The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Healing in the Garrison

19 10 2018

November’s #SLASecretSpaces guided visit takes participants to the former Tanglin Barracks. There an introduction would be made to two of the barracks’ institutions of healing: physical healing in the form of the former military hospital, and spiritual, in the form of a beautiful garrison church.

The barracks traces its history to the early 1860s, when it was among the earliest that were purpose-built in Singapore. The design of the original barracks is attributed to Captain George Collyer (after whom Collyer Quay is named). Many of the structures that we see today are the interventions of the early 20th century when the current church building as well as what we see today of former military hospital were put up.

Singapore’s main military hospital before the completion of the modern hospital at Alexandra in 1940, the complex featured three main buildings. The larger two were where large and airy wards were laid out. The visit will end in St. George’s Church, which although is no longer a garrison church, is still very much in use. Completed in 1913, the history of the church actually dates back to the early days of the barracks. The church was gazetted as a National Monument on 10 November 1978.

More on the history of both institutions will be shared during the visit.


Visit Details & Registration

When : 3 November 2018, 9 to 11 am

Where : Loewen Cluster, Dempsey Hill (the visit will end inside St. George’s Church)

Participants should be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration will be required for each participant and each registration admits only one (1) person.
(Duplicate registrations in the same name shall count as one registration).

Please register only if you are sure that you will be able to make the visit.

To register, please visit this link: https://goo.gl/forms/B8g3tDo5eGWfpTVl1 [Please note that all spaces for the visit have been taken up]


Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets #SLASecretSpaces is organised with the support and collaboration of the Singapore Land Authority.

Both St. George’s Church and Country City Investment (CCI), which manages Dempsey Hill, have also lent their support to this visit.


More photos of St. George’s Church


News on the series:


 





Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

I have long thought of the Sembawang area as a final frontier, and a last part of modern Singapore in which much of yesterday remains to be discovered. Progress is however eating away at these remnants of a soon to be forgotten time; the latest bit of Sembawang being absorbed into the brave new world is the area’s last forested hill on which the grand Admiralty House is perched. Now with almost the entire western slope of the hill denuded, the settings that provided the house with its charm and also its much needed isolation for its eight decades of existence, will never again be the same.

Dark clouds on a northern horizon … the denuded western slope of the last forested hill in Sembawang.

Completed in 1940, the house with its distinctive Arts and Crafts inspired flavour, was built as the residence of the Rear Admiral, Malaya. Its scale and appearance would have been most fitting to house the  commander of the then newly opened Naval Base – the largest and most important of Britain’s bases east of the Suez. It would only acquire the name best known to most, Admiralty House, when it became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station in 1958.

Another view showing the extent of the clearance on the western slope.

Handed over to the Singapore Government in 1975 after a spell as the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force, the house – and the hill has since resisted the advance of concrete that has seen a new HDB town sprout up around it. Time was finally called on the hill when plans for a sports and community hub surfaced in the 2014 Master Plan. At the project’s launch in 2016, an announcement was made that some 200 of the hill’s mature trees, just over a quarter of the existing trees, would be retained – with a greater number of new trees planted. While this may be the case – even with most of the hill’s western slope now stripped bare – the terracing necessary for the project and the construction of new structures and footpaths, will permanently alter the hill’s character and add much unwelcome concrete to an already heavily concretised area.</p?

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

The hub, which will feature a food centre, a swimming complex, other sports and recreational facilities, is due to be opened in phases from the first half of 2020. It will eventually incorporate the former Admiralty House, a National Monument since 2002. Work on this phase will commence when Furen International School, vacates the house in 2020.

Another view of the hill in 2016.

More on the hub and the former Admiralty House can be found at:


The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


 





Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.

Plaque

Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).


Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).

The entrance to Normanton Park.


Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.

 

A peek into the pit.

Another look inside.

 






The best views of the western Singapore Strait

24 08 2018

From its perch by the sea, the block of flats that sits on an elevation next to the former Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station provides what has to be the best views of the western Singapore Strait. Completed in late 1953, the block followed the development of the power station. It was built to house expatriate senior officers of new station. 12-storeys high, the block contains a total of 42 housing units, It would have been among the colony’s tallest buildings at the point of its completion and was quite certainly the tallest residential building then to have been built with public funds.

 

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Flats, built for Electricity Board employees, with a view one would pay a premium for these days.

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The block of flats, or ‘housing units’, as they were referred to, on its perch. the elevation its stands on was cut and cemented before the block was built as that the power station could be constructed.

It is interesting to observe the progression that the development shows. The building of the flats to house senior staff represented a move away from from previous practice (a newspaper report described the housing units to be to “better than flats”). The most senior of officers would have been accommodated in the block’s two penthouses, the terraces of which provide a most stunning of views of the sea and the area around. Annexes to the block housed a clubhouse and six air-conditioned rooms that provided staff on night shift a place in the daytime to sleep in comfort. A void deck,  unusual in flats built in Singapore in the time, occupies most of the main block’s ground level.

The power station, and the apartment block (with the clubhouse on its left) as viewed from the sea, soon after their completion (online at https://roots.sg/).

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The development, which cost the City Council over $2 million, also included a 2-storey block to house the station’s workmen. Additional quarters were also to added east of the station through the 1950s and 1960s.

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A view inside the former workmen’s quarters.

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The workmen’s quarters can be seen at the bottom of the photograph.

The housing units appear likely to go once detailed planning for the Greater Southern Waterfront takes place. They were as quarters until the 1980s and subsequently rented out, first by the Public Utilities Board and then by the State before being vacated at the end of 2013. A tender exercise, carried out this year for interim use of the property as serviced apartments, attracted several bids. Based on information on the Singapore Land Authority’s website, an award was made to TS Home, who submitted a winning bid of S$48,800.00 per month.

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A view of the block from its grounds.

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More Photographs:

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The Sembawang sport and community hub

2 07 2018

Standing at the top of the southeastern-most hill in the former Naval Base for much of its 78 years in existence, Old Admiralty House is set to part with the quiet isolation that it was intended to have when it was built to house the Commander of the British Admiralty’s then newly completed Naval Base. An integrated sport and community hub, “Bukit Canberra”, will soon come up around it, bringing the hill it is perched on more in sync with the Singapore that we have come to know.

Old Admiralty House and the quiet isolation that was very much a part of why it was there, with modern Singapore knocking on its door.

Unveiling “Bukit Canberra”.

The hub will include amenities that are much desired by the sports and healthcare facilities deprived residents of the area. These include a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sport facilities, a polyclinic, a senior care centre, green spaces for community farming and lifestyle related amenities – all “within a lush and naturalistic environment”. The first phase of the hub is due to be opened in the first half of 2020. Subsequent phases will involve the integration of Old Admiralty House – a National Monument – after its current occupant, Furen International School, vacates it in 2020.

A model of Bukit Canberra.

Old Admiralty House from the ground.

The “lush and naturalistic” environment the hub will feature is being built around the retention of a large proportion of the hills existing trees, with some 1600 additional trees added. One that has already been added – during a family carnival held to mark the launch of construction on Sunday – is a Sembawang tree (also Semawang tree) from which the area got its name. A “Fruit Orchard and Food Forest” will also feature in which a variety of fruit trees and food plants some grown in the early days of Singapore will be planted. Here a community garden will allow planting to be carried out by members of the community.

Sembawang GRC’s MPs at the groundbreaking.

Planting the Sembawang tree.

Heritage (or history as the case may be) will apparently not be forgotten with heritage story boards telling of Sembawang’s history as a former naval base. Along with Admiralty House, other features of historic interest that would be retained include a gate put up during Admiralty House’s days as ANZUK House (1971 to 1975) and a bomb shelter built before the war. A swimming pool thought to have been built by Japanese POWs after the war will however be going based on model on display at the family carnival.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

More on the former Admiralty House:


About Bukit Canberra (from Press Release)

Bukit Canberra is an integrated sports and community hub to be opened in phases from first half of 2020, it will provide the community with lifestyle related amenities, such as a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a polyclinic, senior care centre, and green spaces for community activities.

‘Bukit Canberra’ is a name that the residents can easily relate to given the history of the area. Many of the streets in Sembawang have links to Commonwealth countries due to the naval communities residing in the area. For instance, Canberra Road was named in 1937 by Rear-Admiral R.H.O Lane-Poole, a Commander of the Royal Australian squadron, H.M.A.S. Canberra, that was visiting Singapore. The Former Admiralty House, built in 1940 was also known as Canberra House (not so sure about this) when it was first completed, after the adjacent Canberra Road. The hub is scheduled to open in phases from 2020.

Site size: 11.86 ha

Key Facilities/ Features:

Sports

  • A six-lane sheltered swimming pool, an eight-lane lap pool, a wading pool and a fun pool for children
  • Indoor sport hall with 500-seat gallery for sports like basketball and badminton
  • Inclusive gym, an outdoor forest gym and fitness studios
  • Running trails
  • Active Health Lab & Active Health Nutrition Studio

Greenery & Heritage

  • Community Gardening
  • Fruit Orchard
  • Food Forest
  • Heritage story boards

Healthcare

  • Polyclinic
  • Senior Care Centre

Food

  • Hawker Centre

 


Landscape design (from Press Release)

The landscape design for Bukit Canberra will leverage on and enhance the existing greenery, topography and heritage of the site to create unique experiences for visitors. Taking into consideration the existing site conditions and character, the landscape design for the site is divided into three zones: Forest, Agrarian and Hilltop. The landscaping will help to strengthen ecological links for biodiversity, allow users to enjoy the hub’s features in a natural setting and connect the community with flora and fauna.

Overview of landscape design for Bukit Canberra (Courtesy of SportSG).

Forest Zone

In the Forest Zone, the focus is on restoring habitats for fauna and enriching biodiversity. Existing healthy mature trees and vegetation will be retained and more native forest species will be added progressively to recreate the natural rainforest structure. Bukit Canberra is at the intersection of existing NParks Nature Ways and the species planted within the Forest Zone will include those found along the Nature Ways to help increase ecological connectivity.

Agrarian Zone

The existing vegetation in this zone is less dense and several community spaces are planned for within this zone, including the Food Forest, Fruit Orchard and community gardens. The landscaping surrounding these features will be themed similarly.

Hilltop Zone

The key feature at the Hilltop is the Former Admiralty House. The landscaping will frame the frontage of the building and provide an open and unobstructed view of the surroundings. The area around the house will be an open space suitable for a wide range of recreational activities, from events to picnics and gatherings.