How the Singapore Black and White House Came to Be

October 21, 2022

How the Singapore Black and White House Came to Be

The Singapore Black and White House helps tell the history of modern Singapore understood through the lens of architecture. It tells of how colonialization (modern day globalization) brought together completely different styles to create something entirely new. It also speaks to sustainability—how it had to be practiced due to the accessibility of primarily local materials and methods. There was little choice other than to work with what they had and when they did, innovation was born.

The British East India Company began in the early 1600s in India to compete with the Portuguese and the Dutch East India Company for trade. The British set up trade posts in India and eventually other parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. This is not a blog post about the history of colonialism or post-colonialism, though a dense history it is, but simply to speak to the architecture of the Singapore ‘black and white’ and how it evolved from some factors that I will go into.

Anglo-Indian bungalows were built for British factory officials and later, military and government administrators. Bungalow, derived from the Hindi word bangala, referred to this style of European dwelling. These bungalows, developed for the British, had wide verandahs, high ceilings, low hanging eves, and high windows which functioned to provide air circulation and shelter from the sun and rain. The bungalows also provided privacy with separate rooms for sleep and a private bath that the British had become accustomed to. As the British made their way to the Malay Peninsula in the 1770s, they brought along with them the bungalow style of housing. One feature that was added to the Malay style was that it was set up on stilts in order to protect from termites, humidity and rain.

The British East India Company continued to expand and in 1819 Stamford Raffles founded modern day Singapore. George Coleman, a highly trained government architect, helped plan and design Singapore and was responsible for building the Armenian Apostolic Church of Singapore, the Coleman House at Chijmes, and others. When Coleman died in 1844 Singapore didn’t see have another notable architect until the arrival of Regent Alfred John Bidwell 1895 when he came to work for the private architecture firm Swan and Maclaren. While there he designed the Raffles Hotel, Cricket Club, Victoria Hall, Goodwood Hotel, and Chesed El Synagogue. He is also responsible for the first Black and White House in Singapore, the Atbara House.

Bidwell may have been influenced by what was happening in England architecturally, which at the time was the immensely popular Old English and mock Tudor style. The Arts and Crafts movement, founded by William Morris, who revered the medieval period, was also making an impact with its ideological focus on craftsmanship and great design, a response to the Industrial Revolution. In Singapore, Bidwell combined the mock Tudor aesthetic and adapted it for the tropical climate so air would flow through and the home would stay comfortable. As with the bungalows previously, homes were designed to work with the weather. All the ‘black and whites’ are raised off the ground for protection from water and other elements. As modernism further took hold, the ‘black and whites’ also evolved. One can see how they began to take on a more stark and austere form while also showing the influence of the Art Deco period in the rounded shapes, for example the Tiong Bahru flats and Wessex walk ups.

Eventually ‘black and whites’ were no longer being built due to WWII, but in the early post-war period the tradition of the ‘black and white’ lived on, for example, 44 Monk’s Hill Road, an early 1950s ‘black and white’ tropical modern apartment building with distinct Art Deco details such as the round shaped windows and glass block design. The Singapore Black and White Houses are a fine example of a design innovation that was sustainable and that resulted in the invention of a beautiful new style of architecture.

singapore black and white house

A Singapore black and white with Deco windows

The following are the 44 Monk's Hill Road from the early 50s. 

Art Deco style is shown here with the round shaped windows. 1950s era glass blocks are timeless.

44 Monk Hill Rd's porte-cochère


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