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Exploring the Rich History and Design of Singapore's Shophouses

Shophouses, with their distinct architectural charm and historical significance, stand as iconic symbols of Singapore's built heritage. Constructed between the 1840s and the 1960s, these narrow two- to three-story terraced buildings with a sheltered 'five foot' pedestrian way at the front are a prevalent feature in the city-state's urban landscape. Shophouses not only shaped the pre-World War 2 city center but also left a lasting imprint on the historic cities of Southeast Asia.

Historical Significance

The majority of Singapore's pre-war urban fabric is comprised of shophouses, making them an integral part of the city's architectural legacy. Found in various parts of Singapore, these buildings are not only historic but also culturally significant. They represent a blend of architectural styles, cultural influences, and functional design that reflects the diverse tapestry of Singapore's past.

Conservation Efforts

Given their historical importance, many shophouses have been gazetted as conservation buildings. The preservation of these structures involves a meticulous process that adheres to specific guidelines. Key elements of shophouses are carefully restored to maintain their authenticity and historical value.

Key Elements of Shophouses

1. Party Walls

Principle load-bearing walls that separate one shophouse from its neighboring counterpart.

2. Timber Structural Members

Main and secondary timber beams, floorboards, and rafters that support each floor.

3. Airwells

Courtyards exposed to the sky, providing natural ventilation and lighting to the interior.

4. Rear Court

An open courtyard at the back traditionally used for functional needs like kitchens and toilets.

5. Timber Windows

French or Casement style windows with operable shutters/jalousies for air and light.

6. Timber Staircase

Staircase inside the shophouse often of timber structural construction with ornate designs.

7. Front Facade

The front face of the house facing the street, with different aesthetic approaches from various eras.

8. The Upper Floor

Projects over the five-footway to form a covered pedestrian arcade.

9. The Columns

Support the upper floors and form five-footway colonnades.

10. The Five-Footway

Sheltered environment for pedestrians mandated by Raffles since the first Town Plan for Singapore.

11. The Roof

Pitched construction with natural-colored, unglazed V-profile or flat-interlocking terracotta tiles.

Case Study: The NUS 'Baba House'

One exemplary case of shophouse restoration is the NUS 'Baba House' located at No. 157 Neil Road. Once the ancestral home of a Straits-Chinese family, this shophouse has been meticulously restored by the URA to showcase conservation best practices. The façade has been revived with original ornamental details, and the interior reflects the 1920s domestic culture of the Straits Chinese community.

The Baba House stands as a living testament to the visual interest and cultural richness that well-restored shophouses bring to Singapore's urban landscape. It serves as a reminder of how these structures embody the unique cultures and aesthetic tastes of the city-state. Preserving shophouses is not just an architectural endeavor but a commitment to safeguarding Singapore's multifaceted history and heritage.

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