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New book showcases 55 Good Class Bungalows in Singapore

Trace almost 200 years of the history of Singapore bungalows.

Good Class Bungalows are the jewels of Singapore property. They are the biggest of all bungalows and a rarity, with only about 2,800 set on prime plots on the island. While some bungalows are historic buildings that are more than 100 years old, others have been built in a contemporary style in recent years.

  • Interior of Russells Road GCB

A number are secluded on the slopes of the few remaining hills in Singapore – Bukit Tunggal, Caldecott Hill and Cluny Hill – on the sites of the country’s first plantations.

Set in lush gardens, these dwellings are the subject of a new book by British architect and academic Robert Powell, 74. The 200-page hardcover, titled Singapore Good Class Bungalow 1819-2015, traces almost 200 years of the history of Singapore bungalows, including the origins of this class of property.

(Related: This Cornwall Gardens GCB is the pinnacle of living with nature.)

In an interview with The Straits Times, Professor Powell says that with Singapore developing at a great pace in the late 1970s and highrises sprouting, “it was probably for economic reasons that the Government decided to officially recognise the bigger bungalows and their surroundings so as to attract or retain high-wealth citizens to contribute to the economy”.

In his book, he writes that the term Good Class Bungalow Area was first mentioned in the revised masterplan by the then Ministry of National Development in 1980, in an effort to protect the “high environment quality” of the larger bungalows from the intrusion of other intensive development.

Author Professor Robert Powell (right) and photographer Albert Lim (left)

Thirty-nine areas were designated as Good Class Bungalow Areas. “It is possible that they were called good class to differentiate them from smaller bungalow plots,” he says and adds that the term is believed to be unique to Singapore.

Bungalow developments in these areas must have a minimum plot size of 1,400 sq m – about a quarter the size of a football field – and a maximum height of two storeys. The bungalow as a whole – or what is called the “roofed area” – cannot take up more than 35 per cent of the plot of land, to ensure that there is plenty of open space in the compound.

The creation of such a category not only led to the preservation of some of the greener areas of Singapore, but also gave a boost to the country’s architectural profession, he says.

“Many architects now at the forefront of the profession here cut their teeth on detached residential design in Good Class Bungalow Areas,” he says. Among them are Mok Wei Wei from W Architects and Chan Soo Khian from SCDA Architects.

Residential commissions are the first step on the ladder for most new graduates seeking to launch their careers as professional architects in private practice and these bungalows are plum prizes.

It is not known how many bungalow plots there were in the category originally. One plot can house more than one bungalow. Some bungalows may have been redeveloped and split into separate bungalows over the years.

But according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), there are now about 2,800 plots in the category. About 65 Good Class Bungalows have been gazetted for conservation. Each plot can fetch between $15.7 million and $44.5 million, according to Knight Frank Research data for this year’s transaction prices.

The new book showcases 55 Good Class Bungalows, including five that are recipients of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards, which recognise well restored and conserved buildings here. Also featured are 12 modern tropical bungalows designed by architects in Singapore between 2010 and last year.

The design of the modern bungalows mitigates the effects of climate change with inventive solutions such as surrounding a living area with a pond (The Willow House in Cluny Hill) and using charcoal logs to clad the entrance facade (Cornwall Gardens House). Charcoal is known to filter rain and “clean” the air.

Cornwall: Detail of the charcoal facade incorporated orchid planters.

Detail of the charcoal facade incorporated orchid planters. Image credit: Cornwall Gardens House

The earliest bungalows, some of which still stand, are also mentioned in the book’s narrative about the evolution of the bungalow in Singapore. They include early plantation houses and Art Deco-inspired bungalows.

Prof Powell says it was not difficult for him to choose the bungalows to feature. When he lived in Singapore from 1984 to 2001 and taught at the School of Architecture at the National University of Singapore, he had visited about 150 houses, including Good Class Bungalows, often as part of research for his other books. He is the author of 12 other books about the architecture of private houses in South-east Asia.

At that time of writing the book, he was based in Brighton in England and visited Singapore thrice. He sourced for early maps from the Royal Geographical Society in London, interviewed key architects in Singapore such as Chang Yong Ter, Aamer Taher and Teh Joo Heng, and obtained floor plans from some of them.

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The 200-page hardcover traces almost 200 years of the history of Singapore bungalows, including the origins of this class of property.

The architects helped him get approval for photographer Albert Lim, 65, to take pictures of the bungalows. Lim has worked with Prof Powell on his books over 25 years. “Almost all the owners said yes,” says Prof Powell. The majority agreed to let Lim photograph the interior and exterior of their house.

Most owners did not wish to be named.

One exception was Ong Tze Boon, architect and son of the late Singapore president Ong Teng Cheong, who lives at 1 Dalvey Estate, which was built in 1927. The masterpiece by prominent British architect Frank Wilmin Brewer has all the classic Brewer hallmarks: flared eaves, buttressed walls and oriole windows.

The late Mr Ong, an architect by profession, lived in the house for several years, and restoration and extension to the house had been carried out by his practice Ong & Ong Architects.

Another owner is Robert Kwan, founder of McDonald’s Singapore. King Albert Park House was built for him in 1994 by Singaporean architect Tay Kheng Soon. It has all the attributes of a well-designed bungalow in the tropics: a water garden, wide overhanging eaves and living spaces that “open to the sky” and are orientated to catch the breeze.

With the rapid urbanisation of Singapore and doubling of its population over the last 30 years, are Good Class Bungalows here to stay? Prof Powell believes so. He says: “There is a good case for their preservation as they are an important part of Singapore’s history.”

Here are four highlights:

The Ong Residence

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Putting a modern extension in front of a 103-year-old tropical Edwardian-style bungalow is not something most architects might do.

But Rene Tan and Quek Tse Kwang of RT&Q Architects did just that when they were commissioned by K.T. Ong, managing director of interior furnishings company Vanguard Interiors, to restore his house in 2010 and add a new extension for his two grown-up children.

The house, which is on the cover of the Singapore Good Class Bungalow book, was originally designed by Scottish architect David McLeod Craik and built for a municipal councillor of Persian origin in 1913.

A distinctive feature of the old house, which comes with a lantern roof and timbre structure, was the porch at the entrance. It was set at 45 degrees to the main body of the house, which was restored in places.

The original staircase was reconstructed with some balustrade details, for instance.

Tan and Quek made the “counter-intuitive” decision of putting the new extension prominently in front of the entrance porch.

It comprises accommodation arrayed symmetrically along a linear lap pool. It is intentionally modern in appearance, featuring new materials such as grey granite, white marble, plaster and paint.

The design strengths of the architects were recognised when the project won an Urban Redevelopment Authority Architectural Heritage Award in 2011.

The Water-Cooled House

The tree-lined drive to the Water-Cooled House, with its rooftop pond that surrounds a glass pavilion.

With her passionate interest in botany and ecology, the owner was clear from the start about what she wanted: a house naturally cooled with as little air-conditioning as possible.

The result is the Water-Cooled House at 27A Ewart Park, designed by architect Robin Tan from Wallflower Architecture + Design. The bungalow, built in 2010, is ensconced in a valley near Holland Road and approached via a tree-lined drive.

An experiment in climate control, the bungalow has many cooling features, the most prominent of which is a large body of water on the roof.

This 40cm-deep rectangular pond, which surrounds a rooftop glass-walled pavilion, insulates the dining area, bedrooms and other rooms below, keeping them cool.

The impression one gets when looking out of the pavilion is of being in a forest canopy, with the greenery all around reflected in the calm water of the infinity pond.

Parallel to the building is a single-storey service block with a “wet” kitchen for heavy-duty cooking, a laundry and utility room and staff accommodation.

This is separated from the main block by a 30m-long koi pond which produces a cool micro-climate in the space in between.

Eu House I

Four pavilions are set around a water court in Eu House I, which combines different styles such as Chinese, Balinese, Thai and Malay in its interior.

Possibly the seminal bungalow of the early 1990s, Eu House I in the Holland Road area is special in the way it elegantly and seamlessly combines different styles – Chinese, Balinese, Thai and Malay.

It was designed in 1993 by Argentinian architect Ernesto Bedmar, director of Bedmar & Shi. The house consists of four pavilions set around a pond or water court in a U-shaped configuration.

One enters through a carved Chinese door with filigree panels, which gives a glimpse of the spaces that lie within. Balinese elements are seen on the legs of the pavilion columns and in the roof design.

The “openness” of the rooms evokes the banglas or bungalows of India, the Thai sala or pavilion, and the kampung houses of Malacca.

The result is a courtyard house that reflects the cultural diversity of Singapore and its location amid the multi-hued cultures of Asia.

23 Gallop Park

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Sitting on the western-facing slope of Cluny Hill, this two-storey bungalow is a delightful assembly of interlocking “cubes” with a swimming pool projecting out to the west and, beyond this, a sculptural tour-de-force: a tree house.

The tree house is a unique vertical steel-and-timber structure with multi-level platforms that are built around a couple of trees.

It was designed by Joseph Lim, an associate professor in the department of architecture at the National University of Singapore in 2002 for the previous owner, and it has been retained by the present one.

The current bungalow was designed by Alan Tay of Formwerkz Architects in 2014. He envisaged a dramatic approach to the house: a curved driveway which sweeps up to a rectangular archway beneath the pool. Visitors then ascend an external staircase to arrive at the verandah of the rectangular bungalow.

To mitigate the effects of the sun in the late afternoon, the design includes shading measures such as a deep overhang at the first storey and horizontal timbre louvres on the second storey.

Adapted from The Straits Times. Image by Albert Lim, unless indicated.