The doors along the new five-foot walkway feature art deco-inspired fenestrations

Singapore (02 Dec): Temasek revives art deco-inspired shophouse as a cradle for social impact

A near-century-old, art deco-inspired shophouse on Orchard Road has recently been restored to its original architectural grandeur. Located a few doors from MacDonald House, the three-storey shophouse is owned by the Singapore Land Authority and leased to Temasek Trust, the philanthropic arm of Temasek Holdings.

Built in 1928 by a pair of wealthy Melaka-born businessmen named Ee Kong Guan and Chee Guan Chiang, the building was originally a townhouse with commercial space on the first floor and residential apartments above. Over the years, the property has served a variety of uses, including as a furniture shop, an eatery, and even a PMart department store. Its last tenant was fashion retailer This Fashion until the company exited the market in 2011.

Today, it has been rebranded as “Temasek Shophouse” and houses the headquarters of Temasek Trust, as well as some of the social impact companies it supports. One of them is Foreward Coffee, a café operator that provides employment opportunities for persons with special needs.

According to Ivy Koh, senior principal architect of Surbana Jurong Consultants, and the architect behind the restoration, “[Temasek Trust] wanted this to be a space where they could engage the community, and it was also a strategic move to centralise their offices. The idea was to bring their philanthropic entities together and have a space to host outreach activities.”

Conserving heritage

Despite similarities to the colour palette of colonial black-and-white bungalows, the architecture of Temasek Shophouse was actually built in the neoclassical style with some art deco influences, she says. For example, the frontage is framed by the original, sleek Corinthian columns, and the balustrades along the streetfacing verandahs are also original.

Other pieces of the original architecture were uncovered during renovation, which took about 1½ years to be completed. Long-hidden ceiling cornices were also discovered when the false ceiling on the first floor mezzanine was taken down.

Koh and her architectural team certainly had their work cut out for them when Temasek took over the building in 2017. It had not been occupied for a long time and there were many dark and low spaces. Six large columns interrupted the first-floor atrium and bulky internal elevators from the 1980s also limited the space. The centre void was smaller because escalators ringed each floor. Meanwhile, the back of the shophouse facing Handy Road had a rear boundary wall with a zinc roof, and the area was used as a storage space for the department store.

“We opened up all of the front-facing areas and brought more natural light into the first floor mezzanine. Both ends of the shophouse are now fitted with glass doors to allow natural light to filter through. We emphasised creating spaces with natural light and ventilation whenever possible and, in doing so, we bring more visibility between the indoor and outdoor space,” says Koh.

Today, the first-floor atrium features a multilevel green wall with real plants that were curated by local urban greenery company Greenology. The feature is the main focal point that characterises the grand entrance space yet creates a warm and cosy atmosphere.

But the biggest change must be the lush garden that has sprung up in place of the dingy rear court. The garden features several fruit-bearing trees such as banana and ciku, as well as a “bee hotel” for tired honey bees to rest before carrying on their journey.

This urban greenery has helped recover the form and space of the original architecture, and also reveals the full geometry of a pair of towering spiral staircases and art deco-inspired windows and verandahs. According to research by local historian Julian Davidson, they are likely the first spiral staircases built for a shophouse in Singapore. They were used to collect night soil from the residences without disturbing the occupants.

Balancing function and aesthetics

Most of the floor space in the shophouse is set aside for office space. Some of the tenants include the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth; Stewardship Asia Centre, ABC World Asia and Miniwiz.

The first floor and the garden are the only areas open to the public. The second floor features meeting rooms and lounges, while the third floor comprises offices. The previously inaccessible roof terrace now has a new boardroom and the floor-to-ceiling windows can be opened up to extend the space into an open air area. The unblocked view is dominated by the lush vegetation at nearby Fort Canning Park.

Features such as the green wall and garden were designed to let in more natural light and complement the biophilic design of the interior spaces. The design concept seeks to integrate natural elements such as greenery and sunlight with the built environment. According to Koh, “Workspace design today is moving towards more collaborative and open spaces. Sustainability also includes introducing biophilic design into the workspace.”

To maximise the limited space in the shophouse, many rooms have flexible configurations. For example, a pair of meeting rooms on the first floor has been turned into temporary gallery spaces this month, while the furniture in the boardroom can be moved around to turn it into a breakout space.

“We have achieved a good balance in the floor space here, since every area can be used as a functional space because of their flexible uses. Given the limited footprint we have here, I think this is the best balance we could have achieved,” says Koh.

Timeless art deco style

“When we were designing Temasek Shophouse, we wanted to create something timeless yet modern and forward-looking. It also shouldn’t be too detached from the original neo-classical architecture because it has an art deco influence we had to retain. While the art deco movement has evolved a fair bit, it’s still a timeless style,” says Koh.

The style is also in line with the mission of Temasek Trust, she explains, “Art deco represents a forward-looking and optimistic era. Temasek’s vision for this space is to be a cradle for social impact in Singapore and to share it with the community by being in the heart of the city,” Koh says. She adds that the new adaptation is about making the shophouse purposeful for the next 100 years, and the new design is befitting of its next phase of life.

Today, Temasek Shophouse is a majesticlooking building that contributes to the streetscape along the lower stretch of Orchard Road. The conservation efforts were recognised when URA conferred it the Award for Restoration at the 2019 Architectural Heritage Awards. The judges cited the building as a showcase of how Singapore’s built heritage can work alongside and fit into a modern 21st century agenda.

“We are fortunate that this shophouse is fairly open to the public. Many shophouses in Singapore belong to home owners, and people don’t have the opportunity to step into an old shophouse to appreciate the architecture and learn about the history behind it,” says Koh.