The Past and Present: Marina Bay and Shophouses

Written by Joanne Lee

Singapore embodies a paradigm shift that comprises of both traditional and contemporary design and culture. With fifty years of independence, the visual design of culture resides in every corner – traditional kopitiams, shophouses and multiracial neighbourhoods – in which ultimately creates the country’s identity. Architecture and visual communication remained respondent to the issue of social connectivity, cultural and historical conservation. While design is a multifaceted field, Singapore embraces integration of the modern and historical fabric to incorporate what existed in the past to the present and future. The changing nature of its construction and development is therefore justified by the historical context of the country – independence, post-war period and economic shifts. As a result, Singapore’s infrastructure transformed and “entered a phase of maturity, excitedly readying itself to experience its own prime” (Anderson & Choo, 2015).

Marina Bay is the work of reclaimed land in which developed into “one of Asia’s model public spaces” (Anderson & Choo, 2015). As Singapore has an expansion of design and architecture, buildings have been refurbished for “adaptive reuse” and “to endow Marina Bay with landmarks that communicate national history”(Anderson & Choo, 2015). This was to symbolise the once booming trades of the British colonial-era where Marina Bay served as trading grounds for India and China. These remaining Neo-Classical structures functioned as British government offices that surrounded the port and have been restored for commercial use such as hotels and shopping centres. During the 1930s, it was an access point for both ferried goods, visitors and labourers.


Above: An illustration of the Singapore River in the 1800s, the trading centre of the British colonial port. Courtesy of Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

However, the purpose of the river changed with complimentary skyscrapers and areas for entertainment. Although the image of the national gateway was renewed, the port has re-established itself as the “nation’s front door” (Anderson & Choo, 2015). This was due to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and their objective to create an “international and recreational hub, the new centre for business in Asia” (Anderson & Choo, 2015) and is now “the signature image of Singapore” (Loong, 2005).


Courtesy of Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

Although Singapore encompasses a modern cityscape, historic buildings within the urban districts remained intact since the arrival of early immigrants. Blueprints were carried from China to construct vernacular shophouses that consisted of two or three stories – the ground level for a merchant’s business and secondary floors for residential accommodation. Further characteristics included strict sizings i.e. narrow space to secure a compact block of the same buildings, similar to terraced houses. These local shophouses are now conserved for multifunctional use such as a food and beverage outlet, community space or a service provider. As there are many different forms of shophouses, they are categorised into five styles according to their visual features and structure (Lee 2015). From the early to modern stages of handiwork, there are key elements that expose the differentiation of each style. For example, the Transitional style first explored vibrant colours and ornamental surface pieces called jian nian, a carved mosaic of floral and fauna patterns and imagery. Every element determines individual character as a shophouse and describes the narrative behind the cultural heritage. As for the late urban development, “a mix of elaborate ‘Late’, ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Modern’ shophouse architectural styles” were introduced to new towns, distinct from older districts (Urban Redevelopment Authority 2016). During the post-war period, these shophouses reformed with a geometric aesthetic and additional functional features such as air vents and glass windows. This allowed a visible evolution of residential housing where the historic buildings were conserved and successfully adapted for modern living.


Above: A depiction of the modern styled shophouse with accented geometrical features.
Courtesy of Joshua Lee from

In combination of public and private spaces, Singapore has adjusted to the relationship between the rising skyline and urban living, both in which has conducted a harmony of old and new, in an effort to sustain the history in regards to design in a cultural context.


Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

Joshua Lee, 2015,  5 types of shophouses in s’pore that you definitely didn’t know of,, viewed 10 January 2017, <>

Sharanjit Leyl, 2015, Singapore at 50, BBC, viewed 10 January 2017, <>

Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2016, Conservation, viewed 10 January 2017, <>

Angloinfo, 2017, Singaporean cultural norms and traditions, viewed 10 January 2017, <>


One thought on “The Past and Present: Marina Bay and Shophouses”

  1. I think the idea of Marina Bay being one of “Asia’s model spaces” is a really interesting idea, because I don’t think it’s really limited to Marina Bay, but rather relates to the entire city as well. Because Singapore is a highly planned city, I think it’s almost been an experiment and has almost become a kind of model for other cities to aspire to, or take ideas from. I also think your research on shophouses will tie in really well to our project, as their conservation has definitely been a positive step in opposing the degradation of cultural identity and heritage due to such aggressive redevelopment over the last fifty years.


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