Singapore Shophouse Guide
Shophouses—a historical source of delight and nostalgia—are a prevalent building type in Singapore’s architectural and built heritage. They are narrow, small terraced houses, with a sheltered ‘five foot’ pedestrian way at the front. These buildings can be used for both business and living.
Constructed between the 1840s and the 1960s, these shophouses formed the majority of the pre-WW2 urban fabric of the old city centre as well as several other parts of Singapore. These buildings are generally two- to three- storeys high, built in contiguous blocks with common party walls. Shophouses therefore form the bulk of Singapore's gazetted conservation buildings. The shophouses still around today have been carefully restored and conserved according to Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation guidelines.
Of all the local architectural styles in Singapore, none is as distinctive as the lavishly decorated shophouses found in the city’s older neighbourhoods. These charming narrow units built in a row that speak to us of Asian heritage and culture more strongly than almost any other structure does.
Shophouses in Singapore sport a rich mix of Malay, Chinese and European architectural details, all giving a distinctive look to Singapore’s urban landscape. The shophouse was so called because the lower floor was used for business while the upper level served as living quarters. The design, initiated by Raffles, had detailed specifications to achieve conformity. They were arranged in a linear form and built of masonry with tile roofs. Linking the shophouses was a covered path called the “five-foot way” because the width between the building and the street had to be exactly five feet. The style later evolved to two-storey residential terrace houses with occupants on both floors. Over the years, five distinct shophouse styles developed: Early, First Transitional, Late, Second Transitional and Art Deco – many of which have been restored to their original splendour.
Early: This was the style of the first shophouses, erected in the 1840s. With their squat upper levels and simple lines unadorned of detail, they resemble dolls’ houses.
First Transitional: Dating back to the early 1900s, these shophouses takes on an extra floor in order to maximise space. Once dilapidated and shunned, many old shophouses are much sought-after properties these days because of their unique facades and historical value. Strict guidelines govern the restoration of shophouses, many of which have been turned into chic restaurants, bars and boutique hotels as well as offices.
Late: Dating from 1910 to the late 1930s, this is the most florid of all shophouse styles, with lavishly decorated facades and the most ornate details.
Second Transitional: This style, from the late 1930s onwards, was a little less florid than its predecessor. It combined Asian and European architectural influences, including Malay-style wooden eaves, Corinthian columns and pilasters, French windows with timber louvres and semicircular fanlights as well as European glazed ceramic tiles and bas-reliefs depicting motifs from Chinese mythical tales, and flowers and animals.
Art Deco: This is the most recent of styles, mainly built between 1940 and 1960. It is probably the least common of the styles and the most European in character. The private forecourt area with a gate and a balcony on the upper floor are typical features.
The shophouse is not unique to Singapore: it can be found in Melaka and Penang in Malaysia, known as the Straits Settlements in the colonial era.