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.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





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.


More:


More Photographs:

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.





Critically endangered

29 08 2013

With the recent death of the neglected but beautiful dove in the island’s west, there is only one that’s left to remember one of several terrazzo and mosaic creations that many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have had fond memories of playing in. The dove, is one of several playground designs – the work of the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, with a uniquely and very distinctly Singaporean flavour that decorated Singapore’s public housing estates in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

The surviving dove at Dakota  Crescent.

The surviving dove at Dakota Crescent.

The dove at Dakota Crescent is one which although well worn and exhibiting obvious signs of age, is remarkably preserved – a testament perhaps to play structures put up in times when they were built to last. Still with its sand-pit, a feature of the playgrounds of  the era, it does also feature rubber tyre swings and a slide. There are several more of these structures left behind, including the well-loved dragon of Toa Payoh, which many hope will be preserved, not just to preserve the many memories there are of happy childhood moments, but also because they are structures which we can quite easily identify with Singapore, from a time when we did not yet forget to express who we are.

The dove's last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

The dove’s last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

What is also nice about the very last dove, is that it resides in a rather charming old neighbourhood, one Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built flats which came up in the late 1950s, well before the dove was put there. The estate it is in, Kallang Airport Estate, was developed in the area at the end of the extended Kallang Airport runway – land which was freed after 1955, when the airport was closed. Some 21 seven-storey and 20 four-storey blocks were built from 1956 to 1959. The estate was officially opened in July 1958 and the cluster of flats the dove finds itself in the midst of, are amongst the few that have survived.

JeromeLim-9441

JeromeLim-9440

JeromeLim-9438

JeromeLim-9436

JeromeLim-9435

JeromeLim-9433

JeromeLim-9424


A quick glance around the dove

JeromeLim-9452

JeromeLim-9454-2

JeromeLim-9455-4





Remembering the ultimate expression of love on the 14th of February

14 02 2012

(This article was written in 2012, in the lead up to the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore)


The 14th of February being Valentine’s Day, is a day that is highly anticipated, rightly or wrongly, in modern Singapore. It is an indication of how far Singapore has gone in the embrace of the new world and has been influenced by the practices of cultures previously alien to Singapore. And while Singapore celebrates with a commercialised expressions of love, many in Singapore are blissfully unaware of the significance of the date in Singapore’s history – a date which 70 years ago in 1942 witness a very different and perhaps a lot more genuine expression of love by a group of valiant men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of freedom.

A World War II outpost on Kent Ridge. The ridge – then Pasir Panjang Ridge – had been defended by the Malay Regiment in a battle that lasted for two days ending on 14 February 1942 on Bukit Chandu – a battle that saw a valiant fight put up by members of the regiment led by Lt. Adnan Saidi who was brutally killed on Bukit Chandu.

It was on the 14th of February 1942, after beating a hasty retreat to Point 226, that a certain Lt. Adnan bin Saidi of ‘C’ Company of the 1st Battalion of Malay Regiment and his comrades found themselves hopelessly defending a strategic position which we commonly refer to as Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill today against the force of an all-out assault on it by the Japanese Imperial Army in one of the last battles to be fought before the surrender the very next day. The position defended the Alexandra area where the British had their ammunition and supply depots and a military hospital (Alexandra Hospital). By the late afternoon, the position was lost after fierce fighting at close quarters – Lt. Adnan and several of his comrades were killed in the most brutal of fashion and events then took place that made a very dark day an even darker one when Japanese troops in pursuit of the few surviving members of the Malay Regiment and Indian troops, stormed Alexandra Hospital and massacred scores of innocent medical personnel and patients. Over at what is the Singapore General Hospital today, 11 medical students from the King Edward VII Medical College were also killed by artillery fire on the same day – 10 of whom were attending the funeral of one of the students who was killed that morning.

A view from the canopy walk which stretches from Kent Ridge Park to Bukit Chandu looking towards the Alexandra area which Pasir Panjang (now Kent) Ridge and Point 226 had defended.

Reflecting on the brave acts of Lt Adnan and his comrades and the other dark events of the day, one is reminded not just of their heroics in the defence of the people they served, but also as a reminder that peace should never be taken for granted. That the war, and the subsequent occupation of Singapore resulted in a lot of hardship for the then residents of Singapore – and for those who rose in their defence, there is no doubt. For many of my generation and after, it is a hardship that would be hard to imagine, having been fortunate to live in, save for isolated incidents of violence, a period of relative peace. It is great to see that the National Heritage Board has, for the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, organised a series of events as a reminder of the dark days of February 1942 and the hard years that followed – something that all should participate in.

A reminder of the Battle of Opium Hill and the exploits of Lt. Adnan and members of the Malay Regiment is provided a Interpretative Centre at the site, Reflections at Bukit Chandu.

One of the events that I did participate in was the very popular guided tour of the Air Raid Shelter at Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru. The shelter was one that was built under pre-war blocks of flats built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in anticipation of the war. There is quite a fair bit on the Air Raid Shelters that’s already out there including this article in the 27 January 2012 edition of the Straits Times.

A peek at the air raid shelter at the bottom of Block 78 Guan Cuan Street as seen through a ventilation opening.

A red brick wall lined room inside the shelter – the shelter is a lot more spacious and airy than I had imagined it would be.

A passageway – a door on the pavement on the ground floor of the block would have served as an entrance to the shelter here. The hole in the concrete ceiling would have contained glass blocks to allow natural light into the shelter.

A room with wooden bunks that was reserved for use by members Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens and their families.

The writing on the wall.

I had, being the true Singaporean that I was, been amongst the first to sign up for this tour when the news first broke. I am glad I did as it wasn’t long before the tours were fully subscribed. Stepping into the air raid shelter for the first time was a surreal experience, especially knowing that it had held people in cowering in fear for their lives as sirens that might have been mixed with the sounds of enemy aircraft dropping bombs 70 years before added to the confusion above. What struck me was how airy the shelter was – and perhaps how thin the walls of red Alexandra kiln bricks seemed to be – I had imagined a shelter would have been behind think walls of concrete with only little openings provided for air and light. Looking at a photograph in the Imperial War Museums collection found on Wikipedia, it surprised me to see that there seemed very much to be an air of normalcy on the faces of the people in the air raid shelter – instead of faces etched with fear that I had expected to see. This is also evident in several photographs I have come across of Singapore during the war including one where a man is photographed having a meal with his daughter in the midst of the ruins of an air raid. That I guess highlights the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity – great adversity that we today have been fortunate not to face.

Another view inside the air raid shelter.

Civilians in a similar air raid shelter in late 1941 or early 1942 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Air_raid_shelter.jpg).

A photograph of a man and his daughter dining in midst of the ruins left by an air raid on Singapore.

With the knowledge of the events of the 14th of February of 70 years ago and the darks days that preceded and followed it very much in my mind. The 14th of February will always mean more than the superficial expressions of love that the commercial world demands of us. It will always be a day to remember where we as a nation must never go and to ultimately remember the true expression of love that the likes of Lt. Adnan and his fallen comrades and the many others had expressed in what must be an ultimate sacrifice that they made to fight for the freedom of their fellow-men.


Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:

A Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge Heritage

Fire and Death on Opium Hill

Reflections at Bukit Chandu

The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisted

My post on last year’s Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk:

A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang