THE BLACK-AND-WHITE: A PATCH OF ENGLAND IN SINGAPORE
The most elegant relics of Singapore's past – black-andwhite bungalows – are found nowhere else in Southeast Asia but here.
The Anglo-Indian Bungalow: Where West Meets East
The word "bungalow" derives from the Hindustani (a dialect of Hindi spoken in Delhi and used as a lingua franca throughout India) word "bangala", meaning "of or from Bengal". It denoted a rectangular mud hut, which was a typical domestic dwelling in that part of India, featuring a thatched roof and long eaves protruding from the top of the exterior walls. Supported by wooden posts, these eaves created a kind of covered veranda that helped prevent the inside of the hut from overheating and from getting wet from the rain during the monsoon season.
This bangala hut was one of India's gift s to its northern colonisers, offering a practical solution for a domestic dwelling best suited to the tropics with their monsoons and heat. However, it was too primitive for the refi ned tastes of the British colonial society's great and good, which was comprised of government offi cials, doctors and fi nanciers. To cater to the preferences of this homesick crowd, the traditional humble Bengali structure was beautifi ed with Classical columns, a portico and tall shuttered windows. Mud walls were replaced by bricks and thatched roofs by tiles. Thus was born a unique type of domestic architecture: the Anglo-Indian bungalow, a Tudor-style home that had learnt its lessons in tropical design very well.
Mediaeval Revival on the Equator
The British set foot in India as early as the 17th century. Singapore was made their colony a good two centuries aft er, in 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles bought this island from a local Malay ruler to establish a trading port for the Crown. By the second half of the 19th century, Singapore was brimming with Asian immigrants drawn to it in search of a better life, as well as European offi cials and businessmen looking for rapid career advancements or rapid profi ts. As Singapore's climate was similar to that of India, it was natural for the British to start erecting Anglo-Indian bungalows in their new colony, just one degree north of the equator. However, on Singaporean soil, these houses underwent some changes in appearance, leading to the birth of the uniquely Singaporean architectural peculiarity known today as the "black-and-white house".
They owe their look to the Tudor Revival movement in architecture that appeared in the United Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century, and was characterised by a shift from brickwork splendour to the quasimediaeval timbering ofa house's upper portion. Th is innovation was most appropriate for Singapore's tropical climate because wood does not heat up as rapidly as brick and mortar. Wooden elements of both the interior and exterior of the new Singaporean house were painted in dark brown, nearly black, which created a stark contrast with the whitewashed surfaces of the walls, and resulted in these structures being commonly known on the island as "black-and-whites".
Why mediaeval elements? Th ey were infl uences of the Arts and Craft s movement initiated in England at the turn of the 19th century by art critic, John Ruskin, and designer and poet, William Morris. Th ese two mediaeval enthusiasts urged their contemporaries to revive traditional building methods and the craft smanship of bygone eras that were quickly going extinct due to the industrialisation and mass production of their time. In today's Singapore, Ruskin and Morris would have stood a chance to win the country's Green Mark award, as they called for the use of locally-sourced building materials and topography-respecting design solutions. Singaporean black-and-whites were built in accordance with these postulates.
1898–1941: From Dawn to Dusk of the Black-and-White Era
When they first appeared in Singapore at the end of the 19th century, these houses were commissioned by wealthy individuals. Singapore's expatriate society comprised members of the colonial administration, bankers, shipping magnates and plantation owners.
They could aff ord to buy plots of land in the mostsought-aft er districts, which today are the areas of Orchard Road, Tanglin Road and Leonie Hill. Then they would commission the most popular local company Swan & Maclaren, headed by talented architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918), famous for designing Raffl es Hotel, to build their homes in the jungle.
The golden era of the black-and-whites came just after World War I, when Singapore experienced a commercial boom due to the global demand for rubber, of which direct shipments were sent to Russia, the US and Japan. Th e booming economy attracted long-established British fi rms and other international companies to Singapore. Th ey needed accommodation for the infl ux of their European staff . Besides, Singapore's colonial administration was also increasing and it needed residential estates for its civil servants as well.
Black-and-whites fi t the task like nothing else, as they off ered maximum comfort to Europeans in the tropics, so lots of them were built at that time. Just before World War II, the British decided to turn Singapore into their major naval base east of the Suez, which led to another mushrooming of blackand-whites to accommodate new naval and military personnel.
Th e majority of black-and-white houses built from the 1900s to the 1930s, regrettably, are no longer in existence. Th ey were privately owned and demolished to make way for urban redevelopment. But the very fi rst houses built for the British colonial administration and the last ones erected for the military have survived to our day. Th e reason is that they used to belong to the British government, which handed them over to the fl edging administration of independent Singapore in 1963. The new government may have been quite young and inexperienced, but it surely had enough wisdom to preserve the black-andwhite houses for the high-end government housing pool and Singapore's unique architectural heritage.
The Singaporean bungalow adopted several features from local Malay architecture, which deviated from its Anglo-Indian forebears. Like the traditional Malay house on stilts, the Singaporean black-and-white house was elevated a few feet off the ground. But instead of stilts, brick pillars were used. Th e aboveground elevation allowed for air circulation to cool the house from beneath, and safeguarded the structure against termites and frequent water fl ooding. Th e roof shape of most blackand-whites was also copied from local paragons: it was pyramidal and thatched with attap (woven nipah palm leaves).
Verandas running along the sides of the house cut off the heat and glare in its inside rooms. Rattan blinds performed the same function when drawn down, whereas when raised at dawn or sunset, a breeze could travel easily throughout the house, cooling it. During the time of no air-conditioning, it was the only escape from Singapore's humid heat. Th e rooms inside black-and-whites tend to be few and large. Today, they may not be ideal for housing a big family, but their spacious layout is favoured by restaurants and businesses.
History Comes at a Price
Today, fewer than 500 black-and-white houses are left in Singapore, and they all belong to the government, notably the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). Since 2007, the SLA has been leasing the black-and-whites on two-year terms via an open bidding system, which leaves it up to property demand to fairly determine the price. Bids today start from S$6,000 per month, reaching at times the astronomical sum of S$45,000 per month for certain properties, depending on location and size.
A happy marriage of Western and Eastern influences, black-and-white bungalows offer lessons in tropical design that continue to be relevant today and remain in demand among expatriates wishing to live in a home rich in history.
In addition to high rental prices, there is another major drawback about living in such a house full of character and history. As architectural legacies of the past, black-and-whites with basic lighting and ceiling fans instead of air-conditioning must generally remain intact. Tenants of black-andwhite bungalows are allowed to install their own A/C units, water heaters, telephone lines, Internet connections and even swimming pools. However, all of these have to go when the lease is over and the tenants move out. Behind these requirements lies the idea of giving all new tenants a chance to touch a piece of history with their own hands, so to speak. The pristine, if basic, state of the black-andwhites appeals to some of our contemporaries willing to give up the blessings of modern civilisation and experience what life in a tropical Mock Tudor house would have been like a century ago.
Text Julia Sherstyuk
Photos Natalia Makarova