The Rail Corridor, what will be

10 11 2015

The header of a graphic produced by the Straits Times related to the winning concept master plan for the Rail Corridor Request for Proposal reads “On track for big changes”.  It isn’t a big change however that many who came out in support of the idea to keep the Rail Corridor, much of which had been untouched by development during the days of the railway, as a continuous and undeveloped green space, were hoping to see.

A new journey along the rail corridor.

A new journey along the rail and hopefully still green corridor.

A panel at the exhibition.

A panel at the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition.

The long anticipated announcement of the winning entries for the RFP to develop a concept master plan and concept proposals for the entire 24 km stretch and two special interest areas, launched in March of this year, was made at yesterday’s opening of the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition at the URA Centre, by Minister for National Development, Mr Lawrence Wong.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Among the five design teams shortlisted for Stage 2A, awards were made to two teams. One was made to the team led by Japanese architecture firm Nikken Sekkei Ltd and local landscape firm Tierra Design for the concept master plan and concept proposal for the entire stretch. Another two – for the concept designs of two special interest areas, namely the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for 20 years and the integrated blue-green public housing development at Choa Chu Kang, was awarded to the team from MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

The strength of Nikken Sekkei’s concept master plan and proposals, Lines of Life, seems not so much about big changes but interventions that many will argue is necessary to enhance the user experience and allow what really should be a community space to reach out to a wider group of users, many of whom will be from the estimated one million who live, work and go to school in the immediate vicinity of the disused rail corridor.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei's proposals.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei’s proposals.

What seems to be a plus point for the winning proposal is that it is built around core values of Space, Nature, Time and People. This with the aim to enhance the value of the space, build on its natural environment, remember the journey of the space through time and connect the various communities who will potentially use the space. The team sees nature being enhanced through four landscape strategies: a Grassland, a Rainforest, a Garden / Urban Park and a Wetland. Platforms – with a variety of amenities provided based on one of the four modular platform sizes are suggested to serve as much needed rest and comfort stops along the 24 km route.

An example of one of 21 modular platforms that perhaps resemble railway platforms to serve as a reminder of the corridor’s history.

Part of Nikken Sekkei's proposal.

One of the activity nodes of Nikken Sekkei’s proposal.

The team also suggests enhancing the flavour of what it sees as eight stretches with unique characters along the 24 km corridor, something that will allow a much more varied experience of the corridor that does following the departure of the railway, have the effect of leaving one with a feeling that it is more of the same.  Along with the themes, ten activity nodes are proposed. From the graphics on display, it does seem that large scale interventions are being proposed in and around the nodes. While this doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the hope some harbour for an undisturbed, natural and easy to maintain green corridor, it does have the desired effect of enhance the value of the space to the wider community.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

One of the activity nodes proposed – The Community Cave under the PIE viaduct at Mayfair Park, includes a rock climbing wall that can be repurposed in the future.

The Cultural Valley at Buona Vista with the intention to cater to the working community at One North and the residential community at Queenstown.

A look out tower over the lush landscape at Bukit Timah Fire Station – The Green Connection, seems as a hub for eco-based activities.

The Station Garden at Bukit Timah Railway Station, which leverages on its idyllic setting. Amenities such a bicycle station and a cafe are envisaged for this node.

Plus points of the winning concept also include the introduction of much needed 122 access points along the corridor. The history and heritage of the corridor, sadly already minimised by the removal of much of the railway’s paraphernalia, will not be forgotten through adaptive reuse of former railway buildings and the restoration of its existing artefacts and structures. On this note, the railway line’s two very distinctive and iconic truss bridges will be gazetted for conservation – Minister for National Development Mr Lawrence Wong also announced yesterday that the process to have the bridges conserved has commenced. The bridges, constructed for the 1932 Railway Deviation that turned the trains to the new terminal at Tanjong Pagar, elevated the railway and minimised the number of railway level crossings, have long been a feature of the Bukit Timah area and has given the area much of its character.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone - one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone – one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

Besides the concept master plan and concept proposals for the 24 km corridor, visitors to the exhibition will also get to have a look at MKPL’s and Turenscape’s ideas for the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Choa Chu Kang development. The proposal for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees it re-purposed into a multi-functional community use building for an interim 20 year period before future plans can be made in relation to the intended Greater Southern Waterfront development that will take place after the lease expires at the port in 2027.

MKPL's and Turenscape's vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

MKPL’s and Turenscape’s vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

What is proposed will see art clubs, a railway gallery, exhibition space, auditorium, cafés and modular pop-up community kiosks placed along the platforms with a landscaped are in front of of the former station. Also proposed is the integration of the Circle Line’s Cantonment Station, which will be built under the platforms, with the former railway station (see also: Closing the Circle). The proposals – done up when it was thought that the portion of the platforms to be removed to allow the MRT station to be constructed had to be demolished – sees a new interpretation of the removed platform constructed and also the station exits opening up to the area where the tracks were. We do know from the joint SLA/LTA 29 October announcement that ways to reinstate the removed portions of the platforms are being looked into. What would certainly be good to also see is that the perspective provided along the platforms – among the longest along the Malayan Railway’s line to accommodate the longest mail trains and a testament to the importance of the former station, is not altered by the suggested interventions.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway's lines - a testament to the station's importance.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines – a testament to the station’s importance.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape's winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape’s winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

More information on the winning proposals can be found at the URA’s Rail Corridor RFP website. The proposals can also be viewed at the exhibition, which is being held at the URA Centre Atrium and runs from 9 to 28 November 2015. The master plan and design concepts, which have already incorporated many ideas from the consultation process, are not finalised proposals and there will be scope to have them be refined based on further feedback from stakeholders and the general public. This can be provided at the exhibition where one can provide feedback on forms in one of the four official languages, or online http://ura.sg/railrfp.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

The exhibitions will also be brought to neighbourhoods along the corridor in the first quarter of 2016, during which time feedback may also be provided, following which Stage 2B and 2C of the RFP exercise will be held, starting in the second quarter of 2016. The awarded teams will work with URA to refine the ConceptMaster Plan and Concept Proposals, taking into account the feedback received during stage 2B. A preliminary design and feasibility study for a selected four kilometre-long signature stretch of the Rail Corridor, covering the area from Bukit Timah Railway Station to Hillview Road area, will also be carried out by Nikken Sekkei in Stage 2C. This will be followed by a public exhibition of the proposals scheduled in June 2016.


Around the exhibition

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The estate that Lee Kong Chian built

3 11 2015

Lying at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill is a tiny estate that if not for the Rail Mall that now fronts it and the nearby railway truss bridge, would probably go unnoticed.  The estate of 142 households, launched a SG50 coffee table book on Sunday, an event to which I was invited to and one that also saw the unveiling of a sculpture by Oh Chai Hoo dedicated to the estate. It was at the event that I was to learn that the estate traces its origins to Southeast Asia’s “Rubber and Pineapple King”, businessman and philanthropist Mr Lee Kong Chian, and that the estate had once been home to Mr S R Nathan (who was to become the sixth President of the Republic of Singapore).

Faces of Fuyong Estate, seen on the cover of the SG50 book.

Faces of Fuyong Estate, a SG50 coffee table book produced by residents of the estate.

The name of the estate holds the clue to this origin. Fuyong or Phoo Yong in Hokkien, and the pinyin-ised as Furong (芙蓉), names by which the estate went by, was the village in China’s Fujian province from which the illustrious Lee Kong Chian hailed from. The land on which the estate now sits was purchased by Lee from a Mr Alexander Edward Hughes. Lee, who pioneered a provident fund based housing scheme to allow his employees to own homes was persuaded by Mr Lim Koon Teck, his legal adviser and a Progressive Party politician, to allow much needed low cost housing built for the public there in the early 1950s and Phoo Yong Estate was born.

A page in the book. It was on land purchased by Mr Lee Kong Chian, pictured, that Fuyong Estate was developed to serve as much needed low-cost housing in the mid 1950s.

A page in the book. It was on land purchased by Mr Lee Kong Chian, pictured, that Fuyong Estate was developed to serve as much needed low-cost housing in the mid 1950s.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

Before the Rail Mall – one of the two rows of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989 that have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

Much has changed about the face of the estate and its vicinity since the days when it was known as Phoo Yong, or even in more recent times. In an area once dominated by the factories on the hills, and once where the sounds heard through day included the rumble of trains and the blasts from the nearby quarries, the estate is today set in an area bathed in the calm of the verdant Bukit Timah Hill that now paints a much less rowdy backdrop. The rows of houses by the main road, which had housed a mix of businesses that included a coffin shop, have since the mid 1990s, become the Rail Mall – developed by a subsidiary of the Lee Rubber Company.

The now silent truss bridge, a long-time landmark along Upper Bukit Timah Road.

The now silent truss bridge, a long-time landmark along Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Two of the estate's oldest residents at the launch event cutting a cake with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Two of the estate’s oldest residents at the launch event cutting a cake with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The strong sense of community in the estate was very much in evidence through the launch event, some of which perhaps in embodied in the sculpture that was also unveiled in the estate’s Fuyong Park. Taking the form of the Chinese character for a person looking forward, the artist behind piece, Oh Chai Hoo, intends it as a symbol of the kampong spirit and the resilience shown by our forefathers.

Taking aim to unveil Oh Chai Hoo's sculpture, which takes the shape of teh Chinese character for a person.

Taking aim to unveil Oh Chai Hoo’s sculpture, which takes the shape of the Chinese character for a person.

The coffee table book is a good little read for anyone interested in the estate and in the area’s development. The book traces the estates transformation and also offers many interesting insights into the estate, such as how Mr Nathan became an early resident. One also learns of the meanings of the names of its roads in Malay. Asas for example means foundation, Tumpu, focus, Siap, readiness and Uji, challenge. There is also a little known fact that gets a mention. Having been built as a low cost housing estate, a regular visitor to the estate was the 32 door honey wagon. While there were initial efforts by a resident Mr Palpoo to bring in modern sanitation on a private basis in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until 1969 that the estate would fully be equipped with flushing toilets – something we in in the Singapore of today would find hard to imagine.

A scan from Faces of Fuyong with an aerial view over the estate in 1958. The photograph also shows the railway line, the truss bridge, and Hume Industries and the Ford Factory on the high ground across the road.

A scan from Faces of Fuyong with an aerial view over the estate in 1958. The photograph also shows the railway line, the truss bridge, and Hume Industries and the Ford Factory on the high ground across the road.

The verdant backdrop that bathes the estate in an air of calm.

The estate is set against a verdant backdrop that gives it an air of calm.

Residents pouring over the book.

Residents pouring over the book.

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The great “hold up” at the sixth mile

24 07 2015

1999 would have been a year that is celebrated by the residents of the area in and around the 6th Milestone of Bukit Timah. It was in August of that year when the Singapore Turf Club (STC) moved its race course from its sprawling 140 ha. site off Dunearn Road north to the site of the current race course at Kranji, bringing much relief to the area’s long suffering residents.

The old and new grandstands of the former Bukit Timah Race Course as seen today.

The old and new grandstands of the former Bukit Timah Race Course as seen today.

Opened on 15 April 1933 by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, who made his grand entrance riding in on the back of a horse; the race course was to experience its first race day traffic holdup at its inaugural race meeting in May of the same year. Described as “Saturdays Great Hold Up” in a 22 May 1933 report in the  Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, a motorist spoke of the 25 minutes it took him to cover the final mile into the car park, which was said to be almost three times as long as the time he had taken to cover the distance from town to the new race course.

A post card a newly built new Turf Club in the 1930s.

A post card of the then newly built new Race Course with its iconic 5000 seat grandstand.

That the 1933 opening was a grand occasion, there is little doubt. Among the 5000 guests at the opening was the Sultan and Sultanah of Johor, the Tunku Mahkota, as well as the Sultan of Perak – who was at the time the largest individual owner of racehorses in Malaya.

The original south grandstand.

The original south grandstand as seen today.

The new course, designed by Swan and MacLaren, was itself built as a replacement for the older race course at what is today Farrer Park. The older race course’s location in the city made it difficult for it to be expanded and a decision was taken in 1927 to sell off the site, the use of which went back to the Singapore Turf Club’s founding as the Singapore Sporting Club in 1842, to the Singapore Improvement Trust. A new site was identified and the 244 acres (99 ha.) acquired from the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate for it in 1929 required the felling of some 25,000 of the estate’s rubber trees and a huge effort in the levelling of the area’s undulating terrain. The new race course’s location also made it convenient to move racehorses around to the other venues in the Straits Racing Association’s circuit in the Peninsula by rail with the re-sited Bukit Timah Railway Station of the 1932 railway deviation located just a stone’s throw away.

A view of the south grandstand from the car park.

A view of the former south grandstand from the car park.

A reminder of its horsey past.

A reminder of its horsey past.

Among the features of the new race course and its spread of structures such as stables and quarters was its rather iconic grandstand with its distinctive central clock tower. The three tier grandstand at its opening contained a royal box and press box on its second level and stewards’ and owners’ boxes on the upper tier. The stand was also fitted out with some 2000 tip-up teak chairs, which was described as “the largest single chair order East of the Suez”.

A track-side  view of the former South Grandstand.

A track-side view of the former South Grandstand.

One thing that the Turf Club, renamed in 1924 as the Singapore Turf Club, wasn’t able to do was to commemorate its centenary with war interrupting the running of races from Octber 1941 to November 1947. The days leading up to the fall of Singapore saw the British Military move in and during the occupation the race course and its auxiliary buildings were reportedly used as a prisoner of war camp and its lawns used for growing food crops.

The area where the former race track was - now used as a sports ground.

The area where the former race track was – now used as a sports ground.

Much of the appearance that the former race course’s main structures display today, are the result of work carried out to expand its capacity in the 1970s and 1980s. A second grandstand, the North Grandstand, which expanded the seating capacity to 8,000 and a possible 50,000 standing, was added in 1981. The two-storey car park we still see on the grounds today, was an addition made at the end of the 1980s. Another addition made, a multi-storey car park with a capacity of 2900 cars at the corner of Swiss Club Road and Dunearn Road, has however since been demolished.

The north grandstand, which came up in the early 1980s.

The north grandstand, which came up in the early 1980s.

The upper deck of the two-storey car park that was added at the end of the 1980s.

The upper deck of the two-storey car park that was added at the end of the 1980s.

The grounds, zoned in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan for future residential use, was soon after the race course’s last meeting in July 1999, re-purposed in part for use as Turf City. Among the tenants during an initial ten-year period and the extension of its lease to 2012, were a hypermarket, dining outlets, early education providers and other retail outlets in the former grandstands as well used car dealers on the ground level of the spacious double-storey car park. During this time the building took on a rather worn and tired look.

The link way between the car park and the former grandstand.

The link way between the car park and the former grandstand.

A touch of the countryside nearby at the   Bukit Timah Saddle Club - which has been using part of the race course's estate since 1951.

A touch of the countryside nearby at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club – which has been using part of the race course’s estate since 1951.

Under a new leasee, the former grandstands and car park has been refurbished and reopened as The Grandstand in 2012. Besides the hypermarket and used car dealers from the Turf City days, The Grandstand has also attracted a host of dining outlets and a new-age food hall style market. This is however, only in the interim as under the terms of the new lease, even if some S$20 million has been pumped into the refurbishment, will see it used for a maximum of 3 + 3 years, after which the race course and its long association with Bukit Timah, will possibly only be a distant memory,

As Turf City - seen in early 2012.

As Turf City – seen in early 2012.

Another look at the inside of the South Grandstand in its Turf City days.

Another look at the inside of the South Grandstand in its Turf City days.

The last days of Turf City.

The last days of Turf City.

Other parts of the former race course site such as the former stables at 100 Turf Club Road have also been re-purposed - this as HorseCity.

Other parts of the former race course site such as the former stables at 100 Turf Club Road have also been re-purposed – this as HorseCity.

A residence belonging formerly to the Turf Club, which remains vacant.

A residence belonging formerly to the Turf Club, which remains vacant.





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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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).

 





Another new journey along the Rail Corridor

30 06 2014

It was three years ago on 30 June 2011 that we waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway and its 79 years of trains running through to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The cessation of train services freed up a 26 kilometre long corridor that cut a north-south path through Singapore, land which the Singapore government has committed to maintaining as a continuous green corridor for the benefit of the wider community.

We wave goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore 3 years ago on 30 June 2011.

We waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore 3 years ago on 30 June 2011.

The Rail Corridor, which does have the potential to serve as a connector in more ways than one, including the provision of an unbroken link running down from the top of Singapore right into the heart of the city, as well as a green link for flora and fauna between the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Reserve with the green belt at the Southern Ridges; will now also see use as a connector for a new set of water pipes that will carry water from the Murnane Service Reservoir into the city area, required to be laid to meet future demands, as well as allowing for the replacement of an ageing set of pipes.

Murnane Service Reservoir, which was completed in 1956 and acts as a buffer to cater for the fluctuation in demand of water through the day.

Murnane Service Reservoir, which was completed in 1956 and acts as a buffer to cater for the fluctuation in demand of water through the day.

Pipelines at the Central Pipeline Reserve.

Water pipelines at the Central Pipeline Reserve.

The project, which was presented by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to the members of the Rail Corridor Partnership (RCP) on Saturday and to members of the media today will involve a 11 kilometre stretch (about half of the total length of pipes to be laid) of the southern section of the corridor from Jalan Anak Bukit to Tanjong Pagar and is scheduled to commence shortly. The project will start with the PUB first carrying out a detailed engineering design from July 2014. This will be followed by an Environmental Impact Assessment that will take place from December 2014 to August 2015 as well as Soil Investigations.

Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Vivian Balakrishnan along the rail corridor during Saturday's briefing to the Rail Corridor Partnership.

Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan along the rail corridor during Saturday’s briefing to the Rail Corridor Partnership.

The project’s construction phase will follow the calling of a tender in October 2015, with work starting in April 2016 at a section running from Holland Road to Commonwealth Avenue using a cut and cover method involving the digging of an open trench a rate of one length of pipe laid per day. This section is scheduled to be fully reopened in October 2017.

Disruption to users of the rail corridor such as walkers, joggers and cyclists, will be minimised throughout the construction period.

Disruption to users of the rail corridor such as walkers, joggers and cyclists, will be minimised throughout the construction period.

A Scaly-breasted Munia seen along the corridor  on Saturday. Hopefully disruption to the rail corridor's amazing wildlife will also be kept to a minimum.

A Scaly-breasted Munia seen along the corridor on Saturday. Hopefully disruption to the rail corridor’s amazing wildlife will also be kept to a minimum.

A Oriental Pied Hornbill seen (and heard) during Saturday's walk.

A Oriental Pied Hornbill seen (and heard) during Saturday’s walk.

Construction is expected to be completed by September 2019 with work along the stretch from Jalan Anak Bukit to Holland Road scheduled for completion in March 2018, the stretch from Commonwealth Avenue to Jalan Kilang Barat completed by September 2018 and the last stretch from Jalan Kilang Barat to Tanjong Pagar completed by September 2019. Throughout the construction period, access to the rail corridor will be maintained, and alternative paths will be provided to allow users to continue with their activities where necessary.

Dr Balakrishnan with members of the RCP on Saturday.

Dr Balakrishnan with members of the RCP on Saturday.

Due consideration has also been paid to the historic features along the route of the intended pipeline such as Bukit Timah Railway Station (BTRS), the truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Road as well as a brick culvert close to BTRS with pipe-jacking used in way of the bridge and culvert. In way of BTRS, the pipeline will be run in the area behind the station.

Bukit Timah Railway Station as seen when it was operational.

Bukit Timah Railway Station as seen when it was operational.

A red brick culvert.

A red brick culvert.

Members of the RCP, including representatives of Nature Society (Singapore), are generally supportive of the project. It is worth taking note that as in the case of the Central Pipeline Reserve, the laying of the pipeline along a stretch of the corridor would provide for it being kept free from development and hence, the preservation of the stretch of the rail corridor as a uninterrupted green corridor following the completion of works. Plans for future use of the rail corridor has been the subject of much interest since the closure of the railway. As yet, the future use of the corridor has not been determined, although there is that commitment to preserve it as a continuous green space. A much anticipated design competition, expected to have some influence on its future use, is expected to be announced in the near future.





The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely – survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.








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