HERITAGE SPOTLIGHT

This used to be a car showroom

The building has a distinctive scalloped-edge arch (above).
The building has a distinctive scalloped-edge arch (above). ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
The balcony on the second floor (above) has a razor–thin cantilevered flat roof.
The balcony on the second floor (above) has a razor–thin cantilevered flat roof.

Conserved building in Orchard Road is designed in both the Art Deco and Modernist styles

One often associates car showrooms with posh glass-and-steel structures, but this old-fashioned three-storey concrete building was once the place where the rich went to shop for swanky British vehicles such as Rolls-Royce and Morris cars.

Located at 14 Orchard Road, it was known as the Malayan Motor Building. In its heyday in the 1920s, sleek new cars would have gleamed from the ground floor display windows. Crossing its doors meant passing under a grand, handsome arch.

The building was designed by Serbian architect Doucham Slobodan Petrovic, who is more well known for working on the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Both buildings have arches and are made from concrete, but the railway station is a lot grander in size and scale.

The Malayan Motor Building was then owned by Australian brothers Charlie Frederick Foster and Theodore J.B. Wearne, who ran a car dealership of the same name.

Gazetted as a conserved building in 2000 and owned by the state, it is now occupied by the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). It has a gross floor area of 22,604 sq feet.

Mr Ho Weng Hin, 42, an adjunct senior lecturer of architecture at the National University of Singapore and a partner at architectural conservation specialist consultancy Studio Lapis, calls it "a living advertisement for cars" because the graphic details such as the scalloped- edge arch made the building look like a gigantic billboard.

Designed in both the Art Deco and Modernist styles and completed in 1925, the building is less fussy than the ornate and classical-style buildings common in the early 1900s.

Instead, it features strong shapes and lines: the arch gable, a protruding windowed column in the centre of its facade and motif-like ventilation holes that dot the length of the second storey and the arch.

Now a beigey-orange colour with red accents, the building would originally have been a pale pastel yellow, a very popular colour choice at that time, says Mr Ho. But he does not rule out that the facade could have been rendered in Shanghai Plaster, a grey textured finish similar to the Fullerton Hotel and National Gallery.

It was possible that cars were displayed on the second floor as well, as the building previously had a ramp leading to the second floor.

Mr Ho says Petrovic was experimenting with the potential of reinforced concrete construction, then a new technology in Singapore in the early 1900s. Reinforced concrete is embedded with steel bars, making them stronger than regular concrete.

Brick was still a popular building material then, but the building's signature feature - the massive edges - could not have been possible in brick, because of the blocky, bulky shapes of the material.

Mr Ho adds that the much lighter structure allowed for the extensive use of glass, such as the generous two-storey-high bay window projecting from the gable end, and the razor-thin cantilevered flat roof over the balcony, another classic feature of concrete design.

The building was used as a car showroom until 1987, when the Singapore Manufacturing Federation moved in.

By the 1980s, the building looked derelict, with broken louvred glass windows, which had been altered from the original metal casement windows.

In 1987, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) restored the building. It changed the windows back to their original design, replaced the damaged roof tiles and added an escape staircase.

The restoration was done ahead of the Conservation Plan, a wider programme launched by the URA in 1989 to preserve and revitalise historic structures. The building was chosen as a test bed because it was state property, says Ms Lai Si Ying, 29, a planner with the URA.

The plan was to adapt the structure for new uses - and with MDIS moving in, this old car showroom has turned into a private school.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'This used to be a car showroom'. Print Edition | Subscribe