Black and White Houses in Singapore

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Black and White House in SembawangLocated near to where the Sembawang Naval Base once stood, Black and White houses like this one are part of the last 500-odd remaining Black and White houses in Singapore. (c.2014. Image from ghettosingapore.com)

Black and White Houses in Singapore
In land-scarce Singapore, the sight of one of the estimated 500 remaining Black and White Houses often conjures up memories of the colonial era in Singapore. Although a majority of these houses were built within a short span of around 25 years between 1903-1928, its uniqueness to the region and unrivalled architecture has made it an invaluable part of Singapore’s history.
Black and White House in SembawangLocated near to where the Sembawang Naval Base once stood, Black and White houses like this one at 143 Queen’s Avenue are part of the last 500-odd remaining Black and White houses in Singapore. (c.2014. Image from lionraw.com)

Black and White Beginnings
The term ‘black and white’ itself affectionately refers to the primary use of dark timber beams and whitewashed walls that characterise these buildings. Its numerous adaptations including the Plantation House Style and Tropical Edwardian Style stem from a range of varying influences such as the ‘Tudorbethan’ revival style, the Arts and Crafts movement, and in its later years, the Art Deco Movement.
Black and White Houses in SeletarBlack and White houses like this one is Seletar were built during the 1920 and 30s to accommodate the military personnel working at the nearby Seletar Airbase. It displays a more modern streamline approach in line with the emergence of the Art Deco Movement. (c.2014. Image from lionraw.com)

The popularity of Black and White houses is largely attributed to Regent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918), a gifted architect from Swan and Maclaren who was also known for designing landmarks like the Raffles Hotel (1899 and 1904) and Singapore Cricket Club (1907). It was however not till 1903, when Bidwell built the W. Patchitt House at Cluny Road, that the ‘black and white’ movement really began.

The appeal of the black and white houses lasted no more than 25 years, peaking in 1919/1920 just after World War I in line with the rising affluence in Singapore. It experienced a slight resurgence just before the World War II, mostly due to the need to accommodate the increase in military personnel in Singapore.
Raffles Hote Blueprint by Regent Alfred John BidwellRegent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918) was a gifted architect who spearheaded the Black and White movement. He was also responsible for the design of the Raffles Hotel during his time at the firm Swan and Maclaren. (c.1902. Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Building Architecture
In the days before air-conditioning, Black and White houses were strategically built to combat the relentless tropical weather, in rain or shine. Its foundation borrows from the indigenous Malay style of elevating the house off the ground with pillars and arches. The ground floor is laid with tiles to retain most of its nighttime coolness throughout the day. Timber is the primary material used for the second-floor, which absorbs solar radiation less rapidly. Outside, the wide verandas have overhanging eaves to minimise direct sunlight. The high-steeped roofs of a Black and White house serve a dual purpose of controlling rainfall while doubling up as a chimney-like system, drawing hot air to the highest point, creating a well-ventilated space for the homeowners.
Interior of Beaulieu House in Sembawang ParkMany Black and White Houses had high ceilings and vents around the house to facilitate ventilation in Singapore’s tropical climate. This interior belongs to that of the Beaulieu House which was built in the 1910s by J.B David as a holiday home. (c.2014. Image from lionraw.com)

A Black and White Bungalow from the 1900sAn example of the vast expanse of space that most Black and White houses would sit on. (c.1900. Image from National Museum of Singapore, Gift of Mr Misseje Pavel)

Military Influence
While most of the early Black and White houses were built in the south-central parts of Singapore like Alexandra, Rochester and Dempsey, the last and most recent of these houses can be found in areas like Sembawang, Seletar and Changi, where they were built to accommodate the increase in military personnel required to run the respective Air and Naval bases present in the area.

These military-purpose built houses, along with those built in the early 20th century for the colonial administration now make up most of the remaining Black and White houses still standing in Singapore today.

Famous Black and White houses in Singapore
Some of the better-known Black and White houses left in Singapore include the Atbara House along Gallop Road. Built in 1898, it is the oldest surviving example of single-storey bungalow left in Singapore.

Over at the Botanic Gardens, the popular wedding venue that is Burkhill Hall stands as perhaps the only remaining example of an Anglo-Malay Plantation Style House left in the world. It was built in 1886 and is named after two former directors of the Botanic Gardens, Isaac Henry Burkill (1912-1925), and his son Humphrey Morrison Burkill (1957-1969).

Presently, many of the remaining houses serve largely as residential properties for expatriates, foreign embassy offices, as well as famous restaurants in areas such as Dempsey Hill and Rochester Park.

Bungalow House belonging to Sir Thomas BraddelKnown as ‘The Castle’, this bungalow built along Cavenagh Hill belonged to Sir Thomas Braddel. Its design pre-dates the Black and White movement but does display the use of the indigenous Malay style of elevation off the ground floor through the use of pillars and arches. (c.1880. Image from National Museum of Singapore)