It does indeed feel like stepping back in time when encountering Dr. Davison in his Ridout Road walk-up apartment. And although he confesses to wishing he’d lived in the 1950s, he is no Luddite. He writes with the help of an Apple Mac, not a typewriter. He is merely nostalgic for a simpler, and to him, a more stylish age.
In many ways it is hardly surprising. An architectural historian, writer and broadcaster, Dr. Davison has lived in Singapore for a total of 31 years, including six years as a child. And although he is British by birth, his family has been connected with Singapore and Malaysia for four generations. It is perhaps this historical legacy that connects him so deeply to this region’s past.
The son of an architect who had a practice in Singapore and Malaya, Julian has always loved architecture and buildings, despite being an anthropologist by education. Through his many TV programmes on the history of the island state and his books and articles on its buildings, it appears that his life’s mission is to record Singapore’s cultural and architectural heritage.
We caught up with him to discover his top five Singapore buildings – although, as an aside, he complained that many of the best buildings have been bulldozed in the name of progress. Knowing full well that he would not be choosing new builds like Marina Bay Sands or the ArtScience Museum, we were excited about taking a journey into Singapore’s past.
So here they are – Dr J’s top 5, in no particular order.
In its day an Art Deco masterpiece, the old Singapore railway terminus is situated, somewhat forlornly, beside the elevated section of the Ayer Rajah Expressway. Although the last train left in June 2011 and the tracks are gone, the station still stands. Its entrance façade is dominated by four huge white marble figures by Angelino Vanetti, representing Agriculture, Commerce, Transport and Industry. Over each of their heads, there is a shield emblazoned with a single capital letter — ‘F’, ‘M’, ‘S’ and ‘R’ —the initials of the old Federated Malay States Railways.
The station holds many memories for Dr. Davison. “I used to travel from KL to Singapore by train when I was a teenager. I remember in particular a trip when I was 17 with my best chum Josh. We arrived in Singapore before heading on to Bali by sea, travelling ‘deck class’. Train is such a lovely, romantic way to travel – but I always loved the Singapore terminus with its Deco style and the imposing figures outside.”
Before its closure, it was a little piece of Malaysia tucked right inside Singapore. “Until fairly recently, a large sign saying ‘Welcome to Malaysia’, greeted one in the shadows of the porte-cochère. One had only to step over the threshold to feel that one was already abroad. The atmosphere changed perceptibly, Malay was the common language, and one immediately sensed a definite loosening of belt and tie, a slackening of pace, a feeling of having arrived somewhere else, though one had yet to even board a train.”
On the junction of Circular Road and Lorong Telok stands a building both razor-sharp and rounded. It is the creation of architect Ho Kwong Yew, a former municipal draughtsman, who struck out on his own to infuse the Modern Movement with a tropical sensibility. The vice-president of the Society of Chinese Artists, he also supported the anti-Japanese resistance, which led to his execution in 1942.
“Ho Kwong Yew was the finest of the pre-war concrete iconoclasts,” says Dr. Davison. “He was part of the new generation of professionally-qualified Singaporean architects who turned their backs on the dominant Classical idiom in shophouse architecture, in favour of an uncompromising Modernist agenda. What I love about Ho’s extraordinary building is its razor-sharp geometry and spaceship aesthetics. It really takes the biscuit in this respect.”
Framed today between the OCBC bank building and the Pidemco Centre, Dr Davison likes to think of it as Singapore’s first skyscraper. “Contemporary corporate blockbusters, like the Union Building down on Collyer Quay, may have been taller, but stylistically they had one foot in the past — this was the future!”
The building at 31 and 33 Club Sreet — now the main entrance for Emerald Gardens Condominium — is a hidden gem that is easy to miss on an amble down this popular nightspot.
It belonged to Eu Tong Sen, the flamboyant businessman who plied his trade in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known as the “King of Tin.” Well-respected Singapore-based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and Maclaren, designed it in 1932.
It is a personal favourite of Dr. Davison’s. “It’s just such an unusual building and I love its ‘Chinese Renaissance’ style.”
According to Dr. Davison, this style had its origins in the architecture of Christian missions in Mainland China in the early 1900s. But he added that the Brewer example “goes some way beyond the ‘Western-style building with a Chinaman’s hat on top’ approach.”
“The basement floor brickwork brings to mind Chinese gateways from the Ming dynasty, while the central tower, with its slightly tapering profile, recalls traditional Chinese drum towers. It’s not a pastiche, nor kitsch, it shows Brewer’s understanding of traditional Chinese architecture.”
The town house at Number 45 Emerald Hill was built in 1903 for the wealthy Seah family. Although Dr. Davison is impressed with this ‘rare instance of a double-fronted townhouse in the Teowchew style,’ (which is where old man Seah Eu Chin originally hailed from), he is equally interested in the enigmatic story of the architect, Wee Teck Moh.
“We know frustratingly little about him in terms of his life and who he was, but it is his genius which defines the classic turn-of-the century shophouse in its most elevated form,” he says.
“In his time he was without doubt the shophouse king, not least because of his extraordinarily prolific output. By 1903, he had taken the Sino-Baroque shophouse to its ultimate limits, and his townhouse for the Seah family is perhaps the most sublime example of his art still standing. The entrance to the property is prefaced by a traditional Chinese gateway, with a swallow-tail roof and a mosaic frieze. The façade of the house, however, is pure Singapore Baroque. The windows have both shutters and glazing, while the fretwork lights over the windows are in the Peranakan style.”
According to Dr. Davison, No. 6 Russels Road in Alexandra Park is a beautiful example of late tropical Victorian architecture with an Arts and Crafts input. “Sometimes referred to as the ‘Plantation House,’ no doubt because it once stood at the centre of an agricultural estate, it has little to do with the classic plantation houses of the mid-nineteenth century, being relatively small and compact,” he said.
It is also something of an enigma. “We neither know the original owner of the house, nor the architect who designed it, nor even when it was commissioned, although the general consensus of opinion opts for some time in the early 1880s. In its eclectic use of Gothic details and Malay elements, such as the Malacca staircase leading to the garden, the house is perhaps no more than a reflection of the era in which it was built.”
However, it is not just the architectural mystery that warrants its place in Dr. Julian’s top five. It also plays an important role in Julian’s own personal narrative.
“I attended a Halloween party at this house in 1990, when I was visiting Singapore. It was a fairly wild party. I met Helen West (wearing a silvery wig reminiscent of a Brillo pad), a woman from New Zealand who remains a close friend to this day. And I drank a little too much, falling asleep under a bush in the garden. But I distinctly remember thinking: “This is fun. I like Singapore. I’m coming to stay.”
By Gilly Beal | Images courtesy of Dr. Julian Davison
Its inconspicuous location on Ann Siang Hill is exposed only