Mention Geylang and the image of streetwalkers and wok hei-fragranced fried beef kway teow comes to mind. But cutting-edge architecture might be a new attraction for this otherwise sleazy yet quintessentially Singaporean neighbourhood.
Credit this sudden spurt of design prowess to a string of eight shophouses that make up The Lorong24A Shophouse Series, which showcases the work of eight different architecture firms hired to put their own spin to these pre-war conservation structures.
Stepping up to the task of remodelling the interiors of the eight shophouses - No 5 and the odd numbers from 9 to 21 - were: Atria Architects, Liu & Wo Architects, Linghao Architects, Lekker Design, Zarch Collaboratives, KD Architects, Farm, and HYLA Architects. KD Architects and Farm worked together on a shophouse, while HYLA Architects designed two shophouses.
The architects are a mix of those who had experience designing homes, and up-and-coming ones. "It was key that their design approaches were different in order to come up with a collection of very different, but workable, solutions for the collection, with each unit imbued with a unique character," says Karen Tan, who runs Pocket Project, a development consultancy firm which handles the project.
The shophouses belong to a group of friends who started buying up the units since the mid-1990s, with each costing between $1.1 million and $1.3 million.
The shophouses were built in the 1920s and are of the Late Style, characterised by an extensively ornamental facade.
The shophouses were given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1991, which means that the facade and streetscape of the shophouses have to be retained, but a new rear extension is allowed.
The brief to the architects was simple: Each shophouse had to have at least three bedrooms, and where possible, original materials such as timber floors and window shutters were to be preserved. The budget for each shophouse was $500,000, and "they also had to be works of art", says Ms Tan.
The last shophouse, unit 13, is undergoing its final touches, but the rest have since been leased out to expatriates.
BT Weekend visits six of the eight shophouses.
On the outside, the brown wooden doors and green walls of 11, Lorong 24A look like they could use a fresh coat of paint. The dreary, unwelcoming vibe it projects does not entice you to enter, but once you do, it's as if you've just entered another world.
It's bright and airy, and the interior space has a raw, pared down back-to-basics aesthetics. Now home to a Canadian expatriate couple, the shophouse was designed by Ling Hao, of Linghao Architects.
The front of the house with its white walls and concrete floor make the 6m-wide living room feel spacious. Instead of filling this space with furniture, the tenants have turned it into a mini art gallery by hanging pop art pieces on the walls, which add touches of colour.
The old part of the house has three-storeys, while the rear extension comprises four floors with a sunken kitchen. An open central courtyard connects the old and the new.
The courtyard features granite pavers and is also protected by retractable awning in case of heavy rain. This is the best spot from which to fully appreciate the home, as its focal point - an unusual staircase - is in full view.
Forget the more conventional spiral staircase commonly seen in shophouses. This one comprises "thin steel bridges that stretch from one level to the next, criss-crossing the courtyard space", says Mr Ling.
"The intertwining staircases act as a series of metal bridges - some straight, some curved, some kinked," he adds. The staircase balustrades are crafted from industrial mesh. Each flight is covered by a metal roof where planters have be installed to grow wedelia plants.
Apart from the living, dining areas and kitchen, the unit also has four ensuite bedrooms, a maid's room, a study room, and an open roof terrace spread over 4,000 sq ft of space.
Mr Ling explains that "the house is made into a series of staggered levels with various paths connecting them through hanging gardens and terraces with many views and glimpses of the house, the city and the skies as you go about".
The bedrooms in the old section of the house have had their timber floors and joists preserved.
In contrast, the new rear comprises a stack of small rooms, glassed on all four walls. These glass panels can be fully opened to allow air to flow through. The old shophouse spaces are shadowy but here, it's relatively bright with light falling around the terraces on each level.
"I had imagined a family staying in the large house, maybe with kids growing up, and that it would be a house where they can see each and hear each other and run into each other as well as experience the environment; as compared to a house where the rooms are closed off and the exterior is removed from the everyday," says Mr Ling.
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