Feature Articles

Colonial Architecture

By: joyceho on 02 Mar 2012
To the untrained eye, Singapore may appear as just another modern city, with its typical skyscrapers and tall buildings. Take a closer look, however, and you will notice the various architectural styles present here that paint a story of Singapore’s past, ranging from the pre-World War II colonial period to what it is today. The prominence of colonial buildings present in Singapore in particular retraces its steps as an early settlement to a seaport as part of the Straits Settlements, alongside Penang and Malacca.

Soon after the British established a settlement near the mouth of the Singapore River in 1819, attempts to structure the urban environment and build civic and government buildings were used as an expression of colonial aspirations and ideals. The introduction of Palladian, Renaissance and neoclassical style architecture, which were popular with the British at the time, were not only new to locals, but eluded notions of political power and strength against then-contemporary Chinese, Indian and Malay architecture forms.

While most of these buildings can be prominently found in City Hall and Raffles Place, it is not unusual to find such styles being incorporated into newer commercial buildings, malls and schools. Admire the works of colonial architects in some of Singapore’s oldest and prominent landmarks.

Old Supreme Court

Possibly one of the best-designed Neo-Classical buildings in Singapore, the Old Supreme Court was built between 1937 and 1939, and cost a grand total of 1.75 million British Strait Settlement dollars. The best known feature of the building is the tympanum, which features a sculpture relief fitted with the top enclosed space. Some interesting facts: 
Corinthian columns at the Old Supreme Court
  • The 36 feet long and 9 feet high relief was a made by Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rudolfo Nolli although the tympanum itself were found commonly in Greek temples as part of Classical Greek architecture. Lady Justice sits as the centrepiece holding a balancing scale, her eyes wide open, with wrong-doers being punished on her right and the administration of law and justice on her left. This is unlike other allegory of Justice found elsewhere, where the allegorical personification is blindfolded, attributing the common phrase, “justice is blind”.
  • The five bas relief panels above the main porch depicts life in colonial Singapore. These nine feet long and two feet wide panels feature the construction of the actual building followed by the life on a rubber plantation, the signing of the treaty between Sir Stamford Raffles and the Temenggong of Singapore, and ends with the portrayal of Malay fishermen and the image of the international marine trade.
  • The front of the building is supported by rows of both Ionic and Corinthian columns drawing from the Neo-Classical tradition. In the forefront the Corinthian columns possesses intricately designed acanthus leaves, surrounding the capital while the Ionic columns possess the background with simple scroll-like effects cascading from the side of the capitals.
  • The copper-coloured top located at the top of the building is taken after the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Victoria Concert Hall

Named in memory of Queen Victoria who passed away in 1901, the Victoria Concert Hall was built in 1903, designed to reflect the Italian Renaissance style. Initially built as a town hall, the then ‘Victoria Theatre’ was used as offices and meeting purposes in the day, and doubled up as a performance venue for amateur groups by night.

In the course of its century-long life span, the venue was also used as a hospital and a war crimes trials court. Later renamed as the Victoria Concert Hall, this historical landmark is known for its distinctive Palladian clock tower, its tall and thin Italianate windows and rusticated columns - a classical architectural feature which contrasts texture with smooth finishes.

Old Parliament House

Built in 1827 as a Neo-Palladian building owned by a Java-based Scottish merchant, John Argyle Maxwell, the Old Parliament House is the oldest government building in Singapore. However, renovation works in 1873 and 1875 saw the loss of architect G. D. Coleman’s work, transforming the architectural style of the building was to Victorian. Nevertheless the enduring Palladian-styled windows still remain, with arched central light flanked by two lower straight-headed lights, keeping to its true Palladian nature which garnered popularity in Britain from the mid 17th to 19th centuries. Another interesting feature is the somewhat off-placed majestic bronze elephant located at the front of the building, a gift bestowed by King Rama V of Thailand in 1871.


While it is one thing to appreciate cathedrals and churches, it is slightly different when appreciating a Catholic school that has been converted into a plaza of themed retail and thriving nightlife spots. It is for this reason that CHIJMES' S$100 million project goes unmatched for its location and unique ambiance.

The four-acre site, which was once the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, comprises of a total of five Neo-Classical buildings. The main Chijmes Hall is notable for its intricately designed 19th Century stained-glass windows, Corinthian columns with floral and bird motifs on its capital, Gothic-style steeple, the original floor tiles, terracotta roof tiles and the marble plaques. The 150-year-old Caldwell House which use to be the nuns' sanctuary is similarly filled with Ionic columns similar to that of the Old Supreme Court. The courtyard takes after the Covent Garden in England with its fanciful cobblestone floors, fountains and shady trees, similar to that of the Chijmes lawn.

The Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel

Designed by Regent Alber John Bidwell of Swan and MacLaren, the Raffles was the largest hotel within the Strait Settlements at the time, and is iconic in not only being a grand first-class hotel since its inception in 1887. Built in the old Neo-Classical style, the Raffles Hotel features lush inner court gardens, incorporating the verandas which were popular among the British colonies.

Goodwood Park Hotel

Intially built as a Teutonia Club for German expatriates,  the Goodwood Park Hotel was designed by the same architects of Raffles Hotel. The club was converted into a hotel in 1929 and continues to hold international standards in terms of its hospitality service and upkeep. Like its predecessor, Goodwood Park’s architecture has a High Victorian flavour with its majestic Italian turrets, fluted columns, delicate wood-works, decorative plasterwork and graceful archways.

The Fullerton
The Fullerton

Fullerton Hotel

This Neo-classical building features fluted Doric columns on their heavy base, and the lofty porch over the main entrance with trophy designs and the Royal Coat of Arms. Designed by Italian Cavaliere Rudolfo Nolli, the same sculptor for the Old Supreme Court’s iconic tympanum, the Fullerton Hotel started out as an office building housing the Chamber of Commerce, the Singapore Club - now called the Singapore Town Club - and its longstanding anchor tenant, the General Post Office. During the war, the Fullerton was converted into a make-shift hospital with operation theatres. Its neo-classical columns and high-ceiling verandas are still present today. The overlaying of Shanghai plastered panels and timber framed windows sets it apart from other colonial buildings.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) Building

Better known as the former Hill Street Police Station, this recently restored building was the first high rise building in early 20th Century with six floors. Used as barracks for the police personnel in 1934, it was designed by F. Dorrington and adopted a Classical Renaissance style. The external wooden window shutters are were colorfully painted in blue, yellow, green and red to further enhance the aesthetic appeal of the once gloomy police station.

MPH Building

Fondly remembered by many as the building which housed the MPH Bookstore, the MPH Building is one of the rare buildings which possesses an Edwardian architecture style. Named after King Edward VII, the MPH building consisted of pediment and arched windows, rusticated piers and bold baroque arches typical in the late Victorian fashion which encompassed the Edwardian style.

Central Fire Station

Another rare Edwardian building is the red-and-white Central Fire Station. The brilliance of this architecture was its in ability to use its given space and form to create a functional fire station that could respond to its basic requirements while providing it with a sense of character.

The visual mix of rusticated brickwork and white plaster accompanied with alternate bands of bricks and plastered elements to accentuate its corners and edges enabled people to identify it for what it is without overdoing the Edwardian signature style.

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