Across the island, the Singapore shophouse is a quintessential architectural icon still widely used for residential and commercial purposes. It remains a visible canvas that portrays Singapore’s intriguing multicultural and architectural influences throughout the years.
The origins of the Singapore shophouse trace back to China, particularly the Guangdong and Fujian provinces where a majority of early immigrants to Singapore came from.
The first shophouses, known stylistically as the Early Shophouse Style (1840s-1900s), were constructed during the mid-1840s at the southern end of the Singapore River along South Bridge and New Bridge Road. Such houses would lay the foundations for the various styles that would develop in the years to come.
The Shophouse foundation
The archetypal Singapore shophouse is a two or three-storey building with a commercial shop on the ground floor and living accommodations above. The ground floor sits back from the road, while an overhanging veranda is supported by a brace of columns – creating the distinctive five-footway, a feature introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles through the Town Planning Committee of 1822, as part of his town plan for early Singapore.
Back then, the typical frontage of a shophouse spanned between 16 to 18 feet (about 6m) wide and 80 feet (25m) deep. It came with a pitched roof and was supported by purlins running through the party walls that each individual shophouse shared with its neighbours.
Shophouses were built with symmetry and orientation in mind. When possible, they were built along the north-south axis, according to the ancient Chinese belief of universal balance. Within the house, the main hall, seen as the most important part of the house, sat at the back (north) of the house while facing the entrance (south). The front of the house served as a courtyard where guests were traditionally received and entertained.
Shophouses can be categorised into six architectural styles, each possessing a set of defining characteristics influenced by architectural trends of the era. Further study into these categories reveal stylistic sub-categories, including Neo-Classical, Malay, Baroque, Chionoshire, Rococo, Shanghai Style and many more.
The Early Shophouse Style (1840-1900): Buildings in the Early Shophouse Style are usually low (two storeys) and squat, typically with only one (at most two) rectangular windows on the upper floor. It is characterised by minimal ornamentation, usually of an ethnic nature.
First Transitional Shophouse Style (early 1900s): In line with Singapore’s growing affluence, the First Transitional Shophouse Style projects a lighter expression and is more vertically proportionate than its predecessor. Decorations using plaster and tiles were used, while the addition of small glass panels into the windows became increasingly common. A trademark of First Transitional shophouses is their elegant simplicity and relatively restrained ornamentation.
Late Shophouse Style (1900-1940): Often hailed as the most spectacular and vibrant of all shophouses, the Late Shophouse Style displays striking, varied and eclectic ornamentation, such as decorative wall tiles, framing of windows with columns and pilasters, as well as the introduction of cultural influences such as roof eaves (Malay) and decorative tiles (Peranakan) to the building. After the late style, there was a move towards simpler ornamentation and more streamlined design that culminated in the Art Deco Shophouse Style.
Second Transitional Shophouse Style (late 1930s): Bridging the Late and Art Deco Styles is the Second Transitional Shophouse Style, with mixes some Late Style decorative elements (such as wall tiles) with Art Deco motifs (such as geometric designs). Simple and streamline were two key components of this style, reflecting the economic situation of the time. The beginnings of Art Deco elements such as cross-braced glass window panels start to emerge.
Art Deco Shophouse Style (1930-1960): The Art Deco Shophouse Style is distinguished by streamlined motifs (such as column orders, arches and keystones) and the lesser use of decorative wall tiles. Often, this style of shophouse emphasizes proportion and composition of an entire grouping of similar building, with a special focus on the street corners. A typical feature of the Art Deco Shophouse Style is a visible plaque bearing the date of the building’s construction.
Modern Shophouse Style (1950-1960): As the Modern Shophouse Style emerged, elements from earlier styles began to be omitted. The five-foot way and party walls remained, but modern materials such as concrete were used. In line with the international move towards a more utilitarian perspective at that time, modern shophouses were built to be functional and austere. The Modern Shophouse Style’s façade features thin concrete fins and air vents (as decoration) alongside mild steel windows and flat roofs to complement its geometric façade.
Today, shophouses continue to define Singapore’s adaptation to change. While a majority have strict conservation rules in place on the façade and foundation of the buildings, many have since been converted into functional spaces like temples, clan associations, coffeeshops, boutique hotels, cafes and offices, albeit with modern furnishings and decorations to suit their intended audience.