Although Tiong Bahru has been known to be one of the oldest areas in Singapore, many tourists seemed to come here as their first stop when coming to Singapore. But, the question is, what about Tiong Bahru that really captures the tourists’ eyes? The truth is all in the architecture that Tiong Bahru has. Developed in the 1920s by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), it was the first public housing estate with architectural, cultural, and historical significance. It draws people, who are both living in the area and as visitors, that are really imbued with the artistic and cultural significance of both the area and the architecture.

The man who was behind designing the buildings, especially the HDBs in Tiong Bahru was Alfred G. Church. His time as an architect in the area of Tiong Bahru was from 1936 until 1941. All of his designs were in the style called Streamline Moderne. All were inspired by technology as well as modern travel, as he wanted the buildings to look like automobiles, trains, ocean liners, and airplanes, complete with the sweeping, streamlined, and aerodynamic lines that were so characteristic of these forms of transport.

With his style chosen being Streamline Moderne, you can see at the buildings that it was clean, had unique shapes such as curved and rounded corners and it had long horizontal and vertical lines. It also had some nautical elements, such as porthole windows and stainless steel railings; simple uncluttered lines; bands of windows; flat roofs; racing stripes to simulate speed and motion; and glass blocks and group windows. All of these are the elements of his choice of style as he wanted the buildings to look unique and eye-catching to everybody. 

The Architecture of Tiong Bahru
HBD in the 1940s

What made Tiong Bahru really different is that Alfred G. Church uses the style for large-scale public buildings to be used for a public housing project. Yes, Streamline Moderne is known for being used in large-scale buildings such as libraries, railway stations, and airports. In 2003, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced that the 20 blocks of flats will be conserved so that the area can continue to evolve with the unique architectural designs that they are known for. Having the use of curved corners and arch shades gives the buildings look modern and pleasing that allows Tiong Bahru to keep its original style as well as to bring a mesmerizing sight for the people to see. 

One of the oldest buildings in Tiong Bahru that follows the style of Streamline Moderne is Block 55. It was built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1936, making it Singapore’s first housing estate or so-called HDB (Housing & Development Board). You can see the style of Streamline Moderne in the design of the balconies. With the use of this style, it allows people to have a good space to enter and exit from the hot external weather to the cooling weather of their home. In addition to that, the HDBs have a tinted green glass which is used strategically to cut glare in brighter lit areas, to counter the area in dimmer spots. This was an important aspect of the design as Singapore’s hot weather can be really extreme, and so having a tinted green glass will help families to always stay refreshed!

HDB now

The significance of the layout of the HDBs is to be able to chat, sit and hang out with new and also familiar people. The estate was inspired by the principle from the British new towns, that allows for families to create connections, strengthen friendships, and also having a sense of familiarity and serendipitous encounter. For many elders, it brings a sense of safety and trust as they can walk down the store, and they are able to “otang” (owe) money when forgetting to bring some. The bond of the community is really strong and very tight as a moment like this was easily allowed. The design of the building is to encourage all family members to have interaction with other families, as it provides a framework for social interaction to occur. 

Lastly, it is really important to still keep the traditional architecture of Tiong Bahru to preserve the history of the area. Also by keeping the older buildings, it can allow us to look back with the past and see the evolution of Tiong Bahru’s architecture over time. It can bring a sense of nostalgia by looking back at the older constructions and we can do comparisons with the modern ones. In addition, some of the structures can bring a lot of learning points and experiences for the future, such as sustainable design that can continue into the future. The act of the balcony as a natural buffer zone from the hot, bright weather would be an example that we can keep building throughout the years. That way, we can lessen our use of air-conditioning and use the natural light and breeze as our main source of lifestyle.

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