Architecture Focus: The Colonial Period

Architecture Focus: The Colonial Period

Everything in Singapore is fast, sleek and modern. Buildings are torn down and built up so quickly that half a year’s time is quite enough to render certain neighbourhoods unrecognisable upon your return. Thankfully, many historic buildings in Singapore have been preserved and are beautifully maintained through the conservation efforts of the National Heritage Board.  

The most iconic buildings in Singapore can largely be classified into two types: the pre-war colonial period architecture, and post-war period architecture. In 1822, a basic infrastructure plan for the country was envisioned by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. In this city plan, specific areas and enclaves were dedicated to various branches of government and local communities, and specific layouts and construction requirements were set out for buildings and amenities.

Today, you would still be able to see numerous features of this city plan. Raffles had left a wide swath of land from Fort Canning to the Singapore River leading out to the sea for exclusive government use. The land from the southwest bank of the Singapore River to the eastern seafront was reserved for Europeans and European merchants. Land extending southwest from the Singapore River was allocated to the Chinese community, and land upstream of the Singapore River was intended for the Indian community. As for Malays, the area near the sultan’s residence at was allocated to them due to the area’s pre-existing popularity with the community.

There are some splendid examples of colonial architecture that are definitely worth seeing when one’s in Singapore. Some buildings may have been converted for other uses, but rest assured that the external facades and much of the interiors of these buildings have been beautifully preserved.

  • Cathedral of the Good Shepherd

The oldest Catholic cathedral in Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is also the seat of the local Roman Catholic archbishop. The construction of this grand building began as early as 1843 and took 5 years to be completed. Approximately 130 years later, the grandeur and significant historical impact of this building led it to be one of the earliest buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument in 1973.

  • Sri Mariamman Temple

In the early 1800s, the British colonial government allocated space for the Sri Mariamman Temple at Telok Ayer Street—a location shared by Chinese and Muslim communities for their respective places of worship. However, as Telok Ayer lay close to the sea and Hindu religious rites tended to require the use of fresh water, a more convenient location had to be found. After much deliberation, the authorities granted permission for the use of South Bridge Road as a place to construct Sri Mariamman Temple in 1827. Till today, it remains one of Singapore’s most visited attractions.  

  • Lau Pa Sat

Formerly known as the Telok Ayer Market, the market was much smaller than it is today and constructed simply of timber and attap. Back then, it extended out over the sea, and was much exposed to the elements. As a result, the building was frequently in need of maintenance, and was later replaced by an unusual octagonal building in 1836 when demand called for a larger marketspace. Though the market had to be torn down and rebuilt in its current Collyer Quay location, it preserved many aspects of the original octagonal building. Today, this market is one of the most visited places in Singapore. Visitors flock to it for both for its excellent hawker cuisine as well as to appreciate its historical significance and architectural design—mainly the building’s octagonal shape and Victorian cast-iron support beams.

  • Raffles Hotel

Arguably the most well-known of the grand hotels here, Raffles Hotel was named after the country’s founder and is still a favourite haunt of many visitors to Singapore today. It was first built in 1887 as a beach house, converted into a hotel, and then used as a boarding school for the students of Raffles Institution. In 1887, the building was leased by the Sarkies Brothers, and converted into a high-end hotel. The hotel is most famous for Long Bar—a beloved haunt of famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham—where the famous Singapore Sling was created.

  • Old Supreme Court Building

The last building to be constructed in the classical architectural style during the colonial period, the former courthouse was constructed between 1937 and 1939, and bears many classical features such as Corinthian columns, a circular dome, a pediment sculpture, and so on. In this building, you’d find a foundation stone laid by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Whitelegge, which rests just above a time capsule that is set to be opened in the year 3000. Today, criminal cases are heard over at the adjacent Supreme Court building, and the Old Supreme Court Building has been converted—along with the old City Hall—into the National Gallery of Singapore where anyone may enjoy viewing a wide collection of Southeast Asian art.

15 Jan 2024
Singapore Expats