Singapore (1980-1990)/ Adaptive Reuse of Shophouses in Boat Quay

Singapore (1980-1990)/ Adaptive Reuse of Shophouses in Boat Quay


(Spine Week, 2016)

Over 5,000 shop houses are preserved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) with over 200 in the Boat Quay area.  Shophouses are a symbolic representation of Singapore’s multi-cultural history.  This is evident in the many styles of shop houses starting from 1840 to the 1960s.  Shop houses are usually two to three storeys high urban blocks with multi-use programmes with the ground floor functioning for business and the upper levels serving as residential.  Shophouses have a narrow façade with deep space behind.  The revitalization of shophouses are funded privately, although the URA gives strict guidelines on restoration, the only incentives given are development waivers and car parking deficiency charges under URA Conservation Guidelines section and (URA, 2011)


Types of shop housestypes-of-shophouses

(Spine Week, 2016)

The earliest shop houses date by to 1840’s known as the ‘Early Style’, they are two stories high with minimal ornamentation and featured Doric columns.  Theses shop houses can be found on Erkskine Road and North Bridge Road.  By 1900s the development of shophouses became taller reaching three stories.  Simple uses of ornamentation were adopted but still constrained.  Ornamentation started to become more lavish in the 1920s.  These had bright colours and illustrated classical elements of Chinese symbolism.  Three-window arrangement with little wall space was emphasized in this period.  This eventually developed into Art Deco style around the 1930s -1960s.  The art deco period was highly influenced by European and American culture, this featured highly geometrical designs and a stepped pediment.  A flag post may also be seen on the top of the building.  Such shophouses are located on Ann Siang Hill and Bukit Pasoh Road.  The latest style of shophouses known as the ‘Modern Style’ took over after the 1950’s where concrete became more evident as a construction material.  Function became a greater role compared then to the Art Deco style as shown through the use of simple concrete air vents.


Extents of adaptive reuses

Boat Quay consists of 110 shophouses long and most of these have been re-adapted to fit modern day purposes and market requirements.  Each house is typically six meters wide and two to three storeys tall.  Original ground floor programmes involved shipping offices, supply shops and warehouses (E.Lin, 2016).  Extensive renovations were conducted shortly after World Ward II where the entire area shifted away from an industrial port to economic and tourist attractions.  The shophouses were converted to restaurants, café’s, pubs and small shops.


Although each shophouse has been private restored, the URA has set fourth a conservation guideline where:


(URA, 2011)

“the key elements in the building to be respected are the following: the roof, party walls, timber structural elements, airwells, rear court, timber windows, timber staircase, and the front façade.” (E.Lin, 2016)

are to be restored.  A typical Art-Deco shophouse along Boat Quay have roofs covered with unglazed clay tiles and the interiors were dominated by wooden floorboards, joists, staircases, doors and masonry walls.  These were the elements that were uniformly conserved between all the individual owner.  The programme was left for the owners to decide.


For example, ‘The Opera Café’ at No.40 Quay had its interior completely redeveloped to meet its needs as a restaurant.  The ambiance and interior materiality completely changed to look like an opera stage set.  Another unit owned by the same family.  No.58 has its ground level changed from a warehouse to a Japanese restaurant.  The upper levels remain unchanged as the family still lives there.  Different degree of restoration works has been adopted in Boat Quay.  Some shophouses still remains as purely residential such as the ‘The Shin House’ located at No. 12 Blair Road.  It is restored to display a mix of Chinese, Malay, European and colonial elements.  Minimal structural changes were made to maintain the original spatial quality. Elements that were not compatible such as a 1950’s iron stairway, were removed. Other new elements such as patio doors were added to bring in additional light. The Shin House it is an example where restoration has been sensitive to appearance and the qualities of space and light.


To conclude, different extents of restoration works have taken place along Boat Quay.  This differs depending on the ownership of the shophouse, and how he or she wants to restore it.  Since there are strict guidelines on restoration works, the shophouses look very uniform from the exterior.  The interior layout and materiality may have changed depending on the new programme.  Although restoration works are privately funded, most shop houses on Boat Quay have been converted to restaurants and pubs as there is a large market pull factor in tourism, little remain as a their original programmes.



Lin Yound (2012) ‘Singapore Shophouse’


Eunice M. Lin (2016) “Singapore – Adaptive Re-use of the Historic Bat Quay Singapore River, Singapore” Accessed on 6/12/2016.  Available at


Spine Week (2016) “China Town Historic District” Accessed on 08/12/2016. Available at:


Urban Redevelopment Authority (2011) “Conservation Guidelines” Accessed on 6/12/2016.   Available at:


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