Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin (my father) is a detailed account of Singapore domestic architecture during the colonial period, from the foundation of the colony up to its fall to the Japanese. It is beautifully illustrated and very readable, a great resource for anyone interested in the topic. It remains to this day the only major work on the subject.

Published in 1988, it has been out of print for many years but has now been reissued in a facsimile edition by Marshall Cavendish, and is currently available in bookshops in Singapore, as well as from online retailers.

I was invited to write a tip in page for special copies of the book. Here is what I wrote:

My father was born in 1925, just after the high noon of the British Empire, and grew up surrounded by the houses described in this book. Shortly after the Japanese occupation, he departed for Britain where he studied architecture at the Bartlett School of University College London. He then worked for a bit as an architect for the London County Council before returning to Singapore. Although his training took place in the 1950s during the heroic period of modern architecture, students at the Bartlett chafed under a curriculum that was heavily traditional, and grounded in the classics. One of the things he had to do as a first year student was to render in line and wash a Corinthian column, as well as the alphabet in Roman letters, for which he was awarded "first mention".

However in his outlook and practice he was always a firm modernist, and he believed that architecture should reflect the spirit, materials and technology of the age. He was totally opposed to building in the styles of the past.

Those who spend a substantial time abroad often appreciate and see things in their native land in ways which they otherwise might not. Going to England in the 1950s was a very different proposition from what it is now. Travel between Singapore and England took several weeks by sea, and people did not generally come home for holidays because of the time and expense. There were few foreigners, and rice was mostly served as a dessert. It was a totally immersive experience.

I think that having spent years in England, studying and visiting the architectural wonders of Britain and Europe, he returned to Singapore to find that there were marvellous things all around him which everyone either took for granted, or dismissed out of hand. When he started photographing and researching the houses and buildings of Singapore, almost nobody was interested in such things. After independence, rapid urban redevelopment, coupled with a lack of appreciation of our architectural heritage, resulted in demolition of old houses and buildings on a massive scale, often to be replaced by inferior work. Many of the buildings depicted in this book are long gone.

I believe that my father would have been pleased by the growing interest in Singapore for our history and heritage. Just enough of pre-war architecture remains so that we can get some sense of what it was like before the war. And I think that he would also be pleased that today's architects in Singapore are designing buildings of our own time and age.

Now, in an era of apartment blocks and condos, The Singapore House changes our perspective.

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin
First published in 1988, Facsimile edition 2015 by Marshall Cavendish

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