I am enamoured with Singapore’s shop houses. It’s official. These picturesque palimpsests of the past have been recorded in my sketchbook so many times that I can draw them to a tee even if someone blindfolded me and trussed me up in a cupboard.
To the untrained eye, most shophouses may look alike, but if you’re the curious and observant kind, you’d know that’s hardly the case. Their purpose as residential and commercial establishments may have remained unaltered, but the architecture of these two, sometimes three storied narrow facade terrace houses continuously evolved from the 1840s to 1960s, when they monopolised the cityscape of Singapore.
Pre 20th century shophouses were functional and austere – low two storey buildings with one or two louvered windows with hardly any embellishment on the facade. Chinese-Baroque style from 1900 to 1940s, saw extensive use of decorative mouldings, pilasters, carved wood-work and imported glazed tiles on the facade, representing the fusion of Eastern and Western architectural styles and giving great aesthetic pleasure even today when you look at their refurbished selves. Moving forward, heavily ornamental gave way to simplified and streamlined.
Designers and builders began combining ornately carved transoms and colourful tiles with Art Deco elements such as cross-braced glass window panels and geometric balustrade designs, finally joining the Art Decco bandwagon in 1930s and continuing till the 60s. Stepped pediment with a flag post is a typical giveaway of this stye. Modern shophouses of 1950 – 60s, were plain and unadorned except for a concrete fin air vent perhaps, thus coming full circle in terms of design simplicity.
All this may seem very textual, but what thrills me is to be able to catch these nuances of evolution when I am out and about in the city, running errands, going to the library, working at a cafe or sketching. Especially, sketching. Tracing this potpourri of personal taste, temperament and lifestyle of the residents of yesteryears, sometimes on a single street feels like time travel. Every single time.