Monday, August 6, 2007

Modernism in Singapore


“Modern Asia has not developed in a vacuum but has evolved through sustained interactions with the West, which has had a constant presence in our collective consciousness. This shared experience of the world unites us as Asians. The history of dealing with the West, with our neighbors and with ourselves, is manifested in the myriad forms of our Architecture. The history of Modern Architecture in Asia is the history of how Asians have become modern”.1

Fig. 1. The shop-house typology has evolved with many generations in Southeast Asian cosmopolitan cities. This is an example of the Art Deco shop-house in Singapore, between the 1930s and the 1950s

ARCHITECTURE IS THE SUM OF FORM, function, and spirit. Modern architectural form is always simple, rational, and functional, an expression of the “Spirit of the modern Age” (rational, contemporary, innovative, progressive). We could see modernity as a process of modernization, when the spirit of freedom, progress, and innovation flourishes.

TO DEFINE “MODERNISM” IN ASIA is rather problematic. Arguably, modernity existed in Southeast Asia ever since the establishment of international trading ports due to worldwide maritime trade and exchange, at a time when the spirit of free trade and innovation thrived. In cosmopolitan cities, new architectural typologies appeared with the fusion of various elements, materials, and technology, built by culturally mixed communities. Architectural shapes such as shop-houses, religious buildings, and palaces expressed a cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial and inventive spirit. This, we could call past modernity.

THE COLONIAL architects who inserted European “modern” architectural styles into Asian local contexts were working with a different perspective. The introduction of modern architecture during the 1920s and 1930s was often motivated by urban sanitation concerns, for the European population's benefit. Innovations such as the “tropical-colonial” or “tropical-indigenous” styles were created in different tropical Asian contexts to address new life-styles and local environmental constraints. The architecture, which was introduced in Asia by European architects and engineers during colonization, could be called recent-past modernity (fig. 1). Recent modernism in Asia, and specifically in Singapore, is closely related to the nationalist spirit of a country, which gained self-government status in 1959. The modernist style was applied then in a conscious attempt to break with the colonial legacy, and in a search for a national architectural identity, as the State Minister for National Development, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan recently expressed: “Building in the modern style was also a statement that we were breaking away from the old colonial society, which was riddled with inequality and vast disparities of wealth and living conditions. Architecture, often seen as a manifestation of a society’s values, thus mirrored that break from old values and the warm embrace of the new values and ideals of an independent and egalitarian Singapore”.2


The Public Works Department (PWD) can be traced back to 1883, when the first Superintendent of Public Works was appointed to build the infrastructure and public buildings for the newly developed modern Singapore. By the 1930s, the scope of public works had extended considerably, and finally it became a department of its own after Singapore became a separate British Crown colony. In April 1999, the PWD was renamed PWD Corporation Pte Ltd, and since July 2002, its name has changed again to CPG Corporation Pte Ltd.

THE PWD'S MAIN TASK was to design and manage Singapore’s urban infrastructures and public buildings (hospitals, schools, prison, airport, seaport, bridges, etc.). The best examples of modern style buildings were produced during Frank Dorrington Ward's time as PWD’s Chief Architect. The hospitals designed by the PWD during this period showed modest, rational, simple and sensitive responses to the tropical climate, such as long and shallow separate blocks to provide good natural ventilation and lighting, wide verandahs or broad roof overhangs (for example, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 1909, Woodbridge Hospital, c. 1920, Changi Hospital, 1934).

Fig. 2.Kallang Airport's main-building today
(now used as the People’s Association building)

KALLANG AIRPORT'S main building (currently used as the People’s Association building), built in 1937, is expressively modern and functional (fig. 2). This is Singapore’s first gateway to the world and towards the global modern aviation network. It is the metaphor of a contemporary airplane with its elevated cylindrical glass control tower centrally placed as the cockpit. The building clearly displays the new modern architectural language of functionalism, with exposed concrete, horizontal lines, transparent glazed walls, and streamlined curves.


The introduction of modern architecture in Singapore was done on a relatively large scale by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). SIT built the first large-scale public housing projects in Singapore, using modern materials such as reinforced concrete, with minimum decoration and rationalized forms, which allowed mass production and kept construction costs down. Simplicity, rationality, and beauty are the main characteristics featured in SIT designed apartments.

SIT was set up by the British colonial government in 1927 to deal with the problems concerning the urban modernization process: to improve the general physical environment, to widen existing roads, to cope with the growing numbers of rickshaws, trolleys, buses, electric trams and cars, to create open spaces, back lanes, modern sanitation and to develop public housing. During its 32 years of existence, 23,000 new housing units were built in the Chinatown and Tiong Bahru areas.

TIONG BAHRU was the first housing estate developed by the Singapore Improvement Trust. About 2000 units of three-to five-story apartment buildings were built between 1936 and 1954. Thirty blocks containing 931 units were built by the Trust in 1936, along the Tiong Poh Road and the Moh Guan Terrace of the Tiong Bahru area. Fifty blocks of apartments comprising 1040 units on the right side of Tiong Bahru Road were built in 1948. The one- to five-room dwelling units and mix-used units were laid out on a grid provided with generous green public open space. Clean and rational architectural façades featuring rounded balconies, thin horizontal slabs, and ventilation holes gave the place its unique modernist character. The public can walk along footpaths through the spacious backyards owned and maintained by the residents on the ground floor. The atmosphere within the housing complex is intimate and warm, which encourages residents to mingle outside their houses (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Low-rise SIT apartment building in Tiong Bahru

TIONG BAHRU ESTATE'S DESIGN bears some likeness with the design principles of the postwar New Towns in Britain: the emphasis on creating small neighborhoods and maximum privacy between individual homes, the need to promote health and to improve security thanks to open views and public surveillance. The block's design was also influenced by local architectural idioms, such as the Straits Settlements’ shop-house typology. The layout is based on a modified shop-house plan with a courtyard acting as an air/light well, a back lane and spiral staircases.

IN 1952, SIT, IN AN ATTEMPT TO DEAL with the overpopulation of Chinatown’s core area, built higher apartment buildings on a lot adjacent to Hong Lim Park. These four nine-story modern blocks are the first high-rise, high-density public housing scheme in postwar Singapore, proudly standing with a commanding view over the whole dilapidated Chinatown district. Like its predecessor in Tiong Bahru, the design features some modernist elements such as apartment-slab concrete, rounded balconies and predominantly horizontal lines. But the unique lifestyle and typology of Chinatown's shop-houses are maintained in the new apartments. The five-foot walkway turns into corridors that enable access to the individual dwelling units, the back lane is turned into balconies, and service spaces like the kitchen and toilets are placed at the rear end of the house/apartment. By stacking up the horizontal layout vertically, land use is intensified and interaction between dwellers is maintained. Vertical interaction between the apartments replaced the horizontal interaction on the street. Life was carried up from the street into the sky (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. High-rise SIT apartment building in Upper Pickering Street
(next to Hong Lim Park) in the process of demolition
(this picture was taken on May 25, 2003)

EFFORTS TO PRESERVE these housing estates are greatly challenged by demographic and economic changes. Most of the current residents are either senior citizens or foreign workers, while the original population has been moved out to better housing estates outside the old urban core. Function has generally shifted from mix-use dwellings to more capital-intensive commercial and business activities.

Parts of this important modern heritage are now awaiting demolition, but somehow, a group of apartments in Tiong Bahru has been set aside for conservation.


In March 1960, soon after Singapore gained self-government, the Housing Development Board (HDB) was established as a statutory body. It took over from SIT the pressing task of providing proper public housing for the entire population. It was considered the only realistic means of housing the masses and at the same time eradicating the inner city slums and unhealthy living conditions. In 1965, the HDB managed to build 53,777 dwelling units, and today over 85% of Singapore's population lives in HDB apartments, compared to only 9% in 1960. In 1964, a home ownership scheme was established, and in 1968, the Central Provident Fund allowed savings to be used for monthly repayments: as a result, in 1985, 76% of Singaporeans lived in apartments they owned.3 The Land Acquisition Act, set up in 1967, provides the HDB with the legal basis to acquire private lands for public housing or other development programs. Together with sensitive resettlement policies, this Act enabled HDB to clear slum areas smoothly and in their place, to build new and comfortable HDB apartments. Supplying the general population with modern apartments should give it a greater sense of stability and security, substantially improve the environment, and create political stability for a firm economic growth (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The early typology of HDB apartments in Holland Drive, built around the1970s, now awaiting demolition or redevelopment into a higher-rise higher-density apartment building (picture taken in 2002)

THE HDB APARTMENTS' DESIGN addresses some basic constraints in Singapore, such as land shortage, an expanding population and reasonable prices. The large-scale development of high-rise, high-density, low-cost, standardized constructions is the most logical solution. Typically, the HDB apartment is very functional, simple in shape and plan. It could be conceived as the realization of a simplified version of Le Corbusier’s dream of La Ville Radieuse. The orientation of dwelling blocks, position of courtyards and balconies, are carefully considered to achieve climatic responsive buildings.

The void space in every HDB block allows the free flow of pedestrians and nature, although it is does not quite resemble the Corbusian pilotis space. Small-scale social spaces are created within a cluster of several housing blocks, containing playgrounds and a senior citizen corner. Next on the grouping scale is the neighborhood center, consisting of small shops, markets, nursery schools, clinics, and other public facilities for about 6,000 residents. The size of a neighborhood has been reduced since the 1970s to increase the sense of community. Beyond the neighborhood group is the town center with bigger markets, supermarkets, banks, health centers, post offices, schools, and other community facilities. The district space standards in the HDB New Towns are quite high, as only around a third of the land is used for residential purposes, while the rest is dedicated to community support and service facilities (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. To give a sense of identity, a specially articulated housing-shopping HDB block in Holland Drive. Shops are located at ground level, while upper floors are for dwelling units

Several HDB New Towns, with a population of about 250,000 to 300,000, were built and planned as self-reliant cities with their own social, administration, commercial, and employment facilities. To break the repetitive monotony of type design and to give a certain sense of identity, the façade, rooftop, floor arrangements, and detailing of a group of buildings in a neighborhood are presented with a particular theme or articulation. This sense of identity and design innovation is currently being given more attention, especially in the latest re-development programs and new housing projects. Renovation of older housing estates means the demolition of some earlier blocks, such as the emergency one-room apartments of the 1960s. The government’s recent intention to increase Singapore's population up to six million has accelerated the demolition-and-rebuilding process, which provides existing neighborhoods with taller and higher density housing blocks. This means Singapore's earlier built heritage of modern mass housing typology has been decreasing very quickly.


Since the early 20th century, private architects and architectural firms erected many modern movement buildings in Singapore. Some of the buildings demonstrate a fervent modern movement style of simple, functional façades, designed primarily along horizontal lines; others are more eclectic, innovative and sensitive to tropical climate and themes.
Swan & Maclaren was a prominent firm. Examples of its well known buildings are the House Boat Office (fig. 7), at the Singapore River's mouth (1919), the quasi-Art Deco Kampong Kapor Methodist Church (1920), the hybrid Islamic Saracen Style Sultan Mosque at Kampong Glam (1924-1928), the Singapore Railway Station at Keppel Road (by D.S. Petrovitch, 1932), the Great Southern Hotel in Chinatown (1936), and the Novena Catholic Church at Thomson Road (1934).

Fig. 7. The Waterboat office by Swan & Maclaren(1919).
Today, the renovated building is a restaurant

UNTIL THE 1930S, all the architectural firms in Singapore were basically foreign, without any local architects. In 1958, just before self-government was granted, the first local architecture school was established as part of Singapore's Polytechnic. The first group of locally educated architects graduated in 1963. Before the school's creation, local architects were all graduates of architecture schools abroad.

Ho Kwong Yew is one of the first generation of foreign educated architects who returned and set up a practice in Singapore. Ho Kwong Yew obtained a structural engineer's degree and only later became a registered architect in Singapore. Thanks to his civil engineering background, his design was logical, sophisticated, but also artistic. He used new building technology and materials. He especially appreciated reinforced concrete, which is a fluid material and easy to mold, and therefore offered new possibilities of shapes. As a charismatic local architect, European and Chinese business contractors alike commissioned him for many projects. As the first local architect, he gained considerable support from local businessmen. His 1930s modern style houses are always straightforward in character and rationally proportioned, but also freely designed: they seem to reflect the new, liberal, optimistic attitudes towards life and the 1 930s entrepreneur spirit. The Japanese army bombed one of his masterpieces in 1942, the Haw Par Villa, designed for the famous tycoon Ow Boon Haw, and he himself was executed by the Japanese occupation army (fig. 8).

Fig. 8. A corner building by Ho Kwong Yew, in the Raffles Place area, in its recent state of dilapidation and now in the process of being renovated

ALFRED WONG is another of the first generation of foreign educated architects who returned to Singapore. One of the best examples of Alfred Wong’s modern movement buildings is the corner building at Outram Road (1956). The ground floor is dedicated to shops set behind a series of round columns, while apartments occupy the five upper stories, which sport concrete and metal sun-shading devices.

He also designed the National Theatre, on the slopes of Fort Canning Hill, ancient Singapore's highly symbolical and historical location. The theater was one of the great symbols of an emerging independent Singapore celebrating self-government status. The result of an architectural competition, this groundbreaking modernist building was erected with public funding in 1963. The spectacular structure of cantilevered roof and the open-air auditorium suggested the new nation's freedom and collective spirit. In 1984, the fate of this 3420 seats theater was determined when the government decided to demolish the building, due to structural and functional failings. It had become too hot and too noisy for the audience, and the structure was eemed unsafe. The demolition was carried out in June-August 1986 (fig. 9).

Fig. 9. National Theatre, built in 1963, demolished in 1986

ANOTHER PROMINENT Singapore modernist architect is William S.W. Lim. He was born in 1932 and graduated from the AA School in London, and from Harvard University. In 1960, with some former UK classmates, he formed the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership (MAC). During this period of great political and social changes, these young architects experimented with modernism, adapting it to local conditions and using it in their pursuit of a national architectural identity.

THE SINGAPORE CONFERENCE HALL (built in 1963-65) was the winning project of a competition held in 1962. The design concept was inspired by Paul Rudolph's service towers and Le Corbusier's Chandigarh roofs, and then altered to suit the local tropical conditions. Functions are evident in the overall building's external and internal shape. The main conference hall, with a 3,000 seat capacity, is prominently featured, towering above the spacious concourse ending with the exhibition hall and provided with foyer areas. The grand staircase to the upper public areas celebrates the act of public movement. It blends the typical language of modern architecture, such as the setback position, the cantilevered roof and terraces, with an expression of local identity by using vernacular construction materials such as timber for the walls and ceilings (fig. 10).

Fig. 10. The Singapore Conference Hall building in Shenton Way, after renovation, and re-used as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's home since 2001

In 1965, with other young architects and planners, Lim initiated a discussion group called the Singapore Planning and Urban Research (SPUR). The group later expanded to include other professionals from the private sector and academics from various disciplines. They were not always in agreement with the government's views and approaches towards urban developments. They discussed, examined and publicized many issues relating to architecture, planning and the urban environment and organized many seminars. SPUR issued two publications: SPUR 65-67 and SPUR 68-71.

AFTER MAC was disbanded in 1967, Design Partnership, a new firm, was established. Design Partnership (later known as DP Architects) prospered and produced many noteworthy modernist designs such as the People's Park Complex, the Golden Mile Complex and St Andrew's Junior College.

In 1967, the HDB's new Urban Redevelopment Department launched the Sale of Sites program. As a result, a 31-story building was erected in Chinatown to replace the dilapidated blocks of old shop-houses in the area. The podium block, built in 1970, welcomes shops and a large interior public space. The upper block, built in 1973, is used for offices and apartments. This is the first shopping center of its kind in Southeast Asia and the prototype of similar retail developments everywhere (fig. 11).

Fig. 11. The People’s Park Complex next to Chinatown

DURING THE MID 1970s, after more than a decade of practicing modernism, Lim came to the conclusion that modern architecture was critically “sick”, suffering from the fatal disease of “de-humanization” and was increasingly alienating. It was neither understood nor appreciated by the people it claimed to serve. He resigned from Design Partnership in 1981 and continues to redefine his direction in his new firm, William Lim Associates (WLA).
Contemporary Singapore is a showcase of the post-colonial economic miracle, with significant modern architecture buildings designed by famous international masters such as I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, Richard Meier, John Portman, Norman Foster, Kenzo Tange, and many more. The general planning principles of its built environment undoubtedly follow the CIAM doctrines for a modern city: Work, Life, Play, and Movement. The previously exposed explanation of Singapore’s past, recent-past, and recent modernism is only an introduction to a number of good cases and interesting protagonists’ contributions towards the development of modern architecture in Singapore.

As Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated at the modern Asian Architecture Network-2002 conference4 (mAAN) , that architecture has become the symbol of the pioneering spirit of the generation that built and developed modern Singapore. It is their legacy and the backdrop for two or more generations of Singaporean’s lives. It has formed part of their collective consciousness as a nation. Singapore, as well as most cities in Asia, changes rapidly. We are so used to change that we have lost our understanding and appreciation of what shapes a city. We are so used to change that we tend to forget the past very quickly. The steps which have recently been taken by Singapore to learn from past mistakes and failures, and then to get on with the process of identifying, evaluating, debating, and conserving modern urban and architectural heritages, should therefore be praised and fully supported.

JOHANNES WIDODO is a Senior Fellow at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo (1996), M.Arch. from KU-Leuven, Belgium (1988), and his Architectural Engineer degree from Parahyangan Catholic University, Indonesia (1984). He is a member of the ICOMOS Scientific Committee CIF (International Training Committee) and executive member of ICOMOS-Indonesia, and also a founder and core member of the mAAN (the modern Asian Architecture Network).

BRENDA YEOH AND LILY KONG (eds.), Portraits of Places – History, Community and Identity in Singapore, Singapore, Times Edition, 1995.

From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 – Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings & Times Media Pte. Ltd., 2000.

Modern Asian Architecture Network website at

NORMAN EDWARDS AND PETER KEYS, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Singapore, Times Books International, 1988.

ROMI KHOSLA, "Crashing Through Western Modernism Into the Asian Reality", Regionalism in Architecture (R. Powell ed.), Singapore, Concept Media-The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1985. Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group, Singapore, SPUR, 1965-67.

The Work of the Singapore Improvement Trust 1927-47, Singapore, SIT. WILLIAMLIM, "Public Housing and Community Development – The Singapore Experience", Mimar 7, Singapore, 1983.

1 mAAN Macau Declaration, Macau, July 26, 2001.

2 Speech by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, State Minister for National Development, at mAAN's 2nd International Conference: “Towards Modern Asian Architecture”, NUS, Singapore, September 4, 2002.

3 Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore – A Guide to Buildings, Street, Places, Singapore, Times Books International, 1988, pp. 543-544.

4 mAAN 2nd International Conference: “Towards Modern Asian Architecture”, NUS, Singapore, September 4, 2002.

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