SINGAPORE - It was not the front facade of the old Traffic Police headquarters along Maxwell Road that piqued heritage conservation expert Ho Weng Hin's interest during refurbishment efforts, but rather, the building's rear.
For 72 years until 1999, that was where the communal kitchens for the Traffic Police officers and their families were located. As a safety precaution in case of a stove fire, the windows were designed to be smaller than usual, located higher on the walls, and sheltered with a canopy hood.
"The building was actually an urban kampung of sorts. These features are a testimony to the fact that the building was not just an office, but also a living space," said Mr Ho, a partner at Studio Lapis, who directed the building's restoration works together with Mr Mok Wei Wei, managing director of W Architects.
To pay homage to the 90-year-old building's heritage, the canopy hoods of the windows on its rear facade were restored using plastering techniques developed in the post-war years, he added.
The $25-million refurbishment of the building at 28 Maxwell Road into Maxwell Chambers Suites took nearly two years to complete.
Adjacent to Maxwell Chambers, a dispute resolution complex, the restored building will add 120,000 sq ft of floor space to help meet growing demand for such services in Asia.
It will house at least 11 international institutions as well as 20 disputes chambers and practices from 11 countries, said the Ministry of Law during a media preview of the premises on Tuesday (May 14), ahead of its official opening on Aug 8.
Among the 11 international institutions, five will be locating their case management offices at Maxwell Chambers Suites, which will create the highest concentration of case management offices in the world.
The five are the International Chamber of Commerce, International Court of Arbitration; Singapore International Arbitration Centre; Singapore International Mediation Centre; Permanent Court of Arbitration; and the World Intellectual Property Organisation Arbitration and Mediation Centre.
So far, some 75 per cent of the new office space has been taken up by tenants , said Deputy Secretary at the Law Ministry, Mr Han Kok Juan, who headed a committee on the refurbishment efforts.
For the design team, the main challenge was to modernise the building without losing the character of its humble origins as living quarters for Traffic Police officers and their families, said Mr Mok.
"We did not want to over-glamorise the building, but to keep it understated," he noted.
Refurbishment efforts included reinstating the neutral tones of the building facade to when it was used as the Traffic Police headquarters, by giving it a fresh coat of white mineral silicate paint compatible with the historic brick walls.
The building's four courtyards were also restored to their original setting in open air, by removing the concrete-slab roofs that were not part of the historic design but added later, for example, to house the Red Dot Design Museum.
To provide some practical comfort, the corridors of the 161m-long building, which were naturally ventilated, are now air-conditioned. To prevent air-conditioning vents from being visible, the team incorporated them into the design of the building's historic windows.
A new overhead link bridge was also constructed to connect Maxwell Chambers and Maxwell Chambers Suites, while a 24-hour public passageway through the building from Maxwell Road to the Tanjong Pagar area will also be made available.
The timber doors and vents which were characteristic of the interior of the four-storey office building were also retained and restored. To make them more appropriate for office use, about half of the solid timber doors were modified with glazed glass.
At the media briefing on Tuesday, Mr Han said the opening of Maxwell Chambers Suites would boost Singapore's international standing as a dispute resolution hub.