Great Read

Researching through through the old newspaper on Shophouses, I came about one article I like to share with you. In a New Nation paper in 1972.

HOW THE OLD SHOPHOUSES GOT THEIR STYLES.

BY BETTY  L KHOO

Singapore ‘s old shophouses, which more than any skyscraper give the city its colour and character, have been hailed as a unique blend of classical European and Chinese architecture.

The European elements are a bizarre but charming throwback to the glorious temples of ancient Greece and Rome.

And, the Chinese elements – gabled walls and Chinese tiles among others- are reminiscent of the temples and houses of southern China.

The curious and fascinating mixture of architectural styles came about when local architects executed their interpretation of the Palladian style which was sweeping through Europe at the time.

HODGE-PODGE

And ,when they added on the Chinese features , the resultant product of their creativity , was an extraordinary hodge-podge.

None of the famous English architects here civil or municipal appear to have been associated in designing our shophouses.

Men like G.D Coleman; D L McSwiney , lieutenant Colonel Ronald Macpherson and Major J.F A. Mcnair were only known for the fine Palladian styled public buildings they erected and some of the fine colonial homes here.

The Paladdian styled, which is a revival of Greco-Roman architecture originated in Italy  the 16th Century.

The style with its soaring columns and open porticos took Europe by storm and kept its hold on European architecture till the late 19th century.

But if Palladian could be said by architects such as Fletcher to have “entered the bloodstream of English architecture at its lowest level variously producing charming, bizzare or crude-effects,” the product in Britian’s colonies must be an even more bastard form.

The most noted exponent of the Palladian school was G. D. Coleman, a civil architect , later the superintendent of public works and land surveyor.

He did not slavishly copy, and graft on the classical style. He adapted it to tropical climatic condition.

He develop what is known as the colonial classic style and the characteristics features of this are wide verandah and louvred windows designed to ward off glare and rain.

Though Mr Coleman and his fellow architects do not appear to have designed shophouses, they undoubtedly influenced the local Chinese and Eurasian architects who did.

The oldest existing houses were built about 100 years ago. They can be found in Telok Ayer-Amoy Street area- but are a far cry from what they looked like in their heydsys as the town-houses of the rich Straits Chinese.

None of those built before then seem to have survived.But one can get an idea of what they looked like from their proto types in Malacca’s Heeren Street.

Those were built around 1860s and are more Chinese characted than those built in later years.

The typically Chinese features are the gable walls, and the great depths of the houses- they had three air wells.

DECORATED

Shophouses of a later period , however, have facades somewhat remotely resembling Regency architectural styles.

Their facaded are decorated with simple Greek Doric pilasters ( half columns) and architraves. Some also have ornate Roman Corinthian capitals ( the decoration on top of pallisters).

But these are, according to purists, thoroughly debased and are described as “Chinese Corinthian.”

The Chinese element on the façade is mainly in the granite corbels supporting the overhang above the footway, the base and plinth of piers ( pillars ) in solid carved granite and Chinese tiles covering the roof.

Typically Chinese also are the freizes over footway piers. They are usually ardorned with colored ceramic pieces of peacock and flowers.

One of the most striking Chinese features is the rounded ends of the gable walls with the anchor symbol.

European architecture of the classical revival period has been described by some modern architects as pretentious, cluttered and fussy.

So the effect of the Chinese architectural features superimposed on the European ones have produced in pur old shophouses, a façade that is wild and incongruous yet quaint and full of charm and character.

Around the 1920s the Baraque tendency must have caught the fancy of local architects, as the shophouses of this vintage are particularly ornate.

Most of these Chinese Baroque houses are to be found in the Jalan Besar, Koon Seng Road and Balestier Road areas.

Many of these terraced houses are till residential and they are not only well cared for but their owners have also indulged their fancy for bright paint jobs.

The effect is perhaps slightly vulgar, but there is charm in its gay abandon- and colour madness.

ROOFS

The houses which have Baroque touch also have a few Chinese features.

They still feature the Pintu Pagar ( long door with a smaller carved door in front ) but the design and craftsmanship is largely of a rather poor quality.

Sometimes the overhang was still used but the corbels were less elaborately carved. And the roofs French tiles of the half round Chinese or Malacca tiles were used.

This Palladian – Chinese style, with and without the more flamboyant Baroque effects persisted until the late 1920s.

FACELESS

The modern shophouses built thereafter became more and more featureless.

Few mourn the passing of the old style or appreciate the architectural gems we have inherited.This is perhaps many of the shophouses are in such a dirty, dilapidated  state.

It is astonishing what a fresh coat of lime wash in a well co-ordinated colour scheme can do.

But it is sad that some- in quest of a new modern façade- have defaced the old.

Still, in spite of this and urban renewal’s wrecking crews, they are many streets of old shophouses left to preserve Singapore ‘s colour and character

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