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HERITAGE SPOTLIGHT

Rich rojak of styles

Baroque meets Art Deco and more at former Ramakrishna Mission building

Stand in front of this yellow building at 9 Norris Road in Little India and you can pick out myriad architectural styles just from its facade alone. From the Baroque-styled pediments to the Indian floral petal motifs decorating windows in Art Deco style, the former Ramakrishna Mission building, completed in 1932, is a melange of architectural styles gone by.

"Architecture in the early days was a bit like rojak," says Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). "The architects took whatever pleased them and put them together to try and make it coherent. It also reflects the multiracial make-up of Singapore from those early days."

The Ramakrishna Mission is a branch of the Ramakrishna Order of India, a worldwide spiritual and welfare organisation.

The building, which opened an orphanage there in 1942, was also used as a makeshift hospital for those hurt during the war, and the homeless.

The mission moved to its permanent premises in Bartley in 1950. In 1983, the Asian Women's Welfare Association bought the building for $500,000 and ran programmes for disabled and underprivileged Singaporeans.

Now, 9 Norris Road is home to King of Glory Church on the first floor, while cooking school Expat Kitchen takes up a part of the second floor. It was conserved in 1989, as part of the conservation of the Little India area.

While the building is showing its age, it was considered a modern beauty back when it was built.

Mr Jevon Liew, a URA conservation planner for the Little India district, says: "What's unique about it is that people wanted to portray a modern outlook - one that was forward-thinking and all-embracing, rather than something solely derived from their Indian heritage."

•This is the start of a monthly column on heritage buildings.


Highlights

1. ROOFTOP PAVILIONS AND PEDIMENT

The two chattris or elevated dome-shaped pavilions perched on either side of the front facade paid homage to Mughal architecture. They were imported here by Indian immigrants. But to keep up with the times, reinforced concrete was used. Chattris in India were made mostly of stone and brick.

2. GREEN GLASS

Green glass
ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

In the 1930s, green glass was used to reduce the glare of the tropical sun. These glass pieces are identifiable by their "slightly watery texture", says Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority. They have an uneven texture because they were made by hand.

Such glass - seen on the second floor of the building - has been replaced by massproduced green glass or regular clear glass.

3. FASCES, MEDALLIONS AND FLORAL PETALS

Fasces, medallions and floral petals
ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

These decorative embellishments depart from traditional Indian emblems and point to Western neo-classical influences.

For example, on the facade's columns are fasces - bundles of wooden rods bound together and "attached" to a medallion, a concrete circular frame.

The plaster floral petals above the curved windows soften the look of the building and are a typical Indian motif that is done in the Art Deco style.

4. PRECAST CONCRETE

Precast concrete
ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Precast curved concrete pieces were laid on top of one another to create the fish scale-like fence lining the walkway.

Instead of carving motifs and shapes out of huge sandstone slabs, precast concrete became popular in Singapore as it could be moulded elsewhere and transported to the construction site.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'Rich rojak of styles'. Print Edition | Subscribe