The Quadrant, built as a temporary Oversea Chinese Bank HQ

2 12 2018

There has been much mystery over the origins of The Quadrant at 19 Cecil Street. Identified in Gretchen Liu’s wonderful compilation of images charting Singapore’s progress over the year’s, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819-2000, as having been built for the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, it turns out that it was for another Chinese bank – the Oversea Chinese Bank – for which it was erected for.

The Quadrant

Built in 1928/29 and designed by Keys and Dowdeswell, the motivation for the construction of the quadrant shaped Art Deco building – in an area that wasn’t considered by the directors of the bank to have been in a “not quite central” location – was the need to search for temporary premises. The bank’s HQ at 62-63 Chulia Street was affected by the implementation of the 1909 amendment to the Municipal Ordinance known as the “Back Lane Scheme” (more on the scheme: Off a little street in Singapore), which effectively cut its premises into half.

As the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, 1939 to 1979.

Rather than invest time and effort to seek new premises, the bank decided instead to erect a new building on a site at the corner of Cecil and Market Streets occupied by 6 three-storey shophouses they had acquired. The bank felt that the building – even if there were no plans to use it once a more central location (closer to the hub of commercial activity by the Singapore River) was found – was a “good investment”. The bank moved out once its permanent premises at China Building in Chulia Street (current site of OCBC Centre), which was co-developed and shared with Chinese Commercial Bank, was completed in late 1931. The two banks together with Ho Hong Bank merged in 1932 in the face of the Great Depression under the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) banner and China Building became OCBC’s HQ.

China Building, completed in 1931.

The temporary HQ was occupied by wine merchants, Eastern Agencies from 1933 to 1938, the Kwangtung Provincial Bank from 1939 to 1979 and Four Seas Communications Bank from 1982 to 1990 (which was already part of the OCBC group by that time). Pacific Can, when the building was renamed Pacific Can Building, occupied it from around the early 1990s to the 2000s, by which time I have been advised it had come into the hands of the State. Other occupants were Cherie Hearts – a childcare group, and then the Homestead Group, , which has a lease on it until 2021. The group had planned to lease the premises out to a bank, but despite much interest, the economic put paid to the idea and instead has sub-let out the lower level of the building to The Black Swan. The grand banking hall the building was given is still very much in evidence in the gorgeously decorated bar and bistro – almost three decades since it was last used as a bank.

The Black Swan.

Stairway to the gallery (mezzanine).

Also in evidence at the rear section of the 20 feet high banking hall is an upper level “gallery” from which the bank’s managers could have a view of what went on below, which the bistro uses as a cocktail bar, The Powder Room. There is also a private dining area located in the former vault.

The former banking hall – seen during yesterday’s Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets.

The Powder Room.

The former bank vault.

The upper levels of the building – access to which is through a beautifully built stairwell where a rebuilt 1929 vintage Marryat and Scott elevator is installed – is occupied by a co-working space run by WOTSO.

The stairwell.

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.

WOTSO’s co-working spaces on the upper levels.

 

Another view of the Powder Room.


The visit to The Quadrant was organised on 1 December 2018 as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits, supported by the Singapore Land Authority, the Homestead Group, The Black Swan and WOTSO.


 

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The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

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 during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





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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Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.