Culture + Style

Singapore’s Heritage Buildings Revealed: From Historic to Hip

Singapore is famed for its cutting-edge sustainable architectural marvels. But these days many of the coolest clubs, hippest hotels and hottest restaurants aren’t inside sleek modern buildings, but within charming historic structures that have been repurposed as some of the most popular places in town to hang out.

Here are five heritage buildings that have been transformed for modern use.

1. The Asian Civilisations Museum

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Inside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery. (Photo: Courtesy of ACM)

Many of Singapore’s museums (SAM, National Museum, National Gallery) are housed within repurposed historic buildings. The Asian Civilisations Museum is no exception. The Empress Place structure dates back to 1867 and originally housed colonial offices, and later some of Singapore’s first government offices as an independent nation.

The already stunning neoclassical-style building with impeccable classical details has just received a space-age addition with a striking titanium-clad facade and a new waterfront terrace stepping down to the Singapore River.

2. Shop Houses

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Glimpse Singapore’s history as you walk past its shop houses. (Photo: Getty Images)

Singapore’s ubiquitous shop houses were once the primary type of structure in the city and covered much of the island. Charming streets lined with shop houses are now limited to a few neighborhoods, such as tourist-beloved Chinatown and the hipster haven at Tanjong Pagar.

Even just a decade ago, most were used for their original purpose as warehouses, shops or offices on the ground floor, with residences above. Nowadays, shop houses are home to some of the hippest cafes and restaurants in Singapore, and even many of the rooftops are being transformed into beautiful bars with amazing skyline views (there are some great rooftop bars along Club Street, and Southbridge at Boat Quay has a stunning view).

3. Space Furniture

SPACE at Bencoolen Street is one of Singapore’s most fashionable furniture galleries, selling acclaimed brands from around the world. Locally renowned architects WOHA created the award-winning showroom by combining a historic villa and shop house with a modern addition in between.

Rumor has it that the historic villa has a sketchy history as a karaoke parlor, but today you can shop for fashionable furniture in spaces alternating between impeccably restored historic rooms and striking contemporary galleries.

4. Gillman Barracks

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Some of the city’s trendiest parties are in the Gillman Barracks. (Photo: Courtesy of Gillman Barracks)

Slightly outside of Singapore’s town center, a British military camp from 1936 has been turned into a hip enclave hosting some of Singapore’s trendiest art galleries and restaurants. Gillman Barracks boasts a series of restored heritage structures set within a lush tropical setting, and is currently hosting the must-see Strange Creatures exhibition by local architect and artist Richard Hassell (the show runs until December 9 at ARNDT Fine Art).

5. National Gallery Singapore

No doubt Singapore’s most prominent repurposed heritage building, the new National Gallery was created through the combination of two of the city’s most iconic historic structures: the old Supreme Court (built in 1937) and the colonial City Hall (completed in 1929).

The design was selected as part of an international competition in 2008, and combines the two classical buildings with a sleek and modern atrium, topped by a filigree roof that evokes the canopy of a sun-dappled forest (complete with oversized tree-trunk columns!).

The combined structure is now one of Asia’s largest art museums, featuring a permanent collection of superb art from across the region and international-standard traveling exhibitions. It hasn’t been stripped of history in the process, though, and interesting spaces such as the domed library and even jail cells that once held prisoners before trial are still visible within the galleries.

Not interested in art? No worries. In true Singapore style, the National Gallery has plenty of hip spots to eat and drink. The rooftop bars have some of the best skyline views around, and two-Michelin-star Odette is here as well. For a moderately priced, locally inspired meal, I recommend National Kitchen by Violet Oon in the City Hall Wing.

6. Le Meridien Singapore

Perched on a verdant hilltop at the heart of Sentosa island, Le Meridien Singapore is housed in a former army barrack—the base for British artillerymen during World War II.

Constructed in 1940, a clock tower was later added in the 1990s. The Heritage Wing was then restored in 2012 by Singaporean architecture firm DP Architects (designers of The Dubai Mall).

Colonial architectural details have been renovated to their former glory to evoke a real sense of history, which is juxtaposed against a contemporary wing with modern features like outdoor pools and rooftop gardens.