. Flagstaff House’s completion had come at the end of decade in which the emphasis was on building Singapore up militarily to support its role as an outpost for the British in the Far East.

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

The back of the mansion.

The back of the mansion.

Laid out on a “butterfly plan”, commonly seen in the architecture of the early Arts and Crafts movement, the mansion and its beautiful grounds must be as perfect a spot as any in Singapore for a dream wedding. While that may not be possible today given the current use of Command House, playing host to a grand wedding reception was in fact what Flagstaff House’s very first act was, shortly after its completion. In September 1938, Flagstaff House played host to a reception for a wedding described in this Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser article of 8 September 1938 as being “the biggest military wedding yet seen in Singapore”.

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The wedding was of Lieutenant O C S Dobbie and Ms Florence Mary Dickey, held just a month or so before the house’s intended occupant, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya, was to move in. This was possible as the groom, Lieut. Dobbie, was not only the GOC’s aide-de-camp, but also his son. Lieut. Dobbie’s proud parents, Major General W G S Dobbie, had then still not moved from the older Flagstaff House at Mount Rosie.

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Two other GOCs were to occupy the house before the Japanese made nonsense of the illusions the British held of their invincibility. The last before the inglorious event was Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the unfortunate face of what has been described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Based on an account by an eyewitness, Herman Marie De Souza, an officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, at his interview with the National Archives, the last time Percival set foot in the house would have been on Saturday 14 February 1942:

“On a Saturday afternoon, I was at Flagstaff House ground when I saw a large car approaching. I jumped to the road and stopped the car. And there was Percival in the car. I recognised him, I had met him before. And I said, I don’t think you place is very safe, because the shells are flying all the time. You hear the whizzing over. But he said he had something to do there.  He went in there, and I didn’t realise he was burning his papers. And there I was holding, looking after him, sort of, until he finished what he had to do and went off. He wished me goodbye and went back to Singapore.”

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Following the fall, the mansion is thought to have been used to accommodate Japanese troops. The British military commanders returned to live in the house after the occupation ended. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the future Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was one, he stayed in the house in his capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command, in 1946. Prince Philip, the consort to the Queen, was also to stay as a guest later, doing so during a visit to Singapore in February 1965, by which time, the property was already referred to as Command House.

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In all, Flagstaff / Command House was to see some fifteen commanders pass through its doors as residents; Commanders-in-Chief of the British Far East Land Forces in the post-war period. The pull-out of British forces in 1971 gave the Singapore government possession of the property and it continued its distinguished service when it became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng, who held the position from 1970 to 1989, was the only speaker to have taken up residence at Command House. Dr Yeoh’s successors, Mr Tan Soo Khoon in 1989 and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi in 2002, decided against using the official residence.

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It was during Mr Tan’s tenure as Speaker that Command House was briefly made the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore, who was then Mr Ong Teng Cheong. The move was necessitated by the extensive renovations to the Istana that took place between 1996 and 1998.

Command House, when it was used as the official residence of the President. Here, we see the then High Commissioner-designate of Zambia at his ceremonial welcome in 1997 (Photo: National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Today, Command House, stands not as a residence, but as a place of learning, the UBS Business University. Its tenancy was taken up in 2007 by UBS, a Swiss based financial services company, who initially used it as the UBS Wealth Management Campus-Asia Pacific, before relaunching it as the Business University. Command House was gazetted as a National Monument on 11 November 2009.

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An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

 





The beautiful campus at Hyderabad Road

19 03 2015

A good reason to visit the S P Jain School of Global Management’s campus at 10 Hyderabad Road, I am told, is the great naan and curries that the canteen there serves. Set in generous and lusciously green surroundings with two glorious old buildings from the 1930s, even if not for the naan, the school and its grounds are well worth a visit.

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

S P Jain’s Singapore campus, one of Asia’s top ranked business schools, lies on the fringe of Alexandra Park, an area with a distinctively colonial flavour, seen in the structures and in the street names. That is, except for Hyderabad Road. Curiously out of place next to Berkshire, Bury, and Cornwall, it seems that Hyderabad became so due to a connection it has with the Nizam of Hyderabad.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The Nizams, a line of princes that stretched back to the days of Mughal India, held great wealth during their reign, all of which was to come to an abrupt end with the passing of the British Raj. The last Nizam, once labelled as the world’s wealthiest man, is said to have owned property along the road (see The Hindu, 10 April 2007), and so the road was named after the then princely state.

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Whatever the case may have been, the links the road has with the subcontinent has now been reaffirmed with the Mumbai based business school having established one of its three international campuses there in 2007. The school, which came to Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore government, runs both graduate and undergraduate programmes and students enrolled in its MBA courses get to spend a term at its beautiful Singapore campus and a term each at its two other campuses in Sydney and Dubai.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

Having taken over the tennancy for the premises from the Singapore Land Authority in 2006, the school set off by refurbishing the buildings for its use. The work also involved restoration on the two heritage buildings. Having been left vacant since 1998 when its previous occupants, the Institute of Dental Health (IDH), moved out, the structures needed quite a fair bit of effort to bring them back to their original glory.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Business.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Management).

The current boundaries of the property would probably have been defined in the early 1970s when the Ministry of Health (MOH) took over. It housed the Dental Health Education Unit in 1973 and then the IDH, into which the Dental Education Unit would be incorporated into. The setting up of the IDH in 1975 was to allow for the centralisation of training for dental therapists, nurses, dental assistants and technicians, and in doing so, also provided outpatient dental health facilities. A six-storey third building on the grounds was constructed in 1976 for this purpose, for which two older buildings were demolished. This new annex is the same building that the business school now uses as a learning centre (where it holds its classes) as well as a hostel.

The IDH gate still graces one of the exits that is now used as a service gate.

The IDH gate still keeps one of the exits that is now used as a service gate, closed.

At its opening in 1977, the annex housed administrative offices, demonstration surgeries, X-Ray rooms, dispensaries, laboratories, sterilising rooms, teaching facilities, as well as two dental surgery wings. It also played host to the Ministry of Health (MOH), when that had to be moved there temporarily in 1978 after a fire had damaged the building MOH was using in Palmer Road.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.

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It is the two older buildings that have more of a story. The two, one probably an annex of the other, provide the clearest hint of what the grounds were before the MOH took over. Visually, they can very quickly be identified as the remnants of the British military build-up in the Far East that took place between the wars, the height of which was in the 1930s. The build-up was part of a strategy of deterrence the British adopted against what was seen to be an increasingly aggressive Japan. This saw airbases and a naval base established on the island with buildings with identical appearances, replicated in the several other barracks established during the era across the island.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The two buildings, built in 1935, feature a Classical style adapted for the tropics. Featuring large windows or doors and provided with generous ventilation openings and corridors, the rooms buildings were light and airy, keeping their occupants cool in the oppressive tropical heat. The two-storey design, is one seen in at least two other buildings from the era we still see, each built as an Officers’ Mess. One, the former Tanglin Barracks Officers’ Mess, is now used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another is the former Officers’ Mess of Selarang Barracks, now Selarang Camp. This is still in active military service and is now the home of the army’s 9th Division HQ.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building - very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building – very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.

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The buildings at Hyderabad Road, were built to be used as the Officers’ Mess for Gillman Barracks, a large part of which was on the opposite side of Alexandra Road. Together with other military propetry, they were handed over to the Singapore government when the pull out of British forces was completed in 1971. Initial thoughts on the reuse of these two structure included their conversion for use a motel or a rest house – something that perhaps one of the buildings is now partly used as.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

A visiting faculty room.

A visiting faculty room.

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The transformation of the buildings by S P Jain has seen twenty very comfortable rooms on the upper level of the main heritage building fitted out so that visiting faculty could be put up on the premises. Along with this, a beautifully decorated lounge and banquet hall has been provided on the lower level. The buildings also see rooms fitted out for staff as well as students such as administrative offices, faculty offices, discussion rooms, a music room, a really cool chill-out lounge and a library, which is on the upper level of the smaller building.

The music room.

The music room.

The Banquet Hall.

The Banquet Hall.

The Lounge.

The Lounge.

The Library.

The Library.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Having visited the campus, I must say it is the nicest belonging to an institution of higher learning that I have come across in Singapore. The grounds and its buildings, is a perfect fit with the school, providing an environment that is well-suited to learning that seems far away from the urban word – an wonderful example of how old places and buildings that have lost their original purpose can be retained and made relevant to a world that would rather have them forgotten.

Discussion room.

Discussion room.

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The greenery that the school's campus is set in.

The greenery that the school’s campus is set in.

What I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

On the grounds: what I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

 








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