Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Chinese Baroque - beautiful shop houses in Singapore's Petain Road.

Shophouses can be found in most parts of the far east. Consisting of ground floor business premises with living quarters at the rear and above, they were normally built in rows or terraces. The ground floor is set back from the road with the upper story projecting forward, supported by columns to form a covered walkway. Earlier this year I was able to visit several shop houses in Singapore including a very special terrace in Petain Road, close to the Little India district.

The 18 terraced houses that form numbers 10-44 Petain Road were commissioned by businessman Mohamed bin Haji Omar and designed by British architect E.V. Miller who submitted plans to the Municipal Building Surveyor's department in May 1930. Haji Omar was also responsible for commissioning shophouses in nearby Jalan Basar whilst Miller usually worked in the completely different Bauhaus style. Until the twentieth century this area was semi-rural with many vegetable gardens. Streets were laid out after the First World War and named for people and places associated with the conflict. Haji Omar's development was realised in what became known as Petain Road, named for the French General who had been a war hero from 1914-18, but who became a notorious collaborator with Germany during the Second World War. Don't let the put you off. The terrace is one of Singapore's most beautiful and best preserved 1930's developments to survive until today. 

The terrace conforms to the usual shophouse design, including having a "five foot way" running its entire length. This is a sheltered walkway with a minimum width of five feet, designed to afford shelter from the rain and the extreme heat for residents, workers and visitors. Most of the terra cotta tiles covering the floor of the walkway are original.

The exteriors are covered in beautiful pastel coloured glazed ceramic tiles, imported from Europe and Japan and illustrated with peonies, tulips, chrysanthemums, birds and other creatures. The tiling continues to first floor level where pilasters decorated with floral motifs are complemented by the green and cream shutters. The terrace sustained some damage during the Second World War and in 1943 number 10 was the subject of an application for permission to carry out repairs. This time the plans were submitted by local architect Kwan Yow Luen and the occupying Japanese authorities granted permission to carry out the works. Luen was also responsible for designing several shophouses including in nearby Balestier Road. Over the following decades, the houses deteriorated until in 1979 there was a proposal to demolish the lot. Fortunately this did not happen and instead significant restoration was undertaken including replacing the many tiles that had been lost with replicas imported from Vietnam.

Today the terrace overlooks a pleasant green space and attracts many tourists, students and devotees of architecture who wish to see one of the best remaining examples of this style sometimes referred to as Chinese Baroque. There is an excellent book about Singapore's shop houses - Singapore Shophouse by Julia Davison, available to purchase online or from the National Museum.

You might also like - Picture Post 53 Singapore's Art Deco Gem - The Cathay Cinema and Tiong Bahru - Singapore's Modernist Housing Estate

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