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The Architecture of Tiong Bahru


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The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was established in 1920 to address the housing shortage and unsanitary living conditions prevalent in Singapore at that time. One of SIT's major projects was the development of Tiong Bahru, which was its third and largest housing project after two smaller developments at Lavender Street and Kreta Ayer. To make way for the housing project, SIT needed to clear about 2,000 squatters, as well as acquire and level approximately 72 acres of land.

Initially, SIT planned to sell the land to private developers to fund and construct the flats needed, but this plan failed when Singapore was hit by a recession in 1931. Despite attempting to sell the land through tender repeatedly over the next five years, SIT was unsuccessful and eventually decided to develop the property itself in 1936.

Alfred G. Church was the architect appointed to design Tiong Bahru between 1936 and 1941. His pre-war designs were a modified version of Streamline Moderne, a style that developed from the Art Deco movement. Inspired by technology and modern travel, the buildings were designed to resemble cars, trains, airplanes, and ocean liners, featuring sweeping, streamlined, aerodynamic lines.

Unlike earlier versions of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne is characterized by clean, curved shapes, rounded corners, and simple uncluttered lines that reflected the connection of buildings to the machine age. Elements of Streamline Moderne include long horizontal and vertical lines, occasional nautical elements such as porthole windows and stainless steel railings, bands of windows, flat roofs, racing stripes to simulate speed and motion, and glass blocks and group windows.

One unique feature of the Tiong Bahru flats is the use of fair-faced facing bricks on some of the balconies, which are laid out in patterns of darker and lighter bricks. Although Streamline Moderne was popular in public buildings such as libraries, railway stations, and airports, it was not commonly used in housing projects, much less public housing projects.

In 2003, the Urban Redevelopment Authority conserved 20 blocks of the Tiong Bahru pre-war flats to preserve their unique architecture. The use of curved corners and cantilevered shades gives the buildings a modern appearance. As you walk around Tiong Bahru, keep an eye out for the various elements of Streamline Moderne style present in its buildings.

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