Singapore’s top ten National Monuments
Jurong Town Hall was made a national monument in 2015. It is a symbol of the rapid industrialisation of the area and a fine example of Brutalist architecture. (Photo: National Heritage Board)

Singapore’s top ten National Monuments

It has been 50 years since Singapore established the Preservation of Monuments Act. To mark this golden jubilee, dubbed PSM50, there is a free exhibition at the National Museum until 2 Jan, which traces the nation’s journey from knocking down shophouses in haste to saving old buildings from development and designating the finest examples as National Monuments.

The exhibition showcases all 73 designated monuments by means of 3D stereographic photos, drone aerial videography and a plethora of digital initiatives – including a 360-degree illustration of Telok Ayer Street and a fully immersive Virtual Reality wander around the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The ethos at NHB these days is not to preserve sites in splendid isolation but rather to open them up as far as possible to the general public. “Architectural monuments have increasingly become a significant part of the everyday lives of Singaporeans,” observes founder of Forum Architects, Tan Kok Hiang, who serves as chairman of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments Advisory Board at the NHB.

“A good number of these monuments, such as the former City Hall, the former Supreme Court, and the former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, allow for public access and participation. Very much in the public domain is the recently gazetted 73rd monument (the Singapore River Bridges) as well as the soon-to-be gazetted Padang.”

Because the Padang is an area rather than a building, Parliament broadened the legal definition on 2 Nov, and it will be interesting to see what other open spaces might be gazetted in the future. The green corridor along what used to be the railway line from Keppel Road to Johor Bahru springs to mind.

With that, here are The A List’s Top 10 quirkiest and most interesting national monuments.

1. Former Cathay Building (now The Cathay)

The Art Deco façade fronting the modern glass architecture of The Cathay is the remnant of what used to be Malaya’s tallest building. Sixteen storeys high, it was the first skyscraper and the first air-conditioned cinema in Singapore when it opened in October 1939. Less than two-and-a-half-years later the British were instructed to fly a Japanese flag and a white flag at the top of the Cathay Building for 10 minutes as one of the conditions of surrender. During the dark years of occupation (1942–1945) the Japanese military would publicly display the severed heads of looters and other so-called criminals outside the building to instil fear in the populace.

2. Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator

This neoclassical gem is the oldest Christian church in Singapore. It was consecrated in 1835 and was a parish of the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox denomination. The last parish priest left in the late 1930s as the Armenian population in Singapore dwindled, and it was designated as a national monument in 1973. The building is in the Palladian style with a focus on classical forms, symmetry and harmonious proportion, and the memorial garden in which it sits is an oasis of tranquillity on busy Hill Street.

3. Jurong Town Hall

Perched on a hill overlooking Jurong estate, Jurong Town Hall is emblematic of Jurong’s rapid transformation after independence from a swampy backwater to Singapore’s first and largest industrial estate. This is a fine example of the Brutalist architecture that emerged in Europe in the 1950s amid post-war reconstruction. Brutalist buildings are characterised by their massive, monolithic appearances, complex geometric styles and minimalist constructions that dispense with decorative elements and use poured concrete on a grand scale. Jurong Town Hall comprises two elongated parallel blocks connected by bridges in an H-shaped plan. It is reminiscent of a ship, with a 50-metre-high digital clock tower serving as the mast. The top floors of the building taper inwards to give the building its distinctive shape and provide shade from the sun.

4. Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (now Singapore Conference Hall)

Built in the early 1960s on Shenton Way to house the headquarters of the National Trades Union Congress and double up as an exhibition and conference space, this is one of the best pieces of modernist architecture in Singapore. It makes extensive use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete in line with the idea that form should follow function. In the 1950s, Singapore experienced a series of protests and strikes culminating in the Hock Lee Bus Riots. In an effort to soothe unrest, the People’s Action Party promised in its 1959 election manifesto to build a headquarters for the labour movement. Ironically, Trade Union House was built by Samsui women: hard-working, non-unionised female migrant labourers from poverty-stricken areas of Southern China. They famously wore blue blouses and trousers and red headdresses in which they would stow their cigarettes, matches and money.

5. Central Fire Station

The oldest surviving active fire station in Singapore can be found on Hill Street, next door to the Armenian Church. Early firefighting squads consisted of poorly trained bands of soldiers, convicts and volunteers. A professional firefighter named Montague W. Pett arrived from England in 1904 and championed the building of a Central Fire Station. Construction began in 1908 to a brief including accommodation for a full complement of crews, a parade ground out back for drills and exercises, and a 34-metre lookout tower to make it easier to spot any fire outbreaks in the vicinity. The red-and-white rusticated façade is a distinctive characteristic of the ‘blood-and-bandage’ style popularised in the Edwardian era (1901–1910). The ‘blood’ points to the exposed red bricks on the façade while the ‘bandage’ refers to the white plaster layovers. You are free to go inside and enjoy the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.

6. Former Hill Street Police Station

Further down Hill Street towards the Singapore River is the former Hill Street Police Station, once the biggest and grandest building of its kind in Malaya: six-storeys high and containing garages, a parade square, and barracks for 180 single men and 140 married constables. Senior officer apartments were among the most luxurious in Singapore. Each flat boasted two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining and sitting room, pantry, kitchen, servants’ quarters and spacious verandahs. There were even playgrounds on the roof for their children. Completed in 1934 in a modern interpretation of the neoclassical style, it is an interesting blend of elegant Doric pilasters (square columns projecting from the wall), sculptured corbels (structures that jut out from the wall to support the balconies and arcades) and monumental slabs of reinforced concrete. Its defining feature is the sheer number of windows – 927 of them – painted in brilliant rainbow hues in 1999 to welcome the then Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA). The MITA Building became the MICA Building when the ministry was renamed the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts (MICA) in 2004. A glass roof was installed over the central atrium to create an area for exhibitions and art installations, so you can wander around at your leisure.

7. Former Thong Chai Medical Institution

Home to the first free TCM clinic for the poor in Singapore, the former Thong Chai Medical Institution is one of the few surviving examples of secular Cantonese architecture in Singapore. The building has a straight, ornamented roof ridge with the gable-end walls shaped like wok handles. Within the compound are three courtyards in an elongated floorplan typical of upscale town houses in Guangdong Province. Seven Chinese merchants founded Thong Chai Medical Institution to offer social support and medical services to the poor, regardless of their race or religion, and the building is a memorial to this spirit of generosity and mutual assistance in the days when state assistance was almost non-existent.

8. MacDonald House

This late 1940s classic sitting between the Istana and The Cathay was the first office building in Southeast Asia to be fully air-conditioned. Redolent of the prevailing optimism and confidence in post-war Singapore, it towered over the shophouses that lined Orchard Road at the time. The design is Neo-Georgian, a reimagining of the formality and symmetry of the Georgian style of the late 17th and early 18th centuries pioneered by Edward Lutyens, who famously designed the Cenotaph war memorial in London and masterminded the construction of New Delhi. Engineered around a reinforced concrete frame clad in finely detailed brickwork, MacDonald was almost the last major building of its kind in downtown Singapore, as the concept of curtain walls was about to take over. Shorn of any structural role, the outer walls only had to keep the weather out and the occupants in, and brickwork was replaced by glass.

9. Former Ford Factory

The former Ford Factory has been a Bukit Timah landmark since its completion in 1941. Ford’s first automobile assembly plant in Southeast Asia was built in the Art Deco style by French engineer-architect Emile Brizay, who also designed The Church of St Teresa on Kampong Bahru Road. Firmly based on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre, Paris, it is the only building in Singapore that features Romano-Byzantine architecture. The Factory was designated a national monument in 2006 and the church in 2009. The factory is chiefly remembered as the venue for the British Empire’s unconditional surrender to the Japanese in February 1942. Today the former Ford Factory is an excellent museum telling the story of the fall of Singapore and the occupation.

10. Singapore River Bridges: Cavenagh, Anderson and Elgin

Cavenagh, Anderson and Elgin Bridges are the three most historic and architecturally impressive bridges spanning the Singapore River. Collectively, they illustrate Singapore’s growth as a trading port and vividly demonstrate rapid changes in engineering technology and materials from the 19th to the 20th century; from Cavenagh Bridge’s use of cast iron in 1869, to Anderson Bridge’s use of steel in 1909 and the use of reinforced concrete used for Elgin Bridge in 1929.

Find out more about the PSM50 exhibition here.

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