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.


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Dakota at the crossroads

12 12 2017

It is good to hear that some of Old Kallang Airport Estate, Dakota Crescent as it is now commonly referred to, is being retained. The estate is the last of those built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the 1950s in which the first attempts were made to introduce high-rise public housing. The preservation of a section of six blocks, four of which are arranged around a courtyard that with its playground, is also being retained, follows on calls made for the estate’s preservation in part or in whole by Save Dakota Crescent group and members of the public to which the Member of Parliament for the area Mr Lim Biow Chuan has lent his voice.

Dakota at the crossroads.

Built at the end of the 1950s, a chunk of the original estate has already been lost to redevelopment. What remains features four block typologies arranged mainly around two spacious courtyards with a Khor Ean Ghee designed playground that was introduced in the 1970s. The blocks were designed to contain a mix of units intended for residential, commercial and artisanal use – a feature of the SIT estates of the era.

Window from the past out to one that is more recent – Singapore’s last dove (playground).

It would have been nice to see a more complete estate being kept as an example of the pre-HDB efforts at public housing. Developmental pressures have however meant that only the central cluster, in which all four block typologies are represented, could be kept with the remaining site given to public housing. The blocks being retained will be repurposed for uses such as student housing or  for suitable social and community uses and will be integrated with the future public housing development.

Three-storey and seven-storey blocks.


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A vacant unit.

The kitchen.

An empty hall.

Some of the units feature built-in storage.

A neighbourhood cat.

The kitchen of an upper floor unit.

The upper floor verandah of the two-storey block.

Another vacant unit.

A final dance with the Dove.

The dove from above.

The provision shop, before it became a hipster cafe.

The last song bird.

Ventilation openings.





Parting Glances: Pasir Panjang Power Station Quarters

29 05 2017

Thanks to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and Mr Morhan Karup, representing the families of the former Pasir Panjang Power Station (PPPS) quarters, I found myself at a huge gathering of the PPPS quarters’ ex-residents. It provided an opportunity not just to have a look at the former quarters,  but also to be reminded of the community spirit missing in the brave new world Singapore has been forced to become .

A group photograph of the ex-residents. It was estimated that more than 600 former residents returned for the gathering.

The bonds of community were very much in evidence at the reunion, which attracted some 600 ex-residents from a total of 340 families who once called PPPS quarters home – despite a separation of over three decades. The former quarters, built in the 1950s and 1960s, comprised five high-rise blocks and another five 3-storey blocks and were vacated at the end of the 1980s when many were encouraged to apply for HDB flats. The quarters were for long one of the area’s landmarks, which also included the chimneys of the power station and the storage tanks of the BP (and former Maruzen Toyo – see: The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer) refinery. The refinery, which opened in 1962, was in fact well positioned, and had been where fuel for the power station’s prime movers, were supplied from.

A parting glance.

What we see today of the quarters is one built to supplement accommodation originally erected in 1952 to 1953. The then new power station, built to supply the colony’s electricity needs for the two decades that were to follow, was to be further expanded from a an initial capacity of 25 MW at the end of 1952 to 175 MW in 1962 to meet surging demand. It did not stop there and a second station, B Station, was built adjacent to the first (A Station) in the mid-1960s, adding a total of 240 MW to the station’s capacity. All this required workers to be recruited from India and Malaya, all of whom needed to be accommodated. The erection of new and taller blocks in the 1960s, also allowed the families of the workers to be accommodated more comfortably. These had larger two-room, one-hall units, compared to single bedroom units in the older blocks. The larger units were then allocated to those with families and smaller ones (in the three-storey blocks) to newly married workers and those who were single. The units were rented out for some $10 to $16 to the families.

An eight-storey block built in the 1960s. The layouts are very similar to some of the later SIT flat designs. The high-rise blocks had two-room, one-hall units and were allocated to married workers with families.

Older 3-storey blocks with one-room, one-hall flats allocated to singles or workers who were newly married.

One who came from far was the father of Mr Selvam, a long-time former resident (1954 to 1986) who was born on the premises in 1954 (in a unit in three-storey Block D). Mr Selvam’s father, Mr Sockalingam, came over from India in the 1950s to work as a turbine driver and married a local lady. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr Selvam – known to those in the community as “Thambi’ (younger brother in Tamil), recalled days spent in the football field, at Labrador Primary School and taking a shortcut through World War Two tunnels to take a dip at the beach. The tunnels, remembered by all who lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, were apparently filled with the artefacts of war and included the rusty remnants of Japanese weapons. With Mr Selvam, was his friend Mr Yusof whose wife was a former resident. Mr Yusof described the estate as a “concrete kampung”, a description that seemed to be used by many of the estate’s former residents.

L – R: Ex-residents Mr Thangavelu, Mr Omar, Mr Selvam (a.k.a. ‘Thambi’), and the husband of an ex-resident, Mr Yusof. Mr Thangavelu, lived with an uncle who worked at PPPS, while Mr Omar was a turbine driver who was transferred from Jurong Power Station in 1970.

One of the memories Mr Selvam and his friends who were sitting around him were especially keen to talk about, were of the row of food stalls across the road just outside the compound. It was there where many would gather, share a meal or a drink in the evening break out into song – something that the gathering yesterday, also seemed to encourage with quite a few joining in an impromptu song and dance with many in the crowd cheering on.

The organising team, with Mr Bernard Loh of the SLA.

The get-together, at which the bonds forged over the years were very much in evidence despite the length of time the community ‘s members have been kept apart, follows on another organised in 2014 that was attended by 300 ex-residents. The 2014 reunion was prompted by re-connections made possible through social media, after many in the community had lost touch with each other after moving from the quarters, and also with the decommissioning of the station (A-Station in mid-1980 and B-Station in 1997). The group is planning a dinner at the end of the year, which on the basis of what was seen – would certainly not be the last.

Sisters Manchula and Sita posing at the same spot a photo was taken of them in 1975.

Two of three Chia sisters, whose family lived in the quarters from 1956 to 1971.

Last reflections.

The gated compound of the estate provided security, although none seemed to be needed and residents often left their doors opened or unlocked.

The winds of change are sweeping through the area.

The proximity to the power station allowed workers to come home for lunch.

An area once occupied by older flats, which were demolished.

Old estates often have nice shady trees, something that new estates lack and it is a shame to see them go.


Video of Ex-Residents breaking out in dance


A last look


Signs of More Recent Times


 

 

 





The rainbow connection

16 09 2016

A rainbow appears over the “Rainbow Flats”, as Rochor Centre is sometimes referred to, as if to say goodbye on the morning of 14 September 2016. Built to house residents and business displaced by urban redevelopment in the late 1970s, the Housing and Development Board built podium residential cum commercial development is due to make way very soon for the construction of the North-South Expressway.  For more on the complex and its last days, do visit an earlier post: Parting Glances: Rochor Centre in its last days.





The last pelican

12 08 2016

I was going through my archives of photographs last weekend when I came across this photograph I took sometime in February 2012 of the last pelican playground; its backdrop a sea of greenery that left untamed brings a sense of calm that is missing in the manicured green spaces we in Singapore now seem to have too much of.

The last pelican, which went in June 2012.

Sadly, there seems little place in a Singapore that has little place for surroundings such as these. The pelican, which became a symbol of the loss many here feel for their well-loved places that no longer exist, is no more; demolished some four months after the photograph was captured. One of the more used themes adopted in the terrazzo and mosaic playgrounds introduced from the late 1970s, it served the children of Blocks 30 to 39 Dover Estate for some three decades before the death knell was sounded for it when the estate was taken back through a Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) exercise.

I had several encounters with a similar pelican themed playground in Ang Mo Kio where I had moved to in the second half of the 1970s. Small compared to the one in Toa Payoh where the better part of my childhood was spent in and with rather static implements, and for the fact that I had outgrown playgrounds by that time; I never found much fun in them. I found the all metal merry-go-round, with its chequered steel deck, especially hard to move as compared to the

The last pelican was among a handful that also includes a dove at the soon to go Dakota Crescent, that survived a cull of the locally designed playgrounds. Designed by a Housing and Development Board (HDB) team led by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, the series also included other animal based themes, the grandest of which was the mythical dragon. There were also elephantsfruits and vegetables, twakows and even fairy tale type clocks.

At least one of the playgrounds, which would have been most familiar to the children of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, will have its life extended. That, now sits abandoned by those whose lives it was a part of. Several of the blocks around it, including the twenty-storey tall Block 28, which was itself a landmark have since been demolished for redevelopment. In renewed surroundings that will include blocks of flats that will even be higher than Block 28, the orange dragon will at least stand tall, a reminder of the efforts of a dedicated team of designers who provided a generation of Singaporeans with something to remember that childhoods by.

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Parting glances: Rochor Centre in its last days

19 05 2016

Renewal and redevelopment are words that some in Singapore dread hearing. They often translate to the loss of places we lived in or grew up with, and the break-up of communities associated with those places.  One such place that will soon join the growing list of disappearing communities is Rochor Centre (photographs below). One of several city-centre podium complexes put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, it seems to have served its purpose and will now have to make way so that an underground expressway can be built.

Fading light, Rochor Centre, May 2016.

Many will remember the complex for the multi-coloured coat of paint it has in more recent times been given. For much of its 39 year history however, it has worn a less attention grabbing coat, looking its part as an aesthetically unappealing mid-1970s public housing development, lost in the confused clutter of structures built to replace the one-time shophouse dominated landscape of the area.

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Built in a hurry to take in residents and businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was sweeping across the city, mixed-use podium complexes sprouted in double quick time across densely populated districts of the city. A feature of such complexes is the multi-level podium block in which shop and office lots, or in some instances, wet markets and food centres are housed. Residential blocks of flats, built in the same mould as the HDB flats of those days, sit on top of the podiums with the well-proportioned podium roof decks providing space to serve residents’ recreational and social needs.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

One of the larger complexes in the area, the diverse mix of businesses that Rochor Centre’s podium housed, brought much more of a buzz to it than nearby complexes such as Bras Basah Complex and Waterloo Centre. Both the latter complexes housed a concentration of specialised trades; bookstores, stationery shop and watch dealers from the North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road area in the case of Bras Basah, and motor spare parts dealers from the Rochor area in the case of Waterloo.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, Fairprice will be one of the last shops to go.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, the Fairprice outlet, which is still operating, will be one of the last shops to go.

Rochor Centre, after its completion in 1977, saw three banks, POSB, DBS and Tat Lee, set up shop. A branch of Oriental Emporium and its supermarket also moved in, as did a post office, which shifted from Queen Street. There were also many other shops, food outlets, pawnshops, goldsmith shop and due to its proximity to the popular Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple down Waterloo Street, shops dealing with religious offerings. While many shops and businesses came and went over the year, there are several that either kept relevant or managed to adapt to changing times that have stayed on.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots - Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots – Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

A reminder of the centre's DBS Bank branch - one of the original occupants of the podium block.

A reminder of the centre’s DBS Bank branch – one of the original occupants of the podium block.

With the death knell being sounded on Rochor Centre, much of the buzz it was once known for has been replaced by a deafening silence. Having been acquired by the government in November 2011 as its stands in the way of the construction of the future North-South Expressway, many of its occupants have moved out well ahead of the third quarter 2016 deadline to vacate the complex.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

Demolition is expected to start soon after its last tenants move out and all that will remain of it will be memories; memories that, as with those of the flood-prone but colourful Hokchia dominated neighbourhood that occupied the site before Rochor Centre, time will surely erase.

A site soon to be recycled.

A site soon to be recycled.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.



What occupied the site before Rochor Centre:

Rochor Centre was built over a neighbourhood with streets such as Tiwary Street, Muar Road and Angullia Road. Despite the diverse origins of its street names, the area where members of the Hokchia (also Futsing or Fuqing) community settled into. Many in the community found work as trishaw riders or coolies and as with others involved in the trades, found solace in opium and in gambling. The area, as a result, gained notoriety for its opium and gambling dens.

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).


Parting Glances: Photographs of Rochor Centre in its last days

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Daybreak over Rochor Centre on which the sun will soon set.

Last flights at sunrise.

Last flights at sunrise.

A last delivery.

A last collection.

Last light.

Last light.

A last morning walk.

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A last walk to kindergarten.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last wait.

A last wait.

The last roasts.

The last roasts.

A last cup of coffee.

A last cup of coffee.

A last breakfast.

A last breakfast.

A last haircut.

A last customer.

A last reflection.

A last reflection.

Last shops.

Last shops.

Last cups of coffee.

Last chill-outs.

A last elevator ride.

A last elevator ride.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last Christmas.

A last Christmas.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last wash.

A last wash.

Last ;pieces of laundry.

Last poles of laundry.

A last offering.

A last offering.

A last reunion dinner.

A last reunion dinner.

Last Chinese New Year visits.

A last Chinese New Year visit.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last hamper.

A last hamper.

A last mail delivery.

A last mail delivery.

A last delivery.

A last delivery.

A last look at the basement.

A last look at the basement.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last twilight.

A last twilight.






Last(ing) impressions

6 10 2015

Sunday, 4 October 2015, was the day we said our farewells to an old neighbourhood at Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive, which will soon be demolished. The farewell to neighbourhood built at a time of great need during the transition from statehood to nationhood and known affectionately as the ‘Chap Lau Chu’, Hokkien for ‘Ten Storey House’ for its 10 storey flats, would have left a last and perhaps lasting impression on the large numbers of people who turned up for Sunday’s farewell party

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A last stroll.

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A last hurrah.

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A last peek.

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A last song.

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The last photographs.

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A last hello.

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A last toss.

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A last pat.

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A last sit down.

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A last reflection.

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A last look (1).

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A last look (2).

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A last look (3).

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A last visit.

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The last hydrant.

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The last hydrant.

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The last tall tree.

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A last descent.

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A last show.

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A last walk.

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The last days.

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A last boundary (the boundary wall between the former Malayan Railway land and Singapore).

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A last look at Block 75.

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A last sunset.

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The last smiles.

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A last glance.

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A last gathering.

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A last stop.

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A last laugh.

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The last goodbye.

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A last shot.

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The last game.