Tag Archives: Architecture

Making sense of most things

Having moved to Seoul only 4 months ago, I am literally a tourist in my own backyard. Most things I see, hear, feel and occasionally taste is new, different and foreign.

A change like this is exciting no doubt, but it can be overwhelming too. Imagine someone pitching 90 mph balls of new information at you, nonstop, everyday, right from the moment you got off the flight. The only problem is you have two hands to do all the catching!

And you want to catch as many balls as you can, as fast as you can because our first instinct when we travel to a new place is to try and make sense of the environment we are in, even before we start comparing it with the one we just left, praising it, deriding it or adapting to it.

Seocho-gu

Seocho-gu neighbourhood, Seoul

Being a sketch artist, drawing constantly is how I make sense of my environment. Spending time at any particular place, observing it in a way I would never have if I was walking past, and documenting it on a piece of paper is how I catch those metaphorical balls of information and process them.

Like this random scene I sketched the other day of my neighbourhood in Seocho-gu, a district south of the Han river and found that in the shadow of glamorous looking high rises lining the main thoroughfares, there are these two/three storied honky-tonk buildings in the back lanes, covered with bold coloured signages, housing barbecue joints, fried chicken and beer stalls, underground bars, design studios, themed cafes, bubble tea stores, E-Marts and 7 x 11s, beauty parlours, English learning centres and an automobile repair shop, even.

Seocho-gu sketch

Pen and ink drawing of a random street in Seocho-gu, Seoul

And crisscrossing the scenery or most sceneries in this city are these ubiquitous overhead power lines flying out in every direction from utility poles.

Usually after the initial curiosity of people upon seeing a foreigner sitting on a foldable stool in the street and doodling in her sketchbook has been met, I am left alone. As time passes, the ripple I had caused by being there, starts to smoothen. The novelty wears off. I am offered a glass of water here and a thumbs up there. Furrowed eyebrows are replaced with nods and smiles. Conversations are initiated and had using hand gestures and monosyllabic English. Soon enough someone clicks a picture.

And just like that I become a part of the scene I was trying to make sense of.

Isn’t that amazing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tramping in Tiong Bahru

Countless Singaporean friends have adjudged Tiong Bahru as one of Singapore’s most sought after residential addresses. And why not. Nowhere on the island have I seen an entire estate lined with lipstick palm fringed, pristine white apartment blocks with bright red borders, bearing luscious curved balconies and rear back alley spiral staircases reminiscent of medieval Europe.

I’m no Art Deco fan, but the more I visit Tiong Bahru, the more mindful and appreciative I become of its architectural elements. The clean aerodynamic curves and rounded corners, the flat roofs, subdued base colours with bright red trimmings, horizontal bands of windows, occasional inclusion of nautical elements such as porthole windows and steel railings, and the overall simple and functional lines of these pre war apartments designed in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ style (a late development of Art Deco movement) is growing on me.

Inspired by technology and speed, buildings were designed to look like automobiles, trains, ocean liners and aeroplanes! At a heritage walk in the estate our guide pointed out that Block 81 and 82 along Tiong Poh Road were known to early residents as ‘aeroplane flats’ because they appeared like the wings of an aeroplane. It still seems hopelessly abstract to me but I’m getting there.

A typical Tiong Bahru Apartment

A unique design feature of Tiong Bahru’s flats is the use of unpainted brick work on some balconies, laid out in patterns of darker and lighter bricks.

There was another wave of construction after the war. Between 1948 and 1954 the several blocks of four storey apartments erected along Seng Poh Road towards Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road were designed differently, i.e in the ‘International Style’. For the untrained eye it maybe hard to tell the difference as this style was also influenced by machine aesthetics but favoured heavy use of concrete, steel and glass. Also the apartments were much boxier than their pre war counterparts.

What more, these modernist designs were tailored to suit the tropics! Such as the five-foot way, a distinctive architectural element of the shophouses (introduced by Raffles) – setting back the ground floor entrance by five feet allowing pedestrians to walk from one end of the block to another in sheltered comfort – was adapted in Tiong Bahru flats.

The warren of well maintained back lanes that you see behind the apartments meant for ‘scavenging (access for night soil carriers) and drainage’; the shophouse design – the ground floor used for business and the upper floors for lodging; spiral staircases at the rear for providing alternative access and fire escape for dwellers; kitchen airwell for allowing fumes to escape naturally are other features that were infused by the architects, reflecting their acuity.

Monkey God Temple on Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru

The Tiong Bahru Monkey God Temple was founded in 1920 and moved here to its current location at 44 Eng Hoon Street in 1938.

Whether you’re a first time visitor trying to wrap your mind around these unique residential units and their provenance or a wannabe resident, two things that’ll always jump out at you are how uniquely quaint, neighbourly and laid back this part of Singapore feels with its streamlined architecture, open spaces of grass plots and playgrounds served by footpaths, local eateries, heritage temples and mom and pop stores; and in this shadow of the past, how palpably hipster it is becoming – talk about nifty bakeries, artisan cafes, indie bookstores, upscale restaurants, salons, boutiques, speciality shops, Tiong Bahru has it all.

For a former 19th century burial ground to have evolved into what it is today, it’s pretty commendable, wouldn’t you agree? ‘Tiong’ means ‘to die’ in Hokkien and ‘Bahru’ is Malay for ‘new’. ‘Tiong Bahru’ was used by locals to refer to a ‘new cemetery’ at this very site. Who knew! Right beside the new, was an old cemetery called Tiong Lama, replaced by what is now the Singapore General Hospital by Outram Road. In fact, it was the relocation of the hospital (from Kandang Kerbau’s swampy grounds) in 1882 to this highly elevated site, that played the role of a catalyst in Tiong Bahru’s transformation.

The hospital’s presence encouraged settlement in the area for the next 40 years. A village of wooden and attap houses called Kampong Tiong Bahru flourished to such an extent that by 1920s, the Municipal health authorities felt that the area around the hospital was becoming insanitary.

P.S Cafe Petit - One of TB's most beautiful cafes

P.S Cafe Petit – One of TB’s most beautiful cafes. We had Truffle fries, Caesar salad, Spaghetti Bolognese, Mocha and ‘Calming Tea’.

The Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail brochure carries an excerpt from The Straits Times of 26th June 1930, describing the area during this time :”..the land was practically all evil smelling swamp, several feet below sea level, with a dirty-looking reek running through it to the Singapore River. There were three fairly large hills on the far side from the main roads, and on these were numerous hovels, filthy and insanitary, occupied by squatters of the pig-breeding and coolie types.

In 1925, upon Colonial Secretary’s request to propose an improvement scheme for the area, Dr. P.S Hunter, the Municipal Health Officer asked the Municipal Corporation to take action. Singapore Improvement Trust was established in 1920 initially as a department of Municipal Corporation and later after it became a separate entity in 1927, was approved a special budget of $260,000 to acquire 70 acres of land in Tiong Bahru, with the aim of turning the insanitary swamp into a housing estate, with the aim of relieving congestion in Chinatown.

However things didn’t go as planned. Rents in Tiong Bahru, averaging between $18 to $25 for an apartment was unfordable for the mass residents in Chinatown, who were paying between $3 – $6 a month as rent. Instead the estate attracted the affluent and professional class. By 1939, Tiong Bahru became a haven for civil servants, businessmen and Europeans who appreciated the neighbourhood’s proximity to town and modern amenities like flushing toilets!

As per the brochure, “Today the 2042 flats form the heart of Tiong Bahru and are one of the best preserved low-rise Art Deco style mass public housing projects in the world.” In 2003, the URA gazetted 20 blocks of pre-war flats for conservation. Since then the area has attracted new residents and frequent visitors.

I am undoubtedly one of them.

 

 

 

 

He came, He sat, He left

Purvis Street

This row of colonial shophouses on Purvis Street was sketched from the Killiney Kopitiam

Everytime I visit the Central Library in Bugis, I drop by Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street for a cup of coffee or lime juice. Mostly lime juice, and sometimes french toast with butter and kaya. Parked on Killiney’s functional chairs and tables set on the five-foot way, for less than 2 dollars, I get to brush up on my dolce far niente while enjoying an unobstructed view of a narrow street hosting rows of colonial shophouses on either side. If you discount the fact that these conserved historical relics work as hotels, swanky restaurants, bars, and boutiques in the current scenario (instead of being obliterated, I’d say that’s a good compromise), and just focus on their restored exteriors displaying Chinese Corinthian style* – the facade bejewelled with Chinese symbolic features such as vases of peonies, fire breathing dragons, bat-headed keystones;  colourful louvred windows with fanlight and the wide arched entrances  – you’d know that they’re still a great sight to rest your eyes on in this uniform black and white concrete and steel jungle.

So I come here often. Mostly during late afternoons when we  – the retirees and I – can have the kopitiam to ourselves. From time to time, cheerful flocks of students and suave, important looking  people in dark suits and starched dresses that don’t seem to wrinkle, swing by like migratory birds – always in limbo, sitting alone in a corner, minding their business and never staying too long. Untill the other day, the very subset of this group, approached me from behind in a deep baritone voice – Is somebody sitting there? ‘There’ meant the empty chair opposite me. I was knee deep into this sketch and just waved my hand saying no, without even looking.

‘Well, can I sit there?”. An early 40-ish man of athletic build, with a tapered face sporting long sideburns, slick hair combed back and set in place with hair gel, dressed in a dapper grey pinstriped suit and thick framed glasses was standing in front of me, holding a can of chilled Tiger beer and a pack of cigarettes. I may have mumbled an indecisive ‘sure, go ahead’ out of politeness, because the next moment he was shuffling himself opposite me and putting his knick-knacks on my table. Had he approached few minutes early, this guy – probably on a gluten-free, carb-less, high-protein diet that requires him to eat exactly five and a half times a day in precariously measured quantities – would’ve witnessed me hogging my greasy french toast with a cube of butter in quick mouthfuls. Glad I saved him that image. I moved the empty plate and cutlery by an inch to make room for him, or may have just nudged the plate to give an illusion of my intent as well as re-iterate who’s the first occupant and who’s the ‘tag along’.

He lit his cigarette and was quiet. He may have been staring at my sketch but I didn’t look. I kept drawing thin lines, thick lines, curvy lines, wavy lines, squiggly lines but I didn’t look. I kept looking at the shophouses right past him, across the street for reference but not at him. He cleared his throat and took a long swig of the beer. My peripheral vision figured him shifting in his chair, feeding spiral cigarette smoke to the small potted plants on the steps. I casually swept my eyes across the kopitiam’s corridor to check if the other chairs were taken. None was. Well, what do you want? I screamed. In my mind.

More wavy lines, curvy lines, squiggly lines, this time with greater diligence and feigned honesty. I was like a mean drawing machine working towards an irresistible piece-de-resistance that would somewhow prevent apocalypse.  The weight of the world was on my shoulders. How could I deflect? I dug deeper into my sketchbook and didn’t look up.

He said, ‘Hello’. So I looked up. He was turned away from me, and was balancing his phone between his ear and the shoulder, while his hands caressed the cigarette and thecan of beer. What followed was not one but several calls, one after the other- advising, pleading, negotiating, sweet-talking existing and potential clients on investment opportunities with the bank that employed him and probably helped finance the Armani frames balanced on the bridge of his nose. Talks of floating and fixed interest rates, and millions of dollars escaped his lips in casual banter.  ‘Have a great weekend’. I looked up again. He was still on the phone.

Then just as discreetly as he’d come, he left. I’ve never witnessed anyone leave like that. Effortlessly. Without the sound of footsteps. Like a frightened gazelle. If vanishing into thin air seems hyperbolic, I’d say he glided into thin air – the posture of getting up, adjusting the body and taking the first step to walk off merged into one single mellifluous move, almost like a nubile dancer.

He even took away the acerbic smell of his perfume mingled with the cigarette smoke that I loathed in the beginning but was beginning to disregard.

 

* I gathered more information about this particular architectural style ( commonly mistaken for Straits Baroque architecture) seen on Purvis street, from an exhaustive exhibition on Shophouses at the URA centre : “Interestingly the working drawings for these twin arcades of two storey shophouses which were designed by Almeida & Kassim for local worthy Seah Peck Seah in 1902, gives no indication as to how the facade was to be ornamented. The elevations simply defined the principle dimensions of the building, but the detailing was left completely blank – no cornice, no architrave (the moulding round the windows), no secondary pilasters, no fluting, not even a keystone, let alone one with a bat’s head on it! Evidently, the style and choice of imagery was left completely to the artisans who carried out the work, who, in this instance, have opted for a remarkable synthesis of Chinese and Baroque aesthetic sensibilities to arrive at a very singular Chinese ‘Corinthian’ style of ornamentation. “

Guess who was in Singapore?

Stephen Wiltshire!

Or the human camera as people like to call him. On the occasion of Singapore’s 50th birthday next year, this British savant, also an architectural illustrator was invited to work his magic, a.k.a sketch the Singapore panorama on a 4m x 1m sheet of paper over 5 days, from memory – which was made during an hour long helicopter ride viewing the skyline.

This intensive drawing didn’t happen from the comfort of a private studio but live in front of an overwhelming audience of veteran fans –  admirers who knew of his work and came to support, on the spot converts – those who read about him in the newspaper and came to douse their curiosity and lastly clueless saunterers – flittering shoppers (the event was held at the atrium of a shopping mall on orchard road) who came to check out what the fuss was about, lingered and took abundant photos.

Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed with Autism when he was just three.

Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed with Autism when he was just three and is known for his ability to draw astounding cityscapes from memory

Stephen was propped up on a dais from 10am till 5pm, working nonchalantly with music plugged into his ears, while the crowd hung on every stroke that he pulled out from that brilliant mind of his. With hundreds of eyes watching anybody would deflect, but not this guy. He couldn’t have cared less – zilch performance anxiety. He was in the zone, doing his thing without a worry in the world. Right in front of the dais were a set of chairs where his sister was seated along with art school students who were sketching Stephen sketching Singapore. Photographers were tirelessly clicking the same static subjects from various angles – the students, Stephen, and the crowd which was huddled right outside the cordoned off area, containing the dais and the chairs.

The Human Camera

The Human Camera

About quarter to 5, Stephen would check his watch and start wrapping up. He would then get off from his bar stool, fresh as a daisy, wave to the crowd that would start clapping and hooting, even to those cheering from the floors above and then sign autographs and smile for selfies.

I am not good at battling crowds, so I didn’t indulge in either. Instead, I took pleasure in the second best – observing the ecstasy on the face of every admirer who had his or her brief moment with the world’s ‘human camera’. It was quite the thing!