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Early Settlement Period Style

Neo-Palladian Architecture

European style buildings in early colonial Singapore, featuring Singapore Institution, Istana Kampong Glam and Government House.

The “metropole” and the “periphery” are two terms that are commonly used in the study of colonialism. The metropole refers to the homeland or the central territory of the colonial empire, while the periphery refers to the colonies all around the world.

‘Map of British Empire in 1886’
Map by Walter Crane showing the extent of British territory during the era of Pax Britannica in 1886.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the colonial history of Singapore, and particularly during the early colonial settlement period, many in the colony looked towards the metropole for inspiration on the latest trends and design in architecture. They sought to imitate the buildings that were going up in Europe, while adapting the designs to suit the climate and resources available in Singapore. The architecture style in vogue in Britain the early to mid 1800s was Neo-Palladian architecture, and many buildings in Singapore constructed during that period were also constructed in that style.

Palladian Architecture

To understand the origin of Neo-Palladian architecture in the metropole, we have to look at the development of architectural history in Europe. The “neo” in Neo-Palladian architecture implies the existence of an earlier architectural style called Palladian architecture. So what exactly is Palladian architecture, and why did it get revived as Neo-Palladian architecture?

Throughout the 1400s and 1500s, the Renaissance brought about a resurgence in interest in the classical Greek and Roman architecture of antiquity. People began studying the Greek and Roman ruins such as the Parthenon and the Roman Forum, and applying the classical architectural principles to the buildings that they were constructing during the Renaissance.

‘Temple of Hephaestus, Athens, Greece’ (Left)
‘Villa Cornaro, Veneto, Italy’ (Right)
Palladio appropriated the Greco-Roman temple front such as the one seen in the Temple of Hephaestus, built in 415 B.C.E. for the residential villas that he designed in Italy, such as the Villa Cornaro completed in 1552.

Source: Flickr photo by Ava Babili, photo taken 2017; Wikimedia Commons, photo by Hans A. Rosbach, photo taken 2007

It was under this backdrop that Andrea Palladio began his architectural career. He worked in Venice, which was at that time an immensely wealthy merchant port city. Many of these merchants owned large estates on the mainland, and would alternate between their urban palazzos on the Venice island, and their country villas on the mainland. Palladio designed many of these large country villas, applying the vocabulary of classical Greek and Roman antiquity onto these residential buildings.

‘Works by Andrea Palladio’
From top left, counterclockwise: Villa Emo, Villa Chiericati, Villa Rotonda

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hans A. Rosbach 2007, Marcok 2009, Quinok 2013

He stood out from his Renaissance peers as his architecture was primarily residential and suburban. Other Renaissance architects working in Rome and Florence built large public and religious buildings in the urban context. He also published a highly influential text, Four Books on Architecture, in which he provided systematic rules and plans for buildings, and used his own designs as exemplars for illustration.

‘Illustration from Four Books on Architecture by Andrea Palladio’
Palladio wrote a widely read treatise on architecture and illustrated the volume with buildings of his own design.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, scan from Book IV of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura

Neo-Palladian

During the Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s, there was another resurgence of interest in the classical architecture. It was under this backdrop that the works of Andrea Palladio came back into fashion. The resurgence of Palladian architecture in the 1700s and 1800s was termed as Neo-Palladian architecture.

The work of Palladio was rediscovered by British architecture scholars such as Colen Campbell, who wrote about Palladio in his widely circulated 1715 book Vitruvius Britannicus, or the British Architect. Soon, architects such as James Gibbs would publish pattern books like his 1728 work A Book of Architecture, containing designs of buildings and ornaments that functioned as catalogues of pattern and design that other architects would pick and choose to incorporate into their own buildings. This allowed wide dissemination of the ideas and designs of Palladio to the British public.

‘Illustration from James Gibbs’ A Book of Architecture’
Pattern books like the one written by James Gibbs allowed architects to incorporate ready-made designs into their works, which allowed Neo-Palladian architecture to proliferate across Britain.

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, scan from A Book of Architecture by James Gibbs, published London 1728

These Neo-Palladian houses were especially popular among the landed gentry in Britain, who built huge Palladian-style country manor houses for their sprawling estate. It became a symbol of class, affluence and social status.

‘Houghton Hall, England, United Kingdom’
An example of Neo-Palladian architecture in Britain, completed in 1722.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Dennis Smith, photo taken 2007

Neo-Palladian Architecture in Singapore

As a colony in the British Empire, Singapore was very much influenced by the developments back in Britain. Consequently, European merchants settling in Singapore desired to emulate these Palladian manors in their own houses that they built in the settlement. Therefore, many of the buildings constructed in the early and mid 1800s were all in the Neo-Palladian style. However, these Neo-Palladian buildings in Singapore were not merely carbon copies of the ones found in Britain. Due to the unique tropical environment, as well as the limitations in resources and skilled labor in Singapore, these buildings had to be modified and adapted to the local context.

‘Padang in the 1840s’
Note the series of Neo-Palladian style houses along the Padang on the left of the picture, corresponding to the current site of the Old Parliament House and National Gallery Singapore.

Source: Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, scan from The Singapore House 1819 – 1942 by Lee Kip Lin, published Singapore 1988

In the rest of the article, we will look at three examples of Neo-Palladian architecture in Singapore, namely the Singapore Institution (Raffles Institution) building, Istana Kampong Glam, and the Government House (Istana), and compare them to examples of Palladian architecture in Italy and Neo-Palladian architecture in Britain.

Building Details

Singapore Institution building was originally designed by Philip Jackson in 1823, but construction stalled due to the lack of funding. The building was redesigned by George Drumgoole Coleman and was finally completed in 1835. Singapore Institution was renamed as Raffles Institution in 1868.

‘1920s postcard of Raffles Institution’
View of Raffles Institution (initially Singapore Institution) from Stamford Road.

Source: Collection of Singapore Philatelic Museum, donated by Prof Cheah Jin Seng, Roots.sg

Istana Kampong Glam was constructed in 1843 as the palace for the Sultan of the Johor Riau-Lingga Sultanate. The building’s architect is unknown, but many architectural historians attribute it to the work of George Drumgoole Coleman due to the similarity in features to his other works, as well as the fact that Coleman was the only “professional European architect” in Singapore during that time.

‘Istana Kampong Glam in the 1990s’

Source: National Archives of Singapore

The Government House was built in 1869 as the official house for the British governor by John Frederick Adolphus McNair. It was renamed as the Istana after Singapore’s independence.

‘Postcard featuring view of Government House Singapore’

Source: National Archives of Singapore

Characteristics of Palladian architecture

Classical Façade

Andrea Palladio’s architecture was defined by the application of classical Greek and Roman architectural styles from antiquity onto residential villas. The most obvious manifestation of this would be the application of the classical Greek and Roman temple façade onto the front facades of the building. Many of Palladio’s buildings feature an imposing set of exterior stairs that lead up to a portico supported by classical columns and topped by a triangular pediment.

‘Villa Rotonda by Andrea Palladio’

Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Stefan Bauer, taken 2007

We see the same features in the Singapore Institution building and the Government House. In the Singapore Institution building, each of the three wings were adorned with a pedimented façade. As for the Government House, the two side wings were adorned with Greco-Roman style pedimented facades. While the central wing was topped by an eclectic Second-Empire style mansard roof, the overall sense of classicism was still present.

‘Singapore Institution in 1840s’

Source: Scan from A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City by Jane Beamish, Jane Ferguson, published Singapore 1985
‘Government House full facade’

Source: Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, Roots.sg

Symmetry

Just like the ancient Greek and Roman buildings that they were based on, Palladio’s villas were also highly symmetrical. Some of the buildings were symmetrical on one central axis, mirroring the left and right wings of the building. Other buildings were symmetrical on two axes, featuring identical facades on all four sides.

The Singapore Institution building, Istana Kampong Glam and the Government House were all highly symmetrical structures. The sense of symmetry created a sense of dignity and presence to these imposing structures.

‘Istana Kampong Glam today’

Source: VisitSingapore.com

Clear delineation of floors

There was also a very clear delineation of floors on the outside. The lower floor was often covered in heavy rustification, giving the impression of a stable base for the rest of the building. The upper floor was called the piano nobile, and often had higher ceilings than the lower floor. It contained the principal rooms of the building. When viewed from the outside, the piano nobile featured large airy windows, and was supported by slender columns that contrasted with the rusticated base below it.

For instance, the second floor of the Singapore Institution building contained a large school hall for the entire student body to assemble. Similarly, many of the state function rooms were also located on the second floor of the Government House.

‘Raffles Institution School Assembly in the 1950s’
The massive school hall was located in the upper floor of the central wing of the school.

Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Suburban context

Finally, many of Palladio’s houses were built in relation to the land that they were on. As many of these villas were often located on sprawling estates rather than in dense urban cities, Palladio took advantage of the surroundings and incorporated the buildings into the landscape. They often sat on the top of a hill, and commanded great views of the estate. They also featured sprawling wings on both sides that functioned as storerooms and stables. Finally, they were designed to be looked at from all angles, rather than just the front.

‘Villa Rotonda from Above’
This image shows the relationship between the villa and the surrounding estate. The villa was designed to be viewed from all sides.

Source: Blogspot.com

The Istana Kampong Glam and the Government House were both designed as stand-alone houses in the middle of a sprawling estate. In fact, the Government House was designed with a ceremonial lawn out front to enhance the commanding presence of the building.

‘Government House Compound Map’
This 1874 map of the Government House compound shows the relation of the building to the rest of the sprawling estate. There is a large elliptical lawn in front of the main building to enhance the presence of the building.

Source: Survey Department, Federated Malay States (F.M.S.) and Straits Settlements (S.S.), National Archives of Singapore

While Singapore Institution was not a residential house on a large estate, it also sat on its own urban block, facing a large playing field on one side and the sea on the other. Therefore, the building was also designed to be viewed from all angles, and features pedimented facades on all four sides.  

‘Side view of Raffles Institution, late 1800s’
The sides of the Singapore Institution building also featured pedimented facades.

Source: The National Archives UK, National Archives of Singapore

British Neo-Palladian Architecture

Neo-Palladian architecture as revived by the British in the 1700s and 1800s contained some changes to the original designs of Palladio.

Lack of ornamentation

The British Neo-Palladian architecture were much less ornamented than the original Palladian villas found in Italy. Many of the original Palladian feature decorative statues and architectural flourishes, as well as trompe l’oeil murals when the client had a limited budget. The Neo-Palladian villas in Britain were much more austere, many featuring uniform brick faced facades. The buildings were also often entered from the ground floor, rather than from a set of exterior staircase that leads to the upper floor in Palladio’s original villas.

‘Claydon House, England, United Kingdom
An example of a much more austere and less ornamented Neo-Palladian style house found in Britain.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Nigel Cox taken 2009

The Neo-Palladian buildings in Singapore were also much more austere, many eschewing the freestanding columns of the Greco-Roman temple front for engaged pilasters and pillars. Furthermore, the stone rustication found on the walls of the lower floors on the Italian and British villas were also removed. These buildings instead rely on the difference between the thick lower-level pilasters and the more slender upper-level pilasters to create the difference between the floors. This was due to the lack of building materials in the early days of the settlement, as well as the lack of skilled craftsmen and masons to construct complicated designs.

‘Singapore Institution Front Facade’
Note the simple and austere front facade of the building, with pilasters instead of detached columns.

Source: Freddy Chew Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Elevation of side wings to significant position

The original Palladian villas often featured a prominent central wing flanked by two smaller wings connected by a diminutive sheltered passageway. The British Neo-Palladian villas departed from this arrangement by increasing the significance of the side wings, often creating three equally prominent wings, linked by multiple storey tall connective wings. The result was a much more linear façade that stretches across the landscape. Both the Singapore Institution and the Istana displayed this feature too.

‘Woburn Abbey, England, United Kingdom’
Note the prominent side wings and the linear facade of the building.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Viki Male taken in 2004

Neo-Palladian Architecture in Singapore

‘Malayan’ Veranda and porch

The Singapore Neo-Palladian buildings adapted to the tropical climate by having large windows, overhanging roofs and open verandas to cool the interior. Most of the walls were punctuated with large windows, a departure from the small windows and thick walls found in the Italian and British villas.

‘Corridor of Singapore Institution’
Ground floor corridor of Singapore Institution building, showing the large open arches on the left and the folding doors leading to the classroom on the right.

Source: Freddy Chew Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Furthermore, the houses often featured a large veranda on the upper floor that sat above the main entrance, creating a shelter over the ground floor front porch. This particular feature was unique to Singapore and Malaysia, and was one of the most distinct difference from the Neo-Palladian architecture found in Europe.

In fact, this Malayan veranda-porch developed concurrently in both the European constructed Neo-Palladian houses and the kampong houses around the settlement. As a result, some architectural historians attribute the Malayan veranda-porch feature on the European houses to influences from the kampong house, while others argue the reverse attribution. Regardless, this was a feature that distinguished the Singapore Neo-Palladian house from those in Europe.

‘Modern Kampong House with Projecting Front Veranda’
This modern day reconstruction of a kampong house features the projecting front veranda, which is a similar feature that is also found in Neo-Palladian buildings in Singapore.

Source: Agoda.com
Note the projecting Malayan veranda over the front porch of the Istana Kampong Glam and its similarity with the veranda found in kampong houses.

One room thick

The interior configuration of the Singapore Neo-Palladian houses were also different from their British and Italian cousins. Instead of a large deep house with rooms arranged around a central atrium, the Singapore houses featured long linear layouts. The houses were often one or two room deep, flanked by a corridor or veranda on the side. This allowed for ample ventilation and prevented the heat or humidity from building up within the house. They also often lacked the spectacular central atrium space that was characteristic of the European Palladian houses.

‘Chiswick House Plan
Plan of Chiswick House in UK, a Neo-Palladian house built in 1729. The rooms were arranged around a central octagonal hall. Some of the interior rooms did not open up to a window to the outside.

Source
‘Singapore Institution Plan’
Plan of the ground floor of the Singapore Institution building, before additions and alterations. Note that the building was only one or two rooms deep, and contains a long corridor that also served as a veranda. All the rooms had windows that opened to the outside.

Source: Adapted from Raffles Institution Archives and Museum
‘Istana Kampong Glam Ground Floor Plan’
The ground floor plan for Istana Kampong Glam reveals that the house was only two rooms wide, with a corridor running along the centre.

Source: Adapted from National Archives of Singapore

Conclusion

Traditional scholarship on the metropole and periphery model often suggest a one-way flow of ideas and information, where architectural trends and ideas originating from the metropole were disseminated and absorbed by those in the periphery. Given the economic and political realities of colonialism, this was not far from the truth.

However, the periphery did not blindly absorb trends from the metropole. The periphery was also a site for innovation and experimentation, as the architecture from the metropole was adapted to the local conditions and combined with local traditions and materials. While it is true that the Neo-Palladian style of architecture had its roots in the European architectural tradition, it can also be argued that there was a unique and distinct branch of Neo-Palladian that developed as a result of British colonialism in Singapore.

Today

Singapore Institution, later known as Raffles Institution, occupied the building until 1972. The school was then relocated to Grange Road, and the old campus was demolished to make way for the Raffles City complex which currently stands on the plot.

Istana Kampong Glam housed multiple generations of the descendants of the Sultan. The residents were moved out of the building in the 1990s, and the building underwent restoration and reopened as the Malay Heritage Centre in 2004. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2015.

Government House served as the residence of the British governor until Singapore’s independence. It was renamed the Istana and became the official residence and office of the President of Singapore, as well as the location of the Prime Minister’s Office. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1992.

Previous Post

Architecture of Craft

Places of faith and worship in early colonial Singapore, featuring Thian Hock Keng, Nagore Dargah, Sri Mariamman Temple and the old Sultan Mosque.

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Temple and a Spire

Neo-Palladian religious architecture, featuring old St. Andrew’s Church, Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and Hajjah Fatimah Mosque

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