10 Must-See Off-the-Beaten-Path Architecture in Singapore

In Asia, Singapore is a must-see destination. 

For the past decade, this island state’s breakthroughs in architecture and design have garnered it worldwide recognition and continued patronage. 

Singapore has towering skyscrapers, ultramodern malls and rooftop decks for amazing views of the city lights. It also has show-stopping structures that are equally green, sustainable and a beauty to behold. Moreover, several heritage buildings, ingeniously renovated and wonderfully preserved, dot the island.

Suffice it to say, if you love architecture and design, or have a keen interest in learning a city’s development through this, then Singapore is a great place to visit. 

However, apart from the iconic, touristy architecture that have made it into almost everyone’s Instagram feed, the island offers many others away from the glitz and spotlight that few venture to. In this article, we present some off-the-beaten-path, non-touristy, hidden architectural gems the island has to offer. 

Photo source: Pexels | Ingo Joseph

1. Gillman Barracks

Built in 1936 and named after General Webb Gillman of the British Army, this former military camp had been converted into a destination for contemporary art. The site survived World War II and was even used by the Singapore Armed Forces for training when the city state gained independence. 

The Barrack’s colonial architecture and white facade make for a great contrast against its tropical backdrop. Apart from the lush greenery, the evolving art scene also adds beautiful pops of color to the elegant colonial structure. 

Photo source: Flickr | Original versions of Choo Yut Shing

Today, a collection of art galleries is housed on the historical site while staying true to the original structure and design. As a space intended to nurture and drive Singapore’s art scene, cafes and restaurants can also be found in the vicinity to attract more visitors. And, on some nights, the entire space comes alive with its Art After Dark bi-monthly event. 

Since its opening in 2012, the Gillman Barracks continue to run an eclectic mix of events from contemporary art exhibits to live performances. Not exactly the most accessible of places, this hidden enclave with colonial charm has a clever mix of learning about the past and seeing some future changes all in one place. 

Photo source: Flickr | Original version of Choo Yut Shing

2. Old Railway Stations – Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar

Abandoned railway stations, old train tracks, rusty steel and old dirty signboards – not exactly what you see around Singapore. But these old railway stations – Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar – are a slice of the city’s ‘transportation’ history. 

When the land still partially belonged to Malaysia, Bukit Timah Railway Station, built in 1903, served as transportation between both areas. But since 2011, the railway has since ceased operations and the tracks have been abandoned. 

Outside the city center, the atmosphere in this area is quite different. There are no longer any trains in the station. Some of the tracks have been demolished but certain parts still remain, including the iconic steel bridge and the actual station house and platform. These are retained to give visitors a reminder of its historical significance and use. 

Photo source: Flickr | Mark Tindale

Bukit Timah Rail Bridge | The conserved steel truss railway … | Flickr

Photo source: Flickr | Choo Yut Shing

Pockets of actual jungle (old Singapore) lay around and beyond the old railway tracks – completing it’s out-of-Singapore feel. Renovations and conservation efforts have begun to make it a greenland so certain parts are fenced up – including that spot where you can cross onto Malaysia. 

Quite a distance away, at one end of the old railway is the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station – the southern terminus of this railway track. Completed in 1932, ceased operations in 2011 but still standing today, the station followed the art deco architectural style and will be turned into a multi-functional community space. 

Bonus point, there is still an old rustic train sitting on the tracks. This heritage building and national monument will operate again as an entrance to a new underground station and have auditoriums, art galleries and public parks in and around it. 

File:Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Singapore - 20100619-02.jpg - Wikimedia  Commons

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen on Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen on Wikimedia Commons

3. Istana Woodneuk

Here’s one on the list that may give you a thrill – the Istana Woodneuk (or Istana Wooden York) is an abandoned two-storey palace located in the former Tyersall Park, near the Singapore Botanic Gardens. 

On this historical estate of Singapore, the remains of the palace sit. Built in the 1800s and rebuilt in 1935, this blue-roofed palace has had many prominent individuals reside in it, from captains, heads of state, sultans and sultanas and other members of the royal family to becoming a headquarters for the military and a military hospital. 

Istana Woodneuk has had a rough past and endured the test of time, nature and human brutality. Unoccupied since the 1950s and only maintained by a caretaker until 1986, the old palace fell into ruin and was covered with thick vegetation and graffiti due to trespassers and decades of abandonment. In 2006, one last major fire, said to be caused by drug addicts loitering in the space, destroyed the iconic blue roof and the second floor, making the ruins irreparable.

Photo source: ExplorerSG

Today, it might be quite a challenge to visit this private estate – the land is still owned by Johor royalty. To reach this dilapidated beauty, you’ll have to cross a bit of jungle and an upward trail. Despite having the roof caved in, the old splendors can still be seen on the first floor, the railings of the stairs and balconies and the size of the palace. 

It’s tired, old, yellowed walls, cloaked in graffiti masking the impressive and stunning beauty it once was, gives off a tangible sense of abandonment. The dark, unlit interiors and floors filled with debris shows its troubled past. But seeing past all the soot and destruction, it is not hard to imagine that the grand palace was once one of the most luxurious mansions of the land.

Photo source: Flickr | Robin Low

Photo source: MDIS

4. The Hive, Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Moving away from the structures of old, here is one that was completed only in 2015. This unique and very eye-catching structure nestled in the campus of Nanyang Technological University has been given many names – The Hive, The Learning Hub, and also playfully called the ‘dimsum basket building’. 

Extending the architectural and design possibilities to create a learning environment for the digital age, Thomas Heatherwick, of London-based Heatherwick Studios, exemplified creative ingenuity in the building and spatial designs of the Hive. The design aims to foster social collaborations along with incorporating sustainable efforts. 

For outstanding commitment to sustainable design, The Hive was awarded the Green Mark Platinum Star Champion – the highest accolade for green designs in the country. The entire structure – with 12 towers, 56 oval classrooms, all connected to a large, open central atrium are naturally ventilated and filled with natural light. 

Photo source: Unsplash | Wengang Zhai

Photo source: Pixabay | Jing

There are openings in between each circular pod to allow natural air circulation and flow from the classrooms, to the atrium, corridors and staircases. Further, the towers are raised off the ground using 61 concrete columns, with smooth surface textures that also contribute to air flow. 

On the outside, the dimsum baskets are covered with curved concrete panels with irregular horizontal stripes that should appear to be like wet clay; but seems to resemble a root vegetable more when seen from a distance. 

On the inside, balconies extend towards the shared central atrium from the classrooms on each of the eight floors, which get larger towards the top. This design brings together students and faculty from all directions to encourage constant communication and create an informal collaborative space. Round-shaped classrooms also aim to inspire more collaborative learning. 

“The Learning Hub is a collection of handmade concrete towers surrounding a central space that brings everyone together, interspersed with nooks, balconies and gardens for informal collaborative learning,” shared Heatherwick.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen in Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Flickr | Corey Seeman

5. School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Still on the NTU campus, The Hive is not the only cool and amazing architectural feat you’ll find here – the Art, Design and Media (ADM) building is equally stunning and attention grabbing. 

The architectural wonder of ADM follows the university’s efforts of nurturing creative and entrepreneurial minds and leaders. Officially opened in 2009, it is Singapore’s first professional art school with a high-tech creative gallery complete with museum track lighting and climate-control systems to protect the works of art. 

Sloping and expansive green roofs distinguish the building from others on campus, but similarly, it masks the structure by marrying it with its surrounding lush greenery and landscape. With its curving design, the roofs seem to encourage non-linear thinking and creative ideas from its viewers and occupants. 

Yes, the green roofs are a wonder to look at, but its sustainable, biophilic design makes it even more spectacular. Seeming like wide open arms that embrace the building, these green open spaces serve informal gathering spaces that also insulate the structure, cool the surrounding air and harvests rainwater for irrigation. 

Photo source: Unsplash | Leslie Wong

The building stands at an unassuming five storeys, at its tallest and only two storeys at the lower slopes – the spaces and areas inside vary in shapes and size. In the center of the two main slopes is an almond-shaped courtyard with a ‘floating’ performance platform, fountains and a reflecting that creates a communal ambience while also cooling this central space. 

Double glazed glass facade allows a generous view of the natural surroundings outside and introduces ample daylight into the creative spaces. This fluid visual exchange between inside and out increases how the building blurs nature and architecture for its occupants. 

As a school of art, the varied perspectives and experiences across different elevations inside and out may fittingly fulfill the building’s intent to inspire creativity.

Photo source: Flickr | trevor.patt

6. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum

Built in 2007, the impressive structure of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum complex stands in Chinatown. With its rich interiors and exhibits, the temple’s relics and museum’s teachings tell of a history spanning back over thousands of years. 

Legend has it that the left canine tooth of Buddha was discovered in a collapsed stupa, from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, India. In order to preserve and pay homage to this extraordinary relic, the Temple was constructed and aptly named. 

The traditional design of the temple follows the Northern Chinese style and is largely based on the Chinese Buddhist architectural style of the Tang dynasty. For over a millenia, this architectural style has been developed in China, solidified as early as the imperial period and used for various places of worship like the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It’s design principles are mostly left unchanged save for a few decorative elements. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original versions as seen on Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Hotels.com

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple comprises four storeys, a mezzanine and a roof. Throughout the different floors, there are halls and chambers where enshrined are different Buddhist statues. There are also museums containing revered artefacts – the temple’s centerpiece relic is on the fourth storey housed in a giant stupa made of gold. 

On the roof, there are different pavilions also enshrined with gilt statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, including a roof garden for a little peace from the Chinatown hubbub.

Outside, the complex has the Eminent Sangha Museum, a theater that holds cultural performances, talks and film screenings for locals and tourists to attend.

Photo source: Pixabay | cegoh

Photo source: Flickr | Original version of Andrea Schaffer

7. Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter

Unbeknownst to many, there is an air raid shelter spanning 1,500 square meters in the basement of 78 Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru. 

Built in 1939, the Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter holds double significance. One, being the last remaining pre-war civilian air raid shelter that still exists today. And two, the only one to have been built in a public housing building in the country. 

Entering this underground heritage space, where the original architecture has been left untouched, you can still see scribbles and drawings on the walls by some of its occupants. Seeing it gives a sense of eeriness because of its dark history and stories. 

Photo source: Weekender

Photo source: Roots SG

According to some stories, when the air raid siren is sounded, the doors to the shelter will open to allow civilians a few minutes of respite and safety from the bomb storm. It was their only safe haven despite being dark, damp and lacking ventilation. But it was spacious down below and can provide protection to around 1,600 people. 

With its dim light, some pitch black corridors, dustry brick walls, protruding beams and pipes and wet floors, the space was recently used by some artists as a venue to tell a story of this historical site through their art. 

Photo source: The Straits Times

8. Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (or Bright Hill Temple)

Built in 1921, the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (KMSPKS) is the first traditional Chinese monastery and the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore. It was constructed to propagate the Buddhist teachings of wisdom and provide lodgings for the monks. 

Through constant donations, the monastery continued to expand and is now the largest and most majestic place of worship in the country. In its massive halls and spaces, the monastery has stupas, prayer halls, niches, bell and drum towers, a crematorium, a college, a library, monks’ quarters and one of Asia’s largest indoor Buddha statues. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen on Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen on Wikimedia Commons

Around the halls and structures, there are gardens and the Dragon Pond which are decorated during celebrations. And most notably, a Bodhi Tree sits on the land, its sapling was said to have been brought from the same tree under which Shakyamuni Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Following the Buddhist ‘forest tradition’, which emphasizes on meditation to attain advancement in well-being, the complex also has a five-storey Meditation Center. The design veered slightly away from the traditional architectures of Chinese temples and added a contemporary feel. But all around the temple, there are quiet places, gardens and ponds of tranquility where you can just sit, relax and meditate. 

Photo source: Flickr | Original version of Tony Hisgett

Photo source: Travel Triangle

9. Kampong Lorong Buangkok (or Kampong Selak Kain)

Before Singapore became the modern, glistening cityscape it is today, it was really just grassland and jungles not long before. Kampong Lorong Buangkok is the last remaining kampong (or village) living symbolizing Singapore’s early living spaces and lifestyle. 

This last surviving village was built in 1956 and located in Buangkok, Hougang district. In Malay, kampong means selak kain, where it gets its alternate name – Kampong Selak Kain. It literally means lifting up one’s sarong in order to wade through the water whenever villages experienced floods in the old days. 

Photo source: Flickr | Original version of Jnzl’s Photos

In this swampy piece of land away from the city and surrounded by untouched greenery are dozens of brightly-painted, wooden, zinc-roofed houses with poultry running and clucking about. The village is home to about 30 Malay and Chinese families where neighborhood camaraderie is still felt, just like they had been in the good old days. 

This rural village gives urbanites a glimpse of Singapore’s bygone era and a testament of how rapidly the city state has developed in less than 70 years. It is eye-opening to see this small slice of history given the stark contrast to the world just beyond the village’s entrance. There are many houses with patios and overgrown gardens, giving the feeling of a much slower pace of life despite being in a modern city. 

Many are pushing to preserve and make the kampong a heritage education site to show how this old way of life can show the city dwellers the true meaning of ‘kampong spirit’

File:An old house in Lorong Buangkok Singapore.JPG

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original versions as seen on Wikimedia Commons

File:The Winding Lanes of KB.JPG

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Original version as seen on Wikimedia Commons

10. Fort Canning Hill

Another hidden gem of architecture in Singapore is the historical landmark: Fort Canning Hill. Right in the city center and accessible via Orchard Road, the 18-hectare space is steeped in history, all the way back to when Malay royalty ruled the land in medieval times. 

With the rather gruesome history on the hill, there are some who believe that it might be haunted. But still, it has many architectural highlights that are intriguing to see and hold mysteries and historical significance. Here are some:

Fort Canning Center was originally constructed in 1926 for British army barracks. Its architecture easily reflects its colonial origins – pitched roof with overhanging eaves to protect residents from the tropical heat with glimpses of Neo-classical style motifs and a white facade against a backdrop of lush greenery. 

Photo source: Roots SG

Built in 1846, Fort Wall and Gate was suggested as a means to sustain the fortress by giving refuge to the garrison in cases of emergency and to protect Singapore from sea attacks. Surrounding the summit of the hill, this low, thick wall, complete with a moat around it, was made to withstand artillery bombardment. Today, only the gothic archway gate, a fraction of the wall and two nine-pound cannons remain.

During his third visit to Singapore in 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles decided to build Raffles House as his private residence. Originally, this single-storey bungalow was made of wood and atap before it was converted into a European neoclassical style Government House where a long line of colonial governors resided back in the day. In 1858, it was demolished. The brick and tile structure standing on its site today was constructed in 2003. 

A Sally Port is a small hidden door that allows people to come in and out of the fort undetected. Narrow iron gates and stairs, hidden in the greenery, served as entrance and exit points. There used to be three Sally Ports on Fort Canning Hill but only one remains today. 

Photo source: Wikipedia

Photo source: Unsplash | Batel Galor

Nine historical gardens can be found on the hill. Among them, there is a hidden spiral staircase that can be accessed via the Fort Canning tunnel. It’s quite a picturesque site. The old stairs juxtaposed against lush greenery. When you look up from the steps, the rim of the staircase forms a perfect round frame of the sky with thick greenery hanging by the sides and branches of the trees peeping above. 

Photo source: Unsplash | Nguyen Thu Hoai

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