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, <>


“Asia’s Greenest”

Only forty-two years young and Singapore is considered to be ‘The Greenest City” in Asia (Senthilingam 2016). At first, one is to question whether the term green here means immature, foolish and gullible (Green 2011) or whether the term refers to the environmental green. According to the CNN article, it would mean to be the latter. Having such a label in this century is without a doubt an impressive feat considering the global urgency to counteract the cause and effect of global warming. The path towards Singapore’s results were aided by the establishment of the design initiative that is the Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark Scheme (Building and Construction Authority 2017), which is aimed to bring about environmental sustainability using a rating system to evaluate every building’s impact and performance on the environment (Senthilingam 2016).

So is this considered a green, innocent way of thinking? As adults would call infants green in thought, too young to understand that most things in life are irreversible and undeniable, such as global warming, would Singapore also be categorised into this green class? Is Singapore being too naive to think that a complete country could become environmentally sustainable by designing a way of life that incorporates a seamless cooperation of architecture and nature? This blogpost will explore the design initiative of the Green Mark Scheme, specifically looking at how current and future man-made technology is able to preserve and challenge the cultural and social heritage of Singapore through the art of architecture.

The importance of preserving a place filled with cultural and social heritage, as well as embracing a newly evolving and fast paced lifestyle with technological advances is certainly not an easy task. However, Singapore has grown to become that place; incorporating the bits and pieces of history in its landscape and architecture whilst fusing the beauty and design of a diverse future into its society. Singapore has transformed itself into a place which values the nostalgia and memories of the land amidst its growing technologically focused nation (Kong & Yeoh 1996). By adapting a modern way of thinking, the country has shown that it is in fact not green-minded but is receptive and progressing in a world that is deteriorating from the lack of care for the green environment.

As mentioned above, the Green Mark Scheme is a rating system on every building in Singapore to evaluate its impact and performance on the environment, which is ideal for statistics and acknowledgements; however, that would mean that there must be buildings in order to be rated. This contradicts the label of being green because preoccupied space must be cleared for there to be new infrastructure developments, hence challenging the existence of Singapore’s cultural heritage landscapes.


Singapore’s Botanic Gardens: Supertrees (2010)


Singapore’s landscape plays a significant part in its cultural heritage, as less than a century ago, it was classed as a third world country (BBC 2015), thus ridding its native terrain would disrupt and challenge Singapore’s identity and history. And though there are buildings such as The Beach Road project by Foster & Partners, and the supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay, which both aim to amplify the power of natural energy supplied by the atmosphere, they are still technically developments that require space and produce waste to make and maintain. The true hero to reconcile the initiatives that challenge Singapore’s cultural and social heritage is the introduction of The Heritage Road Scheme in 2001, which conserve some of the scenic, tree-lined roads of Singapore that contain some of the country’s oldest trees. These mature trees are reflective of the hard-work and dedicated care and growth of the country, and are worth considered heritage (National Parks 2015). The Green Corridor should also be noted as it was a successful people-led movement to conserve the land (Senthilingam 2016), which portrayed society’s care for their land and heritage.

Singapore is indeed a ‘green’ country, and most likely Asia’s Greenest in terms of advancing in environmentally sustainable infrastructures and schemes that not only embrace, but challenges its cultural and social heritage. The country itself, as young as it is, has transformed into a well respected city-state that many of the first-world countries should reflect and learn from.

Reference List: 

BBC 2015, Singapore: From third world to first, United Kingdom, viewed 17 January 2017,<>

Building and Construction Authority 2017, About BCA Green Mark Scheme, Government Information Website, Singapore, viewed 17 January 2017, <>

Green, J. 2011, How did the word “green” become synonymous with “new” or “inexperienced”?, forum, Quora, viewed 16 January 2017, <>

Kong, L. & Yeoh, B. 1996, ‘ The Notion of Place in the Construction of History, Nostalgia and Heritage in Singapore’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 52–65

National Parks 2015, Heritage Roads: The Heritage Road Scheme, Singapore, viewed 17 January 2017,<>

Senthilingam, M. 2016, Singapore: Concrete jungle or greenest city on Earth?, weblog, CNN, United States, viewed 16 January 2017, <>


Singapore’s Botanic Garden 2010, photographed by F. Bianchi, Flickr, viewed 17 January 2017, <>