Just a couple of months ago, I had dinner in a Spanish restaurant on a trip to Malacca. The restaurant was a refurbished shophouse. We were invited to sit at a long wooden table in what used to be the airwell, right next to a palm tree that stretched nearly two storeys, towards the skylight that was above our heads.
Not long after, back in Singapore, I attended the opening of the new Shake Shack on Neil Road, also in a shophouse. Shortly after that, I visited a new co-living space called Shang House, jointly created by Scene Shang and Figment, and – you guessed it – also in a shophouse. A pre-war terrace house, to be specific.
These days, we might not give it a second thought, though purists might balk at the idea of these iconic shophouses – which are commonly found in areas such as Tanjong Pagar, Joo Chiat, and Bugis – being used for such modern developments.
That said, the notion of housing a modern concept within traditional architecture is definitely not a new one. You only have to visit Emerald Hill, Keong Saik Road, or Clarke Quay to see throngs of diners having a meal, after-office crowds grabbing a drink, and occasionally creatives popping into an art or music studio.
The vibe is usually contemporary and chill, catering to the twenty- or thirty-something adult. And often, if you look carefully, there are plenty of allusions to local life in the design: the décor might include mosaics in a nod to the heritage of the building, or furniture that looks right at home with the grilles and shutters.
In fact, the design of these modern establishments often centres on the trademark features of the shophouse: the five-foot way outside, the airwell that lets in natural light, the lofty ceilings that draw the eye upwards. Highlighting these features serves to draw attention to them, increasing the general public’s apprecation for the iconic buildings and what they represent.
Paying homage to the building’s history is also an essential element for sensitive design. In Shake Shack on Neil Road, for example, a large tiger mural dominates the back wall, in a nod to the days when the building was an old Tiger Balm factory. In Shang House on Pegu Road, you’ll find plenty of rattan pieces prominently featured throughout the apartment, a tribute to Balestier’s rich history as a rattan-manufacturing area in the past.
Cynics might argue that these elements are in place to lend texture to the brand’s storytelling – but they are no doubt an aesthetically pleasing touch, a preferable alternative to the impersonality of boxy modern spaces, and often a creative way to unite the old and the new. It’s this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the traditional and the urban, that makes Singapore’s scene so unique.
After all, one must change with the times. And what better way to breathe new life into these old buildings, and to help more generations of Singaporeans appreciate the beauty of these iconic shophouses?