An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






Motoring Days on Orchard Road

26 11 2020

It is hard to imagine it today, but Singapore’s famous main shopping street, Orchard Road, was once lined with car showrooms and motor workshops. Car brands such as Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Austin, Morris, Ford, Vauxhall, Fiat … and even Rolls Royce, had a presence there. It was certainly the go-to place to do a test drive and place an order for the still affordable family car, or to send the car for servicing and repair.

Orchard Motors, which was at the corner of Orchard and Bideford Road, became The Orchard in the early 1970s — the home of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House (Orchard Motors photo used with the kind permission of Mr Bryan Soh).

Two showrooms that were rather prominent in the regular journeys that I made as a child along Orchard Road between C K Tang and Cold Storage, were Champion Motors and Orchard Motors. Champion, which was then a dealer for Volkswagen is today where Lucky Plaza stands, while Orchard Motors — which dealt with Vauxhalls and Chevrolets, was first converted into The Orchard — a small shopping mall that was better known as the location of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House, before being replaced by the Paragon’s original wing.

The Orchard, seen with Lucky Plaza coming up on the site of the former Champion Motors showroom.

Today, only two buildings that bear testament to Orchard Road’s motoring past still stand. One is the wonderfully designed sunburst gabled no 14 to 20 Orchard Road — now used by MDIS, which has a history that goes back to Orchard Road’s early motoring days when it was purpose-built as showroom cum office building for Malayan Motors, a Morris dealer. That stands in a conserved row now opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station — along a stretch of Orchard Road that attracted a host of showrooms and workshops in the early days of motoring and was where Ford motorcars were initially assembled in Singapore. Names such as Universal Cars, a Ford dealer and Borneo Motors, an Austin dealer turned Toyota agent, were also connected with the stretch.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

While it does seem quite well established that the former Malayan Motors showroom is still around, much less has been said about Liat Towers, which was constructed as the headquarters and showroom of Mercedes Benz. Its construction came at a time when the street was on the cusp of its transformation into the world-renowned retail destination that it is today. It would not be long before shopping malls such as Plaza Singapura (1974) and Lucky Plaza (1978) launched the transformation of the street into a retail destination.






Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

Built close to a century ago, the last of Orchard Road’s shophouses stand as a reminder of a time before Singapore’s shopping mile was mall-ed. Comprising four delightful structures at numbers 14 to 38, each a gem of eclectic architectural expression, they also serve to remind us of the rubber trade inspired hopes and aspirations of the decade that followed the end of the Great War. The row, which features three notable edifices and one, no 38, which often goes unnoticed, was acquired by the State in the 1980s following a 1978 gazette for acquisition and gazetted for conservation in November 2000.

The conserved row.

The east end of the row is marked by the cry for attention that the former Malayan Motors showroom is. Designed by Swan and Maclaren, it was an add on to the Morris and Rolls Royce dealer’s earlier showroom and represented a progression in the design of motor showrooms. A length of windows on each side of a projection in its façade provided natural illumination to its upper floors. A scalloped semi-circular gable (if one can call it that) at each end of the roof drew attention to it.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Completed in 1927, the former showroom can also be thought of as a marker of Orchard Road’s motoring days. Fuelled by the expansion in the rubber market here during the Great War, the demand for the motorcar had risen three-fold between 1913 and 1918, leading to a proliferation in the area of motorcar showrooms, and workshops (several over the canal at what is now Handy Road ) by the 1920s. Vehicle assembly was also introduced and Singapore’s first assembly plant – for Ford – opened in the area with a production capacity of 12 cars a day in 1925. The showroom was built by the Wearnes brothers who also brought in the Fords, which they sold via another dealership, Universal Cars. Besides Morris and Rolls Royce, other brands that the Malayan Motors showroom would have dealt with were Rover and Studebaker.  The showroom made its last sale in August 1980, following which Malayan Motors concentrated its business at its Leng Kee branch. Following its acquisition by the State, the showroom was renovated in 1988 for use by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House. It has been used by MDIS, a private school, since 2002.

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

Another interesting building is the Dutch-gabled former Midfilm House (Middle East Film Building) at no 22 to 24 next to the showroom. This dates back to 1921 and was put up by Middle East Films Ltd, a pioneering distributor of films in Southeast Asia. The building, which is Orchard 22 today, also served as temporary premises for Malayan Motors when its showroom was being rebuilt in 1926-27.

22-24 Orchard Road in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

What is probably now the icing in the cake for the row is the somewhat art deco and possibly modern-classical no 26 to 36 next to the former Midfilm House, which since June 2019, is the resplendent Temasek Shophouse. Built  in 1928, it stands on the site of six older shophouses – three of which had each been acquired by Chee Swee Cheng in 1926, and the other three by E Kong Guan from 1925 to 1926. Both Chee and E had roots in Malacca and were tapioca and rubber planters. Chee was also known to have substantial interests in opium and spirit “farming” in North Borneo and a landowner, who held several properties in Singapore. He is associated with the abandoned villa at 25 Grange Road, Wellington House, often incorrectly referred to as the Chee Guan Chiang mansion – after Chee’s son by a second marriage.

The Temasek Shophouse.

It was Guan Chiang who had the 3-storey 26 to 36 Orchard Road co-developed with E – based on plans drawn up by Westerhout and Oman in 1927. The new building’s interior spaces were split down the middle for each of the two owners, with E’s side being the western half numbered 32 to 36. An office space and store was laid out on each side of the ground floor. The upper floors of each half, each contained a 2-bedroom apartment.

No 26 to 36 in 1984 with the Art Furniture Depot and Sin Sin Furniture occupying the ground floor (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

The office spaces found use as showrooms, both initially occupied by The Art Furniture Depot in 1929. It was this store that the building would have the longest association with. The store gave up one of its showrooms in the early 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. The vacant unit would became the Eddystone Radio showrrom in 1933 and after the war, Sin Sin Furniture’s. Both furniture stores moved out around 1986 when the building was acquired by the State. Following this, substantial modifications were made to the building’s interiors so that it could house Pisces Garments Department Store with escalators, lifts and a mezzanine level were put in. The department store, which opened in 1989, morphed into PMart in 1994.

The current transformation has opened up the back of no 26 to 36, giving a full view of it.

The current transformation followed on the award of a tender launched in 2017 to Temasek, on the basis of the quality of concept that it had put forward.  The 18-month refurbishment effort that followed reversed several of the interventions of Pisces and gorgeously and sensitively restored the building, earned a 2019 URA Architectural Heritage Award for restoration. The overhauled interiors now feature a double-volume event space with a green wall featuring native plants. That is – in the context of today – not complete without a social-enterprise café. As an alternative to the street entrance, the garden – which the knocking of a boundary wall at the back has opened up – provides a very nice back door. The back is also where a pair of conserved concrete spiral staircases attached to the building’s rear – perhaps one of the tallest now seen – can be admired together with the equally impressive back façade. Offices, co-working spaces, meeting and function rooms – with native birds as themes, offices, a meeting space on its roof garden and space to accommodate its partners complete the picture.

Shophouses beyond the east end of the row – leading to an expunged street named Dhoby Ghaut – that have since been demolished (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Fresh, innovative and a joy to behold, the Temasek Shophouse brings Temasek Trust and its beneficiaries Temasek Foundation and Stewardship Asia Centre under one roof – with the aim to serve as an incubator of social and philanthropic in initiatives promoting community collaboration and advancing sustainability. It brings, if not for anything else, an injection of purpose to that the conserved row now sorely lacks.

The event space and its green wall.


More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

Offices for one or its sustainability partners – which makes furniture out of recycled material.

A pantry within an office space.

A balcony and on of its spiral staircases at the building’s rear.

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

A close-up of the Corinthian capitals of the classical-esque columns on the building’s front façade.

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

A downward view to the back garden from one of the spiral staircases.