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Singapore Architect #273 – 19 Lorong 24A Geylang

19 Lorong 24A Geylang

Singapore Architect Issue #273 Feb 2013

Space between Gaps
In a gesture that recalls an avant-garde gallery space, a metal spiral staircase punctuates a white box accented by an enigmatic bulge on the second floor.
Chris Low visits the winner of the 12th SIA Architectural Design Award 2012 – Conservation category and the URA’s Architectural Heritage Award 2011.

Gap :
1. A space between two things or a hole in something solid.
2. A period of time when you are not doing what you normally do.
- Collins dictionary

In understanding the historical origin of the shophouse, I would draw a bold conclusion that the design of the shophouse never did begin from an internal spatial relationship. Rather, it is a utilitarian design, arising from economical necessity and functional requirements. The courtyard provides light and air, while the staircases are highly functional and space efficient. The high ceilings allow air to circulate, while the five-foot-ways at the entrance allow for human circulation on the ground floor.

This said, it is with interest as I approach one of eight units of shophouse developed collectively as a rental property, found in Geylang area, Lorong 24A. One of two (read “Genus : Type,” in same issue) designed by HYLA Architects. Here, little needs to be said, of the physical elements of the shophouse archetype. No. 19 shares similar traits and builds itself within the same parameters of a shophouse. Courtyards and stairwells form focal points, while the rest of the spaces are suitably filled with loose furniture. It is instead, in the interests of understanding the spaces, that what was lacking in the original shophouse design begins to show up on No. 19.

The simple longitudinal plan on the ground floor is marked by a spiral staircase, dividing the entrance hall and the living. Architecturally, its design is pleasant, as it is commonplace. Only on the second storey does this staircase draw surprise. The core punctuates the second storey, into the master bedroom. Here, it is completely enveloped and consumed, by a rectilinear geometric master bath. In creating the usable spaces around this fixed core, it is interesting to understand how this cylindrical structure is communicated into a rectilinear one. Within, by circumambulating around the cylinder, this curvaceous wall spells a cavernous and sensuous space for the bath. In actual dimensions, the final area is not large, but as the body travels along this wall and reconnects to the shower area, somewhat at three-quarter mark of the cylinder, the bath appears never ending, its space suggestively large. Using frosted glass to encircle the stair core at the shower area is practical and smart, with light and shadow shifting in contact with water.

To complete the core, it terminates at the attic. With a direct halo-like ceiling design mimicking the cylindrical drum above the steel metallic skin of the spiral stair, the allusion to a connection to the cosmos beyond assumes a fairytale contrast to the realistically cold structure. It is this communication of use and space that exceeds the original intentions of a shophouse. The study of the design for No. 19 is not a comparison of old and new, extensions against original structures. Rather, it is a seed, and the plant that grows from it.

In the same vein, a common bath found on the second floor further along the unit also begins to communicate its spatial significance and presence, albeit in a much more forward way. Concealed behind a wall of vertical metal lattice, the simple rectangle bathroom on plan extends over the courtyard on the ground floor. The bath is a spatial divider between the two rooms that also overlook the courtyard. With three programmatic elements overlooking the courtyard, it is clear the metal lattice treatment is a succinct construction that maintains privacy whilst encouraging light and air. A bulbous belly-like form pushes against the metal lattice towards the courtyard. This is profile of the bathtub in the bathroom. In defining the profile of the bathtub, the metal lattice is at once softened and narrative. It changes the triple volume courtyard simply by this profiled protrusion. It is often difficult to ascertain with complete confidence, the final outcome of such designs, as it falls outside the safety realm of proportionate dimensions. The only surety, is to make the space, and let the space make a sense of itself.

No. 19 is a unit that makes use of the basic traditional architectural elements in a shophouse, making communication across the strata of spaces defined early on in the original context. Filling in the gaps that were left undefined in the spatial relationships then.

Writer: Chris Low
Photography: Courtesy of HYLA