d+a – 19 Lorong 24A Geylang

19 Lorong 24A Geylang

d+a Issue 067.2012

Artful leanings
Reinventions and adaptions of the Singaporean shophouse form can be found in the portfolios of many local architects. It is far less common to find multiple local architects being involved in a shophouse-related development project. Surprisingly, a side street in Geylang has become the nucleus for varied architectural explorations of just this variety. It has also become the statement of a developer’s sensitivity to the potential value of local practitioners’ responses to a very local context.

The Lorong 24A Shophouse Series is ‘a boutique development involving a row of 1920s shophouses on a quaint street in Geylang,’ says Pocket Projects – the property owners. With an approach not commonly seen in Singapore (Lien Villas aside), Pocket Projects has played the role of architectural curator. Seven local architects were invited to individually adapt eight conservation shophouses for contemporary living. Construction work is being progressively completed, and the shophouse units are being tenanted by a growing Geylang population of high-income residents.

The owners (an art-loving lawyer and a group of his friends) began purchasing the units around 15 years ago. An interest in (rather than an intimate knowledge of) the architecture industry, as well as an enthusiasm for local heritage, was enough to prompt the group to launch its experiment with this alternative mode of development. Firms were invited to take part based on an appraisal of their portfolios and their approaches, with the key aim being an individual character for each resultant shophouse interior. The participants include Atria Architects, KD Architects, Linghao Architects, Liu & Wo Architects and Zarch Collaboratives.

Unit 19 is one of two units designed by HYLA Architects. It was among the first to be completed, and won a URA Architectural Heritage Award (Category B) in 2011. As did other participating architects and designers, HYLA’s principal architect Han Loke Kwang responded to a brief that called for an interesting living space; a sensible spatial flow and the delivery of natural light and ventilation; the preservation of certain original shophouse elements; and the provision of surfaces upon which tenants could display art. The owners’ initial three-word request – ‘give us art’ – was to be interpreted literally (through the provision of gallery-like spaces that take advantage of high ceilings) and more figuratively (with the creation of architectural masterpieces).

Han was to achieve this, however, on a low budget. The need for simplicity in his intervention was evident, and pushed him to preserve as much of the existing building as possible. He introduced three main new elements: a leaning spiral staircase, a two-storey rear extension (enclosing a courtyard), and new bathrooms – one of which bulges sculpturally over the courtyard space. The staircase and bulging bathroom area are enclosed by sheaths of grey-painted steel bars and aluminium strips, which play a significant role in the establishment of an aesthetic rivalling that of the Chinese Baroque-style shophouse. For Han, it was important to reference the raw, no-nonsense feel of Geylang with almost industrial new elements that are set away from the party walls, while allowing the shophouse to be appreciated in its entirety without much interference.

The staircase rises from the centre of the interior space on the first level, punches through the second level, and terminates in a mezzanine attic study beneath a jack roof. It leans street-ward as it rises to align with the existing roof ridgeline. Han’s decision to centralise the staircase on the first and attic levels necessitated its lean; the five-foot way’s presence at level one shifted the central point of that space back from the ridgeline.

Creating the leaning, spiralling central stringer proved a challenge as no Singapore-based fabricators could be found with the ability to roll steel on such a tight diameter. The solution involved cutting a 20mm-thick, 600mm diameter pipe after having installed it and welded on the treads. New structural steel floor beams around the staircase support it while visually mimicking the existing timber beams, all of which have been painted white. A narrow gap is maintained between the staircase ‘cloak’ and each floor to emphasise the distinction between the forms.

The staircase separates the first level into an entry zone and a living space. Beyond it, sets of sliding glass doors allow the living space to be opened up to a linear kitchen, a bedroom (used by the current tenants as a dining room), a bathroom, and a small rear yard. The kitchen is open to a shallow reflecting pond that sits at the base of the double-volume courtyard. Overhead is a trellis of lengths of hollow aluminium section (open to the sky). It casts a rich texture of shadow and light onto the party wall, pond, and floor as the day progresses.

On the second level, the role of the spiral staircase in organising space continues. Here, sheathed in frosted glass, it is surrounded by an ensuite bathroom – the components of which occupy nooks between it and the surrounding walls.. The ensuite enclosure separates the master bedroom from a bedroom-cum-sitting room. Light from the ensuite illuminates the staircase at night, and during the day natural light filters down through the staircase from the jack roof.

A final bedroom space at the rear is set apart b the courtyard void and the two new bathrooms that overlook the airwell. The conspicuous bathroom bulge is caused by the presence of a bathtub and basin set in a bulbous concrete form that is intentionally too large for the space. Partial visual enclosure is provided by the aluminium slats, but a moulded rail allows for the hanging of a shower curtain. Natural ventilation (through openings in the glazed ceiling) can be augmented by an exhaust fan.

An air of spectacle – both formal and atmospheric – accompanies Han’s interventions within Unit 19. Han’s extensive preservation of the existing building and his emphasis on traditional shophouse elements (such as the courtyard/airwell and pond) help to ground his ‘artful’ insertions in a solid context while sensibly delivering ventilation and filtered light suitable to tropical living. The home’s ‘wow factor’ and its vibrant location were two of the main attractants for the tenants, which suggests that the developer’s proposed formula should pay off.

Pocket Projects’ online documentation of the units reveals the quite divergent approaches of the participating architects. Art events have already been planned for two of the other units, and the properties have been included in a local heritage tour-provider’s route. The promotion of contemporary local architectural work in a historical context should broadcast a good message about the possibilities of thoughtful boutique-scale development and the capabilities of local practitioners.

Writer: Narelle Yabuka
Photography: Courtesy of HYLA