Open Floor Plan
Open Google Maps
For many years, the building housing our Saturday Indesign Curated Space at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road was known as the ‘Bank Of China No. 3 Warehouse’. It was once a landmark to those in the import-export trade along the Singapore River, well known to the coolies who toiled in and out with heavy loads.
Now it’s the home of independent theatre company TheatreWorks and the International Centre of Asian Arts, and a landmark for people pursuing all manner of creative pursuits – us included – who delight in its expansive timber floors, lofty ceilings and character.
72-13 is one of a handful of buildings with conservation status in Roberston Quay – a stately survivor of the urban renewal on the late twentieth century. The URA recognises 72-13 for elements such as the cross-work timber lattice panels on its upper-floor windows – a common design in the days when glass was a luxury and fans non-existent, but now a rarity. Also noted are the corner facade treatment (with a roof pediment with decorative moulded plaster festoons – or garlands) and the original ground-floor timber framed-windows that are still fitted with the original iron security bars.
The building still has its original timber floors, structural bracing, granite corbels and timber staircases, one with a ‘slide’ at one side that was used to ease the burden of carrying down loads from the upper floor. Catch a glimpse of the building in 1981 with its ‘Bank of China’ signage here.
Immediately adjacent to 72-13 is the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), occupying two-storey buildings at 41 and 42 Robertson Quay. The URA has applied conservation status in recognition of elements such as the repetitive bays of arched openings on the Georgian-style facades (which are seen more commonly in the shophouses of the main city centre), as well as the glazed fanlights and shutters of the upper floor. These, says the URA, create the impression of a row of domestic buildings rather than warehouses.
Since opening in 2002, non-profit organisation STPI has rigorously promoted print and paper art. With a gallery and workshop, it’s become one of the leading arts destinations not only in Singapore but also in the region.
Housed with STPI is our Saturday Indeisgn F&B Partner SPRMRKT (designed by Parable Studio), which is offering Saturday Indeisgn attendees a special 10% discount on Saturday 12 October. Check @saturdayindesign on Instagram for the promo access!
Aside from accommodating warehouses, Robertson Quay was once the boatbuilding nexus of the Singapore River. The boatyards, warehouses, depots and mills began filling the area in the early twentieth century, which is when it was named – after Dr Thomas Murray Robertson (1860-1931), a City Coroner, Medical College lecturer and Municipal Commissioner who lived in the Leonie Hill area off River Valley Road. Prior to that, the area had been reclaimed from tidal swampland in the nineteenth century.
The boats known as ‘lighters’ ¬– and as twakows or tongkangs – were built and repaired on the banks of the river. They were used to unload bales of merchandise into riverside shops and warehouses, as the river was too shallow for entry by ships. See a National Archives of Singapore photo of boatbuilding in the area in 1974 here.
Robertson Quay was fully developed with warehouses, or ‘godowns’, by the early 1930s and contributed significantly to Singapore’s trade environment. By the 1970s, trade and warehousing along the river was phased out and urban renewal would soon transform the face of the area.
The painting of Alkaff Bridge in 2004 was one of the final works of Filipino artist Pacita Abad (1946–2004). She had been a resident artist at STPI in 2003 when, looking at the then-battleship-grey steel bridge, she had the idea of painting it in her signature kaleidoscopic palette. STPI lodged a request with the LTA, which was approved in early 2004. In a period of seven weeks, 900 litres of paint in 52 colours were applied to Alkaff Bridge, creating 2,350 multicoloured circles.
Abad told Streats newspaper at the time, "This is my gift to Singapore. If I get a smile or a reaction like, “What the hell is this?' I am happy." Abad passed away from lung cancer in Singapore in late 2004.
Shaped like a tongkang (a light wooden boat used for carrying goods), Alkaff Bridge opened in 1999. It was named after Alkaff Quay – a warehouse complex that once stood beside the river. The artwork was repainted in June 2019 as part of a series of commemorative events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Singapore and the Philippines.
On the south side of the river, a wharf was established in 1907. Alkaff Quay was a warehouse facility with 17 godowns. Nearby was a second wharf (Earle Quay), dating to the same era. See a National Archives of Singapore photo from 1980 here. Alkaff Quay was named after Arab merchant Syed Sheik Alkaff (1839-1910). The Alkaff family rose to prominence in Singapore as landowners and philanthropists. The two quays gave way to redevelopment in the 1990s.
References: NHB Singapore River Walk booklet (download)
These days it’s condos and hotels as far as they eye can see. But once there were kampungs in Robertson Quay. In the 1860s, a settlement was established in the area between Pulau Saigon Bridge and Alkaff Bridge (around Nanson Road). Known as Kampong Martin, it was home to Chinese fishermen and boatbuilders who lived in attap-roofed houses until the village was destroyed by fire in 1916. To its west was a second settlement of wooden huts that lasted much longer. Kampong Pukat (named after a Malay fishing net) survived until the early 1980s.
References: NHB Singapore River Walk booklet (download)
Developer RB Capital cought the former Gallery Hotel in 2013 after procuring the ground-floor river-front retail podium at Robertson Quay the year before. In 2016, the Gallery Hotel was demolished and a major reinvention project saw the rise of the InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay and opposite it, the Quayside retail zone.
SCDA Architects were engaged to design the new hotel and precinct, and pushed for the prominence of fresh F&B and commercial spaces in the hotel’s retail podium and lush outdoor F&B aread around its perimeter. This was echoed in the revitalised Quayside zone, in line, says SCDA, “with URA’s planning objective of enlivening the riverfront as a public space, with provisions to enhance the visitors’ experience and public access along Singapore River.”
The Quayside’s website describes the monotone design aesthetic as being inspired by the area’s hostory – “where the old warehouses and shophouses were built with steel, iron fixtures and stone, a celebration of the Quay’s rich cultural heritage.”
The 2016 closure and subsequent demolition of an eclectic hotel beside the river, which had been completed in just the year 2000, caused some hearts in architectural circles to sink. Originally known as the Gallery Evason Hotel, it was an unusual congregation of forms and spaces by William Lim Associates and Tangguanbee Architects. Teh Joo Heng was a principal architect on the project with Lim and Tang.
The Gallery Hotel was an array of spaces that inched outward to their surroundings, rather than an inward-focused form. The spatial eclecticism was matched by formal variety and playful collage that encouraged the perception of the Gallery Hotel as being fused with its urban environment rather than standing alone as an island. See archival images of the Gallery Hotel here.
References: Wong Yunn Chii, Singapore 1:1 City – A Gallery of Architecture and Urban Design, URA, Singapore, 2005, pp.232-235
The warehouses, or godowns, of the Singapore River were originally used to store, repackage and re-export good such as rice, coffee, spices, tin and rubber. By the time the urban renewal of the 1980s and ’90s occurred, with the vision of converting Robertson Quay into a housing and recreation zone, many of them were in a degraded state. See National Archives of Singapore photos of Roberston Quay godowns in 1974 here and here, and a shot of godowns near Rodyk Street in 1982 here.
Unlike those across the river, which were reduced to facades, the heritage-listed and government-owned godowns (constructed in 1895) occupied by the Warehouse Hotel survived intact with a curious history of use attached – a past played up to a playful extent in the new hotel’s marketing.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the late-nineteenth-century blocks had been home to a disco (a predecessor of Zouk); before that, apparently, many warehouses in the area (and quite possibly these ones) were home to illegal distilleries and (allegedly) secret societies; and prior to that, the story goes that illicit substances were imported and stored in warehouses of the area along with the spices that dominated trade at the time.
See Cubes issue 85 and our Indesignlive.sg feature for details about the transformation of godowns to boutique hotel by architectural consultant Zarch Collaboratives and interior design and branding consultant Asylum.
We are delighted to have The Warehouse Hotel as our Hotel Partner for Saturday Indesign. Check the Saturday Indesign event guide (or the FAQ on this website) for a promo code for reservations, and look out for the chance to win voucher prizes from Design Hotels!
References: The Warehouse Hotel
With containerisation, and the opening of Southeast Asia’s first container port at Tanjong Pagar in 1972, came the opportunity to clean up the heavily polluted Singapore River. Lee Kuan Yew declared it a national priority in 1977, and stated that the clean up should be completed within a decade, which it was.
As far back as the nineteenth century, when thousands of vessels used the river daily, pollution, silting and overcrowding had affected navigation and public health. Over the years, businesses, street hawkers and squatters dumped their waste into the river, and the traditional lighters (boats) polluted the water with oil and debris.
The transformation efforts involved relocation as well as cleaning, changing the river environment considerably. Rubbish was cleared and dredging removed tonnes of foul-smelling mud and debris from the riverbed and banks. Boatyards, squatter dwellings, unlicensed hawkers and other potential pollution-causing activities were relocated from the riverbanks. The lighterage industry was initially resistant to moving, but eventually some 800 lighters were relocated to Pasir Panjang.
After cleaning came beautification. The stone-walled banks of the river were repaired and many new buildings were constructed. In 1999, a six-kilometre-long riverfront pedestrian promenade was completed. See a National Archives of Singapore photo of Robertson Quay prior to the clean up here.
Tucked away behind the tinted brown glass facade of the Holiday Inn Atrium is, as its name suggests, a special atrium space. Unlike Singapore’s other memorable 1980s atrium hotel that carry the mark of John Portman (The Regent Singapore, 1982, and Marina Square, 1987), our Outram Road counterpart was designed by DMJM (which merged with Aecom in the mid-1980s) and Chok & Associates.
It opened in 1985 as the Glass Hotel before being sold and renamed the Concorde Hotel in 1996, and the Holiday Inn Atrium in 2005. Its cylindrical tower offers a soaring atrium complete with capsule lifts that have, pleasingly, survived the renovations over the years. The most recent renovation was by Eco-id Architects.
Open Google Maps
If you’re a designer or architect in Singapore you’d have to know about the recent appearance of some very well-known brands in our favourite light industrial building. When the latest crop of tenants moved in earlier this year, we detected a new buzz about the place. But there’s always been a design character attached to the Tan Boon Liat Building (TBL). A number of Singapore’s most beloved design furniture, lighting and home accessory retailers have been there for years. But TBL has also been home to numerous design studios – Distillery, ip:li Architects and Sennex Consultants among them.
Info about TBL is scant. Records of the Tan Boon Liat Company Ltd in the National Archives of Singapore date back to the 1920s, including a proposal to build a “rottan” (resumably rattan) shed at “Mr Tan Bon Liat’s Factory, Outram Road” in 1926. Architecture photographer Darren Soh found TBL featured in an archival issue of the Singapore Institute of Architects Journal; it was designed by Chok & Associates, led by architect Chok Yan Hoi, and completed in 1971.
Brutal as the building is, there’s just something about the view over Outram toward the CBD from the upper floors and the graphic clarity of the afternoon sun on those unrelenting parapets. Don’t tell us you’ve never had your camera pointed at TBL or the panorama it offers, because we won’t believe you.