A sneak peek at Maxwell Chambers Suites

24 07 2019

I had the opportunity to pay the soon to be opened Maxwell Chambers Suites a visit, thanks to a Ministry of Law (MinLaw) organised guided visit. I must say that the former Traffic Police Headquarters turned design museum looks resplendent in its transformation, having morphed over a period of two-years into an extension of Maxwell Chambers. Maxwell Chambers is the world’s first integrated dispute resolution complex right next door that is housed in the former Customs House. The extension, which is set to open on 8 August, will help cement Singapore’s position as a hub for international dispute resolution.

Windows from the past with reflections of the future – at the former Traffic Police HQ turned dispute resolution complex.

The conserved building has, both literally and metaphorically, had quite a colourful past. Completed early in 1930 as the Police “D” Division headquarters and barracks, a corner of it was used to house the Traffic Branch. The new Division HQ cum barrack block had been built during the decade-long effort to modernise and bring greater professionalism to the Straits Settlements Police Force. The effort, the brainchild of the force’s Inspector General, Harold Fairburn, came in days when “Sin-galore” might have seemed as appropriate a name for the municipality as Singapore. The force was reorganised, expanded and better trained – with the construction of the new Police Training School (old Police Academy). New and modern facilities were also built, including police stations and barracks to house the expanded police force.

The gorgeously decorated Business Centre at Maxwell Chambers Suites.

The re-organisation also saw the Traffic Branch (as the Traffic Police in its infancy was known as) move from Central Police Station to the new station and barrack building at Maxwell Road. The Traffic Branch, and later the Traffic Police, would maintain an almost unbroken association with the building until 1999. That was when the Traffic Police made a move to it current home at Ubi Ave 3.

Standing tall – the former traffic police headquarters seen in new light against the backdrop of Singapore’s tallest building.

The dreaded driving test would be on the minds of many of the older folks when the Traffic Police HQ is mentioned. The process of obtaining a driving licence here, required the prospective driver to pay Maxwell Road a visit or two. This arrangement lasted until December 1968, after the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) took over the conduct of driving tests and built a second test centre in Queenstown. Tests continued to the conducted at Maxwell Road until May 1978.  

The rear façade of the building where the communal barrack kitchens were arranged on the upper floors and next to which was the compound where the “test circuit” was set up.

The version of the building that is probably etched in the minds of most would be the incarnation that had many of us see red – as the “red dot Traffic Building” and the home of the Red Dot Design Museum. The museum open in 2005 and was housed in the building until it was acquired by MinLaw in 2017.

As the Red Dot Traffic Building, which housed the Red Dot Design Museum from 2005 to 2017.

Interestingly, it does seem that it wasn’t just as the Red Dot that the building may have attracted attention due to its colour scheme. The building’s conservation architect, Mr. Ho Weng Hin, in sharing about how the current colour scheme was selected also revealed that its initial coat was a mustard-like yellow with green accents. This may have been in keeping with the Art Deco influences of the day. The colours have certainly mellowed over the years and it is in keeping with the colour schemes of its latter years as a police building that its current colour scheme was selected.

Maxwell Chambers Suites has had its colour restored to reflect the colour scheme of the late 20th century Traffic Police Building.

As with several other urban street-side police barrack buildings of the era, Maxwell Chambers Suites’ façade displays an orderly array of wooden framed windows. These, along with the original cast iron gutters also on its face, have been painstakingly restored. A discovery that was made during the restoration pointed to the origin of the gutters, which was a well-established Glaswegian foundry named Walter MacFarlane and Co. With its openings now sealed with glass, the restored wooden windows have been left in an “opened” position. It will be interesting to note how air-conditioning intake vents have been quite creatively placed in the upper (top- opening) sections of the wooden windows – arranged to give the impression that some of the upper window sections have been opened quite randomly.

Vents are arranged to give an impression that the top opening sections of the exterior windows have been opened in a random manner.

Inside the building, offices, meeting rooms and an beautifully decorated business centre – for the use of visiting legal practitioners – now occupy spaces that had originally been the homes of policemen and their families or service spaces such as communal kitchens. These are laid out around an internal courtyard that had also been restored. Part of the courtyard was closed for use by the museum proper during the buildings Red Dot days. Courtyards are a feature of many of the civic buildings of the era and were used to maximise light and ventilation. In the case  urban police barrack buildings, they also provide privacy to the living spaces from the public streets.

The courtyard.

The opening of Maxwell Chambers Suites is timed to coincide with the Singapore Convention Week (3 – 9 August), the week when Singapore will witness the signing of the Singapore Convention on Mediation – the first United Nations treaty to be named after Singapore on 7 August. The Convention will provide for the cross-border enforcement of mediated settlement agreements and will give businesses greater certainty that mediated settlement agreements can be relied upon to resolve cross-border commercial disputes. More on Maxwell Chamber Suites can be found at this link.


Once barrack rooms.

A mural depicting the memories of a traffic policeman – of floods when the Singapore River spilled over.

Mr Ho Weng Hin pointing out the MacFarlane trademark on the cast iron gutter.

The Walter MacFarlane trademark.

A cornice-like feature – once part of an opened roof deck at the building’s rear and now part of an enclosed space.

A meeting room on an upper floor with a reflection of the office spaces across the courtyard.

An upward view from the courtyard.

Restored windows in the bulding’s rear seen in a new light.

Another look at the building’s front.


What would once have been communal kitchens in the building’s rear – with prefab plaster canopy hoods.

Inside Maxwell Chambers (the Former Customs House)

The iconic Cavenagh Room under the dome of Maxwell Chambers (the former Customs House). Maxwell Chambers Suites has been linked to Maxwell Chambers by a link bridge.

Stairway to heaven.

Maxwell Chambers Suites in its time as the Red Dot Traffic Building

Linda Black’s depiction of Venus – at Chairity, an event held at the Red Dot Design Museum in 2012 that was graced by the late Mr. S. R. Nathan in his capacity  as the President of Singapore.



Scaling the heights of construction

10 06 2013

A sight that greeted me on a walk around Maxwell Road on a Sunday, was one I had not seen in Singapore for quite a while – that of wooden scaffolding being erected at the Airview Building just across from the URA Centre. Once a common sight and used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s for construction of many of our early high-rises as well as in building maintenance, the wooden scaffold has all but disappeared from sight here in Singapore.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint of a wooden scaffold – these were common sights at construction sites in the 1960s and 1970s.

A bakau pole pile.

A bakau pole pile.

My first impressions of the wooden scaffolds were made during a repainting exercise at the end of 1971 on the exterior of the block of flats I had lived in, in anticipation of the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to the block that was to take place in February 1972. What was an amazing sight of fearless men, moving poles and planks up, as the scaffold poles were seemingly effortlessly tied up, floor-by-floor up all nineteen storeys of the block, has remained with me to this day.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

The wooden scaffolds, made up of a framework of heavy bakau wood poles (a material which harvested from the numerous bakau mangrove forests in Singapore and Malaysia was readily available – the same wood was also used in the production of charcoal) arranged both horizontally and vertically with diagonals added for support, were then seen at construction sites everywhere. The poles would be manually hosited-up, and tied together using a natural fibre rope or strip, such as bamboo strips, with planks laid across the horizontal poles as a deck and ladders tied to provide vertical access. What was also amazing was the sight of the painters as they went about their business, starting from the top, they moved down floor by floor without so much as a safety line or belt attached to them.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The MSA Building (later SIA Building) under construction in the late 1960s with wooden scaffolds around the exterior (external photograph – source: http://sgarchperspectives.blogspot.sg/2012/02/malayan-architects-co-partnership-1960.html).

There were over the years many incidents not just involving falls from scaffolding, but also wooden scaffolds collapsing. This prompted the Authorities to regulate their use, restricting the maximum heights of wooden scaffolds used in construction in the early 1970s, and disallowing their use completely from high-rise construction in  the early 1980s.  This along with the introduction of modular metal scaffolding (which not only is much quicker to erect, but also has a better safety record) as well as gondolas which made their appearance in the early 1970s saw that they became a less of a common sight over the years.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Lashing the diagonals.

Lashing the diagonals.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Another once common sight at the construction site which has disappeared, is that of the women with their signature red cloth headdresses, bearing loads their frail frames had seemed too tiny to support. A tribute to these women who came from Sanshui (Samsui) District of Guangdong Province in China to make a living here as menial workers at construction sites, is found across the road from the Airview Building at the side of the URA Centre.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

The stories of these women who built Singapore –  most came over in the 1920s to the 1940s and were sworn to single-hood, and the resilience they demonstrated (many who by the time I saw them in the 1960s  and 1970s were in already well advanced in age), are well worth hearing. The story of one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, can be found at an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum’s Stamford Gallery. The exhibition runs until the 23rd of June 2013 and features the stories of six pioneering tradesmen. More information on the exhibition, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, is available at a previous post on it, “Trading stories with six tradesmen“.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, at Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen.

Chairs and nudity at the Traffic Police HQ

28 05 2012

For many in my generation, mention the Traffic Police HQ, and Maxwell Road immediately comes to mind. That was of course a long time ago and traffic cops that have long been be associated with what must certainly be a wonderful work of architecture along Maxwell Road have since moved away. The building which housed the HQ now sees a second life as the Red Dot Design Museum and on Wednesday evening, it played host to an event that featured 35 chairs – specially designed Louis Arm Chairs. And where, one may wonder, does nudity come into all this? We didn’t have to look far – that came in the form of Linda Black, who co-hosted the event with her husband Oli Pettigrew. It wasn’t that she hosted the event unclothed (she did remark that the guests of the event would probably have been disappointed to see she had her clothes on) – she appeared in the buff to portray the Venus of Botticelli’s famous masterpiece for one of a series of publicity posters for the cause for which the event was held. The posters also included those of several well-known celebrities, including US actor and DJ Bobby Tonelli, who also appeared in the nude to portray Rodin’s The Thinker.

Linda Black’s depiction of Venus.

And Bobby Tonelli as The Thinker.

The nudity was all in good taste of course – and all for a good cause – CHAIRITY Arts & Design Against Cancer. A collaborative platform for artists and designers to express their interpretation of Cancer onto a piece of classical European furniture – the Louis Arm Chair, CHAIRITY, which is supported by the Singapore Cancer Society, aims to raise funds through its artworks to support cancer patients as well as to increase the level of awareness of cancer. This, along with the artistic effort in the form of the chairs created, were unveiled at the event, which was graced by several distinguished guests including former President of Singapore, S R Nathan. Also at the event was CHAIRITY’s founder, Imis Iskandar, who made an emotional speech during which he revealed that it was his father’s fight against cancer that motivated him to start the cause together with his partner in BACK REST, Gary Ng.

Former President S R Nathan was at the event to lend his support to the launch of CHAIRITY.

In his speech, Imis paid a glowing tribute to his father, who despite being very ill, was able to make the event. Imis also explained how he came to the idea of using a chair as an art piece for the cause. Having been very much connected with furniture making – Imis’ father was a furniture maker and BACK REST is very much involved in the trade, he thought of using something that he well knew that – a commonly used item of furniture that most don’t take much notice of – unless of course the item has very distinguishing characteristics. Imis felt that the chair, as such, was very representative of cancer as a disease. Cancer which although is all around us – a number one killer in many parts of the world and can affect anyone and bring pain and suffering to them as well as their families, is a disease most of us do not realise is there until it strikes someone close to us – very much like how the chair is seen by Imis.

One of the eye-catching chairs – “Heart Mosaic” by Wong Renzhi of St. Andrew’s School.

Some 30 Singaporean based artists were involved in the effort in which they transformed a Louis Arm Chair to provide their interpretation of the disease. The artists behind includes a number of personalities including Linda Black herself who designed a chair in a homage to her grandmother, Margaret Pearl Vogt Webster, who passed away from cancer some 20 years back. There were several eye-catching designs – including one by Tan Haur called “This is not a chair” which had some hearts that replaced stars on the back rest that resembled the Singapore flag – stars inspired by the stars that were stuck on to reward good work in school which the artist felt could be turned into love and care in education.

Linda Black with S R Nathan next to the chair she designed in homage to her grandmother who was a cancer victim.

Tan Haur’s “This is not a chair”.

There was also time at the event for two surprises to be sprung – one came in the form of surrealist Rosihan painting a chair live to open the event, the other came in the form of the beautiful voice of an 11 year-old naturalised Singaporean, Miguel Antonio, who has been described as having the “Voice of an Angel”.

Rosihan painting a chair live …

“Voice of an angel” – 11 year old Miguel Antonio.

Miguel Antonio with former President, S R Nathan.

More information for CHAIRITY can be found at the CHAIRITY Facebook Page and also at the blog site of photographer Maryann Koh of The Studio Loft, who did the shoot for the publicity material and whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the event. The 35 chairs, many of which have already received pledges for, will be back at the Red Dot Design Museum for a Public Exhibition on Friday 1 June 2012 (one day only) at the Market of Artists and Designers (MAAD). The exhibition will be open from 5 pm to midnight.

The artists posing for a photograph with S R Nathan and the good people behind CHARITY.

Didier Ng’s “I miss grandma’.

Windows to our soul: the Red Dot on our little Red Dot

7 10 2011

There is a magnificent red building in the heart of the old city that has a less colourful past. The building, now the Red Dot Design Museum, was once where many, in a ritual that comes with the coming of age, would have been where would have faced the agony of taking their driving tests. Many who did, would probably remember the day and the route from Maxwell Road and back, especially the trying moments with the clutch on the dreaded slope up Cantonment Road (at its junction with Neil Road). The building, designed by Public Works Department chief architect, Frank Dorrington Ward (also responsible for other notable works of colonial architecture such as the Supreme Court, Clifford Pier and Hill Street Police Station) then would have been dressed less flamboyantly in a coat of white. It housed both the Headquarters of the Traffic Police and the dreaded Driving Test Centre – the only test centre for a while until the Queenstown Test Centre was opened in 1968.

Windows at the Red Dot Design Museum - windows to the soul of the little red dot.

The building had been constructed at the end of the 1920s as a Police barracks which, based on the infopedia article on the Red Dot Design Museum, was to house junior married officers, although a newspaper report dated 25 January 1930 in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser suggests that both married and unmarried men were housed at the barracks. The Traffic Police office moved in from the Central Police Station at the end of January 1930 based on the same report, occupying one end of the building and occupied the building for some seven decades, moving out to their new headquarters in Ubi in 1999. More information on the building can be found at the infopedia stub.

A window into the past, present and future? The Red Dot against the backdrop of today's and tomorrow's Singapore.