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SINGAPORE’S HERITAGE BUILDINGS: FROM HISTORIC TO HIP

By Jonathan Choe (@jonthearchitect)     2 Dec 2016

The hottest hangouts in the Lion City aren’t to be found in shiny modern skyscrapers but in restored and repurposed colonial-era structures

Singapore is famed for its cutting-edge sustainable architectural marvels. But these days many of the coolest clubs, hippest hotels and hottest restaurants aren’t inside sleek modern buildings, but within charming historic structures that have been repurposed as some of the most popular places in town to hang out. Here are five heritage buildings that have been transformed for modern use.

1. THE ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

ACM
The museum has just received a space-age addition with a striking titanium-clad facade

Many of Singapore’s museums (SAM, National Museum, National Gallery) are housed within repurposed historic buildings. The Asian Civilisations Museum is no exception. The Empress Place structure dates back to 1867 and originally housed colonial offices, and later some of Singapore’s first government offices as an independent nation.

The already stunning neoclassical-style building with impeccable classical details has just received a space-age addition with a striking titanium-clad facade and a new waterfront terrace stepping down to the Singapore River.

 

2. SHOP HOUSES

The skyline of modern Singapore contrasts with the historic shop houses of Boat Quay, which have recently been given a facelift with new al fresco dining spaces
The skyline of modern Singapore contrasts with the historic shop houses of Boat Quay, which have recently been given a facelift with new al fresco dining spaces

Singapore’s ubiquitous shop houses were once the primary type of structure in the city and covered much of the island. Charming streets lined with shop houses are now limited to a few neighborhoods, such as tourist-beloved Chinatown and the hipster haven at Tanjong Pagar.

This nondescript entrance in the alleyway behind a row of shop houses along North Canal Road conceals the entrance to Punch, one of Singapore’s hippest cafes
This nondescript entrance in the alleyway behind a row of shop houses along North Canal Road conceals the entrance to Punch, one of Singapore’s hippest cafes

Even just a decade ago, most were used for their original purpose as warehouses, shops or offices on the ground floor, with residences above. Nowadays, shop houses are home to some of the hippest cafes and restaurants in Singapore, and even many of the rooftops are being transformed into beautiful bars with amazing skyline views (there are some great rooftop bars along Club Street, and Southbridge at Boat Quay has a stunning view).

Punch is a moment of hipster respite within the dense urban center of Singapore, with a traditional garden courtyard. Previously used for drying clothes, this space now serves up some of the best coffee in the city-state
Punch is a moment of hipster respite within the dense urban center of Singapore, with a traditional garden courtyard. Previously used for drying clothes, this space now serves up some of the best coffee in the city-state

 

3. SPACE FURNITURE

SPACE is one of Singapore’s hippest furniture galleries and was created by merging a shop house and a historic villa
SPACE is one of Singapore’s hippest furniture galleries and was created by merging a shop house and a historic villa

SPACE at Bencoolen Street is one of Singapore’s most fashionable furniture galleries, selling acclaimed brands from around the world. Locally renowned architects WOHA created the award-winning showroom by combining a historic villa and shop house with a modern addition in between.

Rumor has it that the historic villa has a sketchy history as a karaoke parlor, but today you can shop for fashionable furniture in spaces alternating between impeccably restored historic rooms and striking contemporary galleries.

 

4. GILLMAN BARRACKS

GillmanBarracks
Don’t miss local architect and artist Richard Hassell’s exhibition, Strange Creatures, now on show at Gillman Barracks

Slightly outside of Singapore’s town center, a British military camp from 1936 has been turned into a hip enclave hosting some of Singapore’s trendiest art galleries and restaurants. Gillman Barracks boasts a series of restored heritage structures set within a lush tropical setting, and is currently hosting the must-see Strange Creatures exhibition by local architect and artist Richard Hassell (the show runs until December 9 at ARNDT Fine Art).

 

5. NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

NationalGalleryAtrium
A modern atrium connects the two historic buildings that make up the National Gallery

No doubt Singapore’s most prominent repurposed heritage building, the new National Gallery was created through the combination of two of the city’s most iconic historic structures: the old Supreme Court (built in 1937) and the colonial City Hall (completed in 1929). The design was selected as part of an international competition in 2008, and combines the two classical buildings with a sleek and modern atrium, topped by a filigree roof that evokes the canopy of a sun-dappled forest (complete with oversized tree-trunk columns!).

Remnants of the structures’ historic past include jail cells and a domed library
Remnants of the structures’ historic past include jail cells and a domed library

The combined structure is now one of Asia’s largest art museums, featuring a permanent collection of superb art from across the region and international-standard traveling exhibitions. It hasn’t been stripped of history in the process, though, and interesting spaces such as the domed library and even jail cells that once held prisoners before trial are still visible within the galleries.

Not interested in art? No worries. In true Singapore style, the National Gallery has plenty of hip spots to eat and drink. The rooftop bars have some of the best skyline views around, and two-Michelin-star Odette is here as well. For a moderately priced, locally inspired meal, I recommend National Kitchen by Violet Oon in the City Hall Wing.

 

6. LE MERIDIEN SINGAPORE

Perched on a verdant hilltop at the heart of Sentosa island, Le Meridien Singapore is housed in a former army barrack—the base for British artillerymen during World War II.

Meridien

Constructed in 1940, it housed Southeast Asia’s first Malay artillery regiment. A clock tower was added in the 1990s. It was restored in 2016 by Singaporean architecture firm DP Architects (designers of The Dubai Mall) with renowned Japanese design studio Super Potato.

Colonial architectural details have been renovated to their former glory to evoke a real sense of history, which is juxtaposed against a contemporary wing with modern features like outdoor pools and rooftop gardens.


What other heritage buildings in Singapore have you discovered? Let us know at #momentumtravel.

Main image: Shutterstock; body images: Shutterstock/Jonathan Choe/Le Meridien

Jonathan Choe
Jonathan Choe (@jonthearchitect)

Jonathan Choe is an architectural designer, blogger, artist, urbanist and high-rise gardener who lives in paradise (aka Singapore). Follow him on Instagram at @jonthearchitect.

 

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