The Government Housing gems at Seton Close

22 03 2020

Found around the fringes of the Municipality of Singapore are several government housing gems such as several that were built using blueprints developed by the Public Works Department (PWD) in the 1910s. These, which include four Class III houses at Seton Close that were beautifully renovated for modern living in 2018, can be thought of as being among the PWD’s first purpose built designs.

A Seton Close residence.

The four at Seton Close, belonged to a larger set of six put up to house senior government officers in 1922. These are again, quite different from what could be thought of as an actual black and white house and feature a fair amount of masonry and have a main framework of concrete (as opposed to timber) columns and beams. Some of the upper level framework on the balcony projections and verandah (and of course roof supports) were however of timber. Much of these wooden structures would have been coated in black tar-based coatings, and would have (as they do to some extent now) featured a fair bit of black “trim”.

The since enclosed upper verandah.

Designed with a porte-cochère, with a (since enclosed) verandah space above that would have served as a lounge in the evenings, the houses had their reception and dining spaces below. The well-ventilated bedrooms on the second level also opened to balconies, which have also since been enclosed.

A bedroom.


More photographs


 





The houses that the SIT’s architects built – for themselves!

21 03 2020

Built for Singapore’s colonial administrators by the municipal commission, government and military, several hundred residences set in lush surroundings, stand today. Widely referred to as “black and white” houses, the bulk of these residences actually exhibit a range of styles that are not quite as black and white as the commonly used description would suggest and include some with more modern styles such as a set of residences built at Kay Siang Road for senior officers of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Designed by the SIT’s own team of architects and built from the 1940s to the 1950s, the houses – like the majority of the colonial homes that were built are not technically of the black and white style.

 

One of the “air-conditioned” SIT designed houses. These were built for the SIT’s most senior officers.

One thing that marks these modern residences in Kay Siang Road are their low ceilings –  a departure from the high ceilings of the typical colonial home. This feature was for the simple reason that the houses had been designed for air-conditioning, which was much more of a luxury back then than it is today. For the same reason, the houses lack. the verandahs, generous ventilation openings, and the airiness that came with them.

A close-up of the house.

The SIT, which was set up in 1927, took on the role of building public housing and urban planning until it was replaced by the Housing and Development Board in 1960. Among the estates that it housed its European staff at was at Adam Park and Kay Siang Road, the latter being where the SIT’s senior staff were put up. The colonial estate at Kay Siang Road was developed in the 1920s and was located north of Wee Kay Siang’s estate after which the road is named. The early homes at the estate were of the Public Works Department style and it was only later that the SIT’s architects added a flavour of their own to the area.


Inside the house






The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber

18 03 2020

Some of you would probably have read the news about the possibility of a heritage trail in the Pender Road area in the Straits Times over the weekend. The trail involves the estate containing five wonderfully designed houses that were erected by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s relatively junior engineering staff in the early 1900s. The company, which was part of a group established by Sir John Pender that had a monopoly on the British Empire’s submarine cable network and hence a virtual monopoly on worldwide communications. It morphed into Cable and Wireless in 1929 through a merger with Marconi, which had a stranglehold on radio communications.

Designed by Swan and Maclaren and built between 1908 and 1919, the houses are among a wealth of several hundred residences that were built during colonial-era, which are often referred to in Singapore as “Black and White houses”. While the term is correctly applied to these houses, which are timber framed, which coated in black tar based paints do exhibit a distinct resemblance to the English Tudor-style houses from which the term is derived, the same cannot be said of Singapore’s other colonial residences.

The bulk of the colonial houses, particularly those built from the mid-1920s for senior municipal, government and military officers feature Public Works Department designs with concrete columns and beams. Although many of these are coated in white finishes and feature black painted trimmings today, not all have been coated in the same colours historically. The term also prevents us from looking at the many styles that can be found among the colonial homes.

Visits to the estate – an important note:

Much of the estate at Pender Road is tenanted. To maintain the residents privacy and to avoid causing nuisance, the estate is out-of-bounds to the general public. However, do look out for a series of controlled visits that will give the public an opportunity to visit the estate and learn more about these architectural gems. These are being planned in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits. Hopefully, this can start in the second half of this year.


The Estate’s Houses in Photographs


Married Engineer’s Quarters (two off, built in 1919)


 

Bachelor Jointers’ Quarters (built 1908 and extended in 1914)


Married Jointer’s Quarters (three off, built 1919)


 





The Class VIII Government quarters at Haig Road

26 10 2019

Built as government housing by the Public Works Department (PWD) in 1951, the cluster of 42 simple two-storey houses off Haig Road in the news this week, are representative of the period of austerity they were built in. Originally 48 units, arranged in 8 rows of 6 (1 of which has since made way for a road project), their design was a departure from the housing that the government had provided its officers with prior to that. Given a “Class VIII” designation, the two-bedroom units housed junior officers of various departments, including Broadcasting, Civil Aviation, Education, Postal and Telecoms. The quarters line streets named after common trees, Tembusu, Gajus (cashew), Binjai (a type of mango), and Beringin (weeping fig).  

A 1951 PWD Photograph.

The construction of the quarters was part of a PWD effort that also saw the erection of three schools over a 12 ha. site. The unique quality of the development was reported by the Singapore Free Press, who in a June 1951 article, made the observation that “there would be nothing like this when it is completed”. The schools that came up with the housing were two primary schools Haig Boys’ School, Haig Girls’ School, and a secondary school, Tanjong Katong Girls ‘s School.


The houses today

The houses have been rented out by the State on short term (2-year) tenancy agreements through managing agent Knight Frank, with 34 units currently tenanted. Despite the short term nature of the arrangements and the age of the properties, the very attractive rents (I have been advised that the median rate is $2700/- per month for the 100 square metre built-up area units) make the houses an appealing proposition. A walk around the neighbourhood will reveal the varied tenant mix this has attracted, as well as the condition that some of the houses are in. Feedback has been given by some tenants on leaking roofs and choked toilets, pipes and drains.

The southern section of Jalan Tembusu.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), who maintains the property on behalf of the State, will be carrying out extensive repair and upgrading works from January 2021. This will address the issues raised and ensure that the properties are in good condition for the longer term and will include electrical, plumbing and roof works. SLA has been engaging tenants individually since April 2019 on this, and has permitted an extension to existing tenancy arrangements to the end of 2020. The works are expected to be completed at the end of 2021 and existing tenants who are interested in returning once the works are completed will be able to register their interest to rent the property, which will be let out at prevailing market rates.

Part of the demolished row at the northern section of Jalan Tembusu.

 

One of the units that is in a relatively better condition.

 

The southern section of Jalan Tembusu – its proximity to East Coast Road and its shops and eating places also makes the houses an attractive choice for short term rental.

 

The meeting of Haig Road and the southern section of Jalan Tembusu.

 

The house have both front yards …

… and back yards that allow tenants to grow fruit tree and daily use items.

 

One of the since demolished units – seen in 2018.

 

Another unit from the northern section of Jalan Tembusu. The units feature living and dining spaces at ground level and two bedrooms on the upper level. Access is provided by a well-lit staircase arranged in the extended part of the house.

 

A vacant unit in relatively good condition.

There are signs of water seepage in quite a few of the units.

Ventilation openings – an essential part of the tropical architecture of old – is very much in evidence.


A look around the unit that is probably in the worst condition among the 42

The inside of a unit that will require a quite a lot of work to be done on it.

There seems a fair bit of water seepage from the roof of this unit – as is evident in the condition of the ceiling boards.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





The Jacksons of Sembawang

30 07 2019

Sembawang is one of just a few places in Singapore in which still holds the charm of a bygone era. The modern world, dominated by the sea of concrete is however, knocking increasing at its door; its latest convert being the the wonderful settings that lent context to (old) Admiralty House. The National Monument, built as the home of Commander of the huge British naval base in 1940, has seen the isolation it was provided with taken away in the effort to provide residents in the area with a sports and community hub. Similarly threatened with modernisation is the area by the coast just east of Sembawang Park and once an area of idyllic seaside villages where the villages of the new world have started to take root. One project that quite thankfully bucks the trend is the recently announced dementia-care village at Gibraltar Crescent. Currently the subject of a URA tender exercise, the village will make use of existing structures inherited from the days of the naval base and (hopefully) preserve some of the environment that the structures now find themselves in – at least for a 30-year period following the award of the tender.

A window into the past.

A quiet area of seemingly typical colonial residences,  a closer examination of the buildings of Gibraltar Crescent will reveal that they are actually quite unique even if they bear quite a fair bit of resemblance to and have many of the features of the residences that have come to be described as “black and white houses”. With the exception of a building that served as the former Dockyard Theatre or the “Japanese Theatre”, the longer than typical structures are raised on concrete columns of a height sufficient to permit a person to walk comfortably underneath the floorboards. Wood is also the main material on the buildings and masonry seems to have been used quite sparingly and used, besides in the supporting columns, in wet areas and in the ground level service structures. Quite interesting because of the wood featured in the buildings’ exterior walls, the structures tended to look more black than white in the days of the naval base as black bituminous paints that weatherproofed the wood.

A view towards the former Dockyard Theatre – a uniquely built structure along Gibraltar Crescent. It is the only large building along the street that is not raised on columns.

There are quite good reasons for the features adopted in the buildings, which were among the first to be erected by the contractor for the naval base, Sir John Jackson & Co, for the purposes of housing its European staff. Known as The “Jacksons” for this reason, they were completed in mid-1929. Features found in other “black and whites”, such as the raised supports, generous verandahs and openings, pitched roofs and wooden floorboards, kept the interiors cool, airy and bright. Although now among the oldest “permanent” residences in the former naval base, as well as being the first to have been purpose built, the buildings were intended as quasi-permanent residences and hence the extensive use of wood.

The Jacksons are raised on concrete supports and feature wooden walls except in the service areas and wet spaces.

Two “Jacksons” under construction in April 1929 (online at National Archives of Singapore).

It is also interesting to note how the various residences, while similar in appearance, have been laid out in what seems to be two distinct arrangements. One type seems to have had more of a layout with more common spaces and was perhaps used to house the lower ranking staff. This design has a centrally arranged service area and besides the access staircases at the back has two arranged at each end in the buildings’ front. The other design seems to have been subdivided into individual units, each with a service area and with what appears to have been an access staircase at both the front and the back.

A unit with a layout that lends itself to a more dorm-like use.

A Jackson which would have been subdivided into three individual units – each with its own service area.

Reports relating to the construction of the base, point to it being one of the largest engineering projects in the world at the time. The contractor employed a daily average of 3,000 coolies and had at least 30 European staff at any one point supervising through the 8 year period (from 1928 to 1936) over which the main contract was executed. The reports point to some 23 residences were built for European staff, along with numerous coolie lines. The residences were eventually handed over the the Admiralty and several among the 23 survived including the structures that are now the subject of the tender survived the war.

The front of one of the Jacksons with projections that would have served as staircase landings.

An exception may have been the Dockyard Theatre, the site of which, based on older maps seems to have been occupied by another of the “Jacksons”. Thought to have been constructed during the occupation – hence the references to it as the “Japanese Theatre” – the multi-use hall is built on a ground-level platform of concrete and is also built primarily of wood. The theatre was used as a to hold live performances including pantomimes and performances by the Naval Base Singers, as well as serving as a hall in which badminton was played in the period after the war until the British pull-out in 1971.

One of two access staircases at the rear in the first type of residence.

The verandah of the second type with privacy screens at what would have been the boundaries of the individual units.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences. 


News related to the tender for the dementia care village:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





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.


 





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.