Though Singapore has no shortage of striking modern buildings, it’s the island’s rows of traditional shophouses that are its most distinctive architectural feature. Once often cramped and unsanitary, many were demolished in the years following independence, but since the 1980s whole streets of them have been declared conservation areas and handsomely restored.

As the name suggests, shophouses were originally a combination of shop and home, with the former occupying the ground floor of a two- or three-storey building; eventually many came to be built purely as townhouses, but the original name stuck. Unusually, the facade is always recessed at ground level, leaving a space here that, combined with adjoining spaces in a row of shophouses, would form a sheltered walkway at the front (the “five-foot way”, so named because of its minimum width) – hence the lack of pavements on Singapore’s older streets. Another notable feature is that shophouses were built narrow and surprisingly deep. Behind the ground-floor shop or reception hall there might be a small courtyard, open to the sky, then yet another room; this layout can be seen at the Baba House and the Katong Antiques House. Also, shophouses were usually built back to back, with tiny alleyways separating the rear sections of adjoining rows; it’s down one such alleyway that the brothels of Desker Road are tucked away.

Shophouses began to be built from the mid-nineteenth century. The oldest ones are no longer standing, but slightly later examples, which still exist on and around Telok Ayer and Arab streets, for example, feature the characteristic shuttered windows and tiled roofs that continued to be used for several decades. Otherwise, their decoration was limited, say, to simple stuccowork, but by the turn of the last century, the shophouse had blossomed into a dizzy melange of Western and Eastern styles, which both European and local architects enjoyed blending. So-called Neoclassical, Chinese Baroque and Rococo shophouses featured decorative Corinthian columns, mini-pediments, fanlights, a riot of multicoloured tilework and stucco, even curvy gables. Local ornamentations included wooden trelliswork and eaves overhung with a row of fretted fascia boards, both often seen in Malay palaces; Peranakan pintu pagar, half-height swing doors like those in Wild West bars; and Chinese touches such as floral and animal motifs. You can see fine wedding-cake-like rows of shophouses in these styles around Joo Chiat Road in Katong and on Sam Leong and Petain roads at the northern edge of Little India.

By the 1930s, global recession and prevailing artistic trends had caused a swing towards more sober Art Deco and modernist buildings, with simpler, geometrical facades often topped by a central flagpole. Shophouses with so-called Tropical Deco stylings continued to be built in Singapore after World War II, even though Art Deco had become old hat elsewhere, and there are quite a few examples in Chinatown, on South Bridge Road for example.

Boxy 1960s shophouses were the form’s last hurrah. By the 1980s, shophouses had pretty much fallen out of favour as they were just too small to make efficient use of scarce land, though a semblance of the five-foot way lived on in some concrete shopping developments of the time.

As with heritage buildings the world over, today’s surviving shophouses are often but a handsomely restored shell concealing insides that have been totally gutted and rejigged. Many no longer serve as shops, homes or clan houses, functioning instead as bars, beauty salons or offices.

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