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Discovering stories and memories from our building plans

  Published: 27 October 2023
  Theme: Architecture & Design
  Written by Justin Zhuang

In managing a vast collection of over 270,000 building plans in the National Archives of Singapore, archivist Yap Jo Lin sees these plans, some dating as far back as 1884, as more than just functional documents. Serving as a strong foundation for the Singapore Architecture Collection to build upon, these plans also hold many untold stories about our buildings, streets and more. 

2-minute-read

Archivist Yap Jo Lin at the National Archives of Singapore's Archives Reading Room

Archivist Yap Jo Lin at the Archives Reading Room at the National Archives of Singapore, where one can explore the Archives' rich collection.


Embarking on a journey through time 

Pointing out a 1912 plan of the Banque de l’Indo-Chine that once stood on Malacca Street, Jo Lin remarks that this is one of the earliest examples of the use of reinforced concrete in Singapore.

Plans of the Banque de I’Indo-Chine building, a French bank located at the corner of D’Almeida and Malacca Streets, which made its presence in Southeast Asia in 1875.

Plans of the Banque de I’Indo-Chine building, a French bank located at the corner of D’Almeida and Malacca streets, which established its presence in Southeast Asia in 1875. The bank occupied the building until 1959. Image credits: 796-3/1912, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (image on the left) and 796-8/1912, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (image on the right).

 

Archived building plans of shophouses spanning across time also show how shophouse styles have evolved over the years – from elaborate decorative Baroque elements at the turn of the 20th century to the streamlined Art Deco look that gained popularity among building owners in the pre-and post-war periods.

Examples of building plans of shophouses

Examples of building plans of shophouses at Upper Macao Street, 1885 (image on the left) and Mohamad Sultan Road, 1900. Image credits: 136/1885, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (image on the left) and 3749/1900, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (image on the right).

 

Beyond architectural styles, these building plans can also provide clues to our past, as they usually feature additional information such as the location of the building. For example, plans of the buildings located at Eu Tong Sen Street today reflect Wayang Street as its former name. 


Such details explain why building plans are a popular source for understanding our history, says Jo Lin. In Pastel Portraits, a 1984 book that showcases Singapore’s pre-war architectural heritage, its author, Gretchen Liu, notes, “nearly all of the early plans…give countless clues to the growth and development of the city”. 

 

Oldest plan in the National Archives, dated 1884, showing the house of Cheang Hong Lim

Plan of a three-storey house on Morrison’s Hill (at Kim Yan Road) for businessman and philanthropist, Cheang Hong Lim (1841-1893). Places such as Hong Lim Complex and Hong Lim Park are named after him. At 1884, this is the earliest plan in the Building Control Division Collection. Image credit: 1/1884, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

 

Building plan of the John Little building at Raffles Place, 1908

Plan showing the sectional view and front elevation of the John Little building at Raffles Place, 1908. John Little was Singapore’s oldest department store. Established in 1842, the brand lasted 174 years and its last store closed in 2016. Image credit: 9261-9/1908, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. 

 

Supporting conservation work

For the upgrading works of the National Archives of Singapore building in 2017, past plans served as a valuable resource to the architects. The plans enabled them to better understand the intention of the conserved building’s design and restore key elements to their original state from when the building was constructed for the Anglo-Chinese Primary School in 1959. Similarly, many architects also come through the Archives’ doors to refer to the archival building plans when renovating conserved shophouses in Singapore.

National Archives of Singapore building

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore.


“Building plans do not just evoke feelings of nostalgia, but also serve practical purposes too,” Jo Lin explains. “The shophouse plans in the Archives are important documents for use in restoration and conservation work. This drives me to ensure that they are well taken care of.”

Targeted cleaning through aqueous treatments, to deacidify and improve elasticity and strength of paper records at the National Archives of Singapore

The Archives’ Conservation Lab supports the conservation of paper-based archival and library materials of historical and national significance for their long-term preservation. This image shows targeted cleaning through aqueous treatments, to deacidify and improve elasticity and strength of paper records. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore.


Discovering one’s family heritage 

Beyond the use of building plans for conservation efforts, they serve as records of our families’ heritage too. Jo Lin recently found a plan in the Archives of her grandmother’s former home along Dorset Road. Built in the 1930s, this was where many of her fond childhood memories were formed. 

Part of the house plan showing archivist Yap Jo Lin's great-grandfather's company name that he used to work for

Part of the building plan showing Jo Lin’s great-grandfather’s name and the company he worked for, 1932. Image credit: 169/1932, Building Control Division Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.


“This plan is almost 100 years old!” says Jo Lin, who was thrilled to discover the document which bears her great-grandfather’s signature. “I am sure others who request for such plans will also be happy to discover a part of their past.”

“My great-grandfather’s address was listed on the plan as ‘c/o Telephone Company, Singapore’, which probably referred to the Oriental Telephone and Electric Company. This confirmed what my relatives had told me about my great-grandfather working for a telephone company,” says Jo Lin. 

Enriching the Singapore Architecture Collection

Reflecting on the importance of the Singapore Architecture Collection, Jo Lin believes that it will expand upon the Archives’ existing records to create an even richer repository of architectural and urban design archival materials. This will take it beyond the colonial period, to cover more of Singapore’s modern, contemporary architecture. 

Web banner showing a selection of donated items and others considered for the Singapore Architecture Collection

The Singapore Architecture Collection has received good support from the architectural industry so far, with contributions of drawings, models, photographs and more from various architects.


In addition to building plans, other materials such as photographs can show how the use of a building may differ from the original intent of the architect. Proposals for design competitions or pitches could also offer insight into how architects imagined buildings and spaces in Singapore back in the day.

Jo Lin hopes to see more architects coming forward to contribute to the collection as she believes that it can offer meaningful insights and stories about our home and history and connect present and future generations through our shared experiences as a country.

Researcher at the National Archives of Singapore's Archives Reading Room

To access the many building plans and other archival materials at the Archives, one can visit the Archives Reading Room or explore the Archives' online resources at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/.

About the Singapore Architecture Collection
The Singapore Architecture Collection reflects deeper efforts to document and preserve archival materials about Singapore’s modern and contemporary architecture. These records not only tell the stories behind the design of our landmarks and everyday places, they can also inspire present and future generations in shaping Singapore’s built environment. Architects, planners, urban designers and other members of the built environment industry are invited to contribute their materials to help enhance and enrich the collection.

For more information about the collection, go to https://go.gov.sg/sgarchitecturecollection. For queries or to donate to the collection, write to enquiry@nlb.gov.sg.



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