Just what we’ve been waiting for – Singapore Shophouse, an authoritative book on what is perhaps this city’s most fascinating architectural heritage. Brilliantly authored by Julian Davison, with extensive photography by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni and creatively edited by Kim Inglis, this is a winner. Julian answers our questions.
We are hugely impressed by the detail and depth of information contained in your book. How long did it take you to research and write?
Around two and a half years – probably a little bit more – stretched over a four-year period.
When did you start working on it?
I began work on the project in November 2006.
Well, in terms of doing the research, I have an academic background in anthropology – a PhD from the School of Oriental & African Studies in London, awarded for a study of the ritual and symbolism surrounding traditional headhunting practices in Borneo. Maybe not an obvious choice of specialisation when it comes to studying old buildings, but it taught me the discipline of rigorous research and sound analytical argument.
As regards the architectural side of things, my father was an architect – he was one of the founding partners of the Singapore branch of Raglan Squire & Partners, today’s RSP, and subsequently opened an office in Kuala Lumpur, where I spent most of my childhood. (The first six years were in Singapore).
So I was conscious of buildings from an early age. On Saturdays, I would often accompany my father on site inspections of various projects he was working on. But while my father was Modernist, I especially loved old buildings. In one respect, this book and my previous one on black-and-white houses, are attempts to try and capture what old Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and all these other places were like when I was growing up here, before they were caught up on the tide of progress; magical, picturesque towns and cities, whose colourful buildings and teeming streets turned me into life-long Orientalist at a very early age.
My principal source of information was the incredible collection of architectural drawings submitted to the Singapore Municipality for planning permission, which are lodged with the National Archives of Singapore in Stamford Road. (The National Archives is a co-publisher of the book). The period I consulted was from 1884, which is when the records begin, up until the advent of the war in the Pacific. There were over 28,000 submissions during this period (not all of them shophouses, of course), of which I have now looked at around 90 percent.
Other than the drawings, I consulted the published literature in Singapore’s architectural past – books like Lee Kip Lin’s indispensable Singapore House 1819–1942 (1988) and Gretchen Liu’s Pastel Portraits (1984) – and the National Library’s extensive on-line data base, which includes the recently digitalised Straits Times.
Did you experience any difficulties along the way?
Probably my biggest frustration has been the lack of biographical information relating to the architects who designed these amazing buildings. I know them intimately through their work – literally hundreds of hours spent poring over the above-mentioned working drawings at the National Archives has at one level turned them into old friends, their handwritten notes and distinctive architectural traits and signature stylistic flourishes, immediately recognisable to me.
At another level, however, their lives remain a complete mystery to me, with only an occasional mention in the Straits Times – often no more than a brief obituary notice – to add a human dimension to their architectural achievements. One day, someone may discover a secret cache of letters hidden away in some dusty attic, but otherwise their work is all that we have to go on. Actually, what I’m hoping is that someone reading the book will come forward and say “Oh, So-and-so was my great-grandfather”, and suddenly open up a whole new chapter on that particular architect.
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