Singapore Architect – 13 Lorong 24A Geylang

13 Lorong 24A Geylang

Singapore Architect Issue 273 Feb 2013

Genus : Type
Whilst structured by its internal circulation, No. 13 is an exercise in extending the interior spaces into the sky and land beyond. Chris Low studies the new interventions within the framework of the shophouse typology.

A genus or species that most nearly exemplifies the essential characteristics of a higher group.
- biological definition,

The shophouse “type” should really be defined in biological terms; for it is a typology that is very much organic and alive. Its presence has evolved and morphed into strange forms in some extreme instances, and in others, it has retained its close-to-original typology, defining spatial elegance from humble beginnings. Clusters of shophouses are located across the island, some more documented than others; while I believe, there are still some that remain to be “uncovered.” As a writer and architect, I have sporadically been storing away slices of information gleaned from readings and attending lectures the last few years. Like a student, I have taken notes, and formulated some of my own thinking. But apart from their historical development and physical variation of type, the underlying allure (to me) of this typology remains in its scale and ambiguous type.

As a generic parameter, the shophouse has a narrow front and a long depth, in the proportions of approximately 1:5. A rear courtyard serves as a spatial divider programmatically, and a vertical architectural element that introduces light and air into this deep space. The vertical connection is often marked by a long flight of narrow stairs located at the entrance, parked efficiently alongside a structural party wall, while for other similar types, a space efficient spiral staircase found at the rear courtyard serves as a secondary vertical access. This typology is structurally efficient and programmatically logical. This same logic has also been widely adapted to a standard terrace house unit by many.

No. 13 at Geylang, Lorong 24A, is part of a collection of eight shophouses developed as rental properties. Designed as an individual unit by HYLA Architects, its physical parameters falls within the typology mentioned; with the proportions 1:5, width against length. It falls within reason, to assume that the design comfortably divides its spaces into five broad zones. Here, in drawing parallels to the original shophouse proportions, the sense of scale begins to form a three-dimensional ruler in guiding the eye to read the spaces and the relationships. Two staircase elements provide the vertical scale, while the courtyard and programmatic divisions form a horizontal one.

It is interesting to see how the staircase now, have moved beyond efficient necessity, as in the design for the first set of stairs designed as a vertical grid-like cage. This red element appears as a mere suggestion on the first floor, as it hovers over the kitchen, providing lighting and a spatial marker for the kitchen. It is at once a commanding presence, yet is never physically present on the first floor. As an element, it extends and connects the vertical scale up to the third floor. Spatially, it divides the living and dining spaces. Because it straddles within one volume, the voluminous first storey is brought down to a more “human” scale.

The second staircase is located within a courtyard, made tangible as a water body. Here, it is articulated as a sculptural spiral staircase. Much less porous than the earlier, this staircase is read as a solid element within a void space. Moulded in metal panels, the reverberations on the steps are a stark contrast to the silence of the water. As part of the new extension, the “spiral staircase” rises up to the fourth floor roof terrace at the rear.

Structural relationship, between the existing first three sections of the shophouse is mediated by the courtyard, making a connection to the last section – the new extension. By bringing the rear staircase forward, the sense of scale is lengthened; this is so as in the original where the spiral staircase usually marks the rear wall, a termination of its depth. It is this interplay of the five zones, against the three levels of the shophouse that makes the project an interesting study. With the roof terrace finished as white aluminium louvres, it becomes apparent under strong sunlight conditions (as on the day of the site visit), that this white “roof” over the courtyard begins to dissolve as a result of the glaring sun. In this way, the vertical termination “disappears,” and the vertical scale within the shophouse is also perceived as an extension beyond.

No. 13 has taken strides and distanced itself as a shophouse “type.” Within, it is almost difficult to discern the original spatial configurations. Yet, in scale, it remains true as a genus. With the use of the staircase elements and the courtyard, the voluminous height and elongated depths of the shophouse renews itself.

Writer: Chris Low
Photography: Jeremy San