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Apr 25, 2013

Shenton Way - Then and Now

Shenton Way, Singapore in 1976
Shenton Way, Singapore's new business centre, reaches for the sky
by Neville Kros
Source:  The Straits Times Annual for 1976

On Shenton Way I found the architectural missing link.  Other people have probably found it before me in other places.  But to me this street is the link which bridges the gap between the Victorian Age when architects were mere copiers of earlier styles, and the post World War II period when they tried to come to terms with the new building materials, and to learn how to cope with demands for the maximum use of valuable land.

There are skyscrapers here, one of them rising 50 storeys.  But this is no concrete jungle with towering buildings hemming you in.  It is a spacious place, full of grace and imagination; a place where even a country lover like myself can breathe freely, though I have always been dedicated to the belief that any building of more than three storeys must be a monstrosity.

The archived photos of Shenton Way in 1974, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore with thanks and acknowledgement.

The graciousness seems to extend to the people of the street.  They have a sense of purpose, but not of grim purposefulness.  The bustle is not the same as that of most parts of London or even of Orchard Road.  It is the unrushed, almost casual flow of a quietly confident people who know where they are going and why.

Yet Shenton Way was a town planner's bright idea which came close to never leaving the drawing board.

Even after 60 years the dream has been only partly realised.

The land was created by the second Telok Ayer reclamation scheme which was completed in 1907, when the sea had again been pushed back and most of Mount Palmer levelled.

Beach at foot of Mount Palmer  c  1880

The above archived photos of the levelling of Mount Palmer in 1912 with photo credit of National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

But, whereas the first reclamation scheme had been used to create Collyer Quay with its rows of picturesque godowns, little was done in this new area.

There was a dusty track, and Professor Seow Eu Jin, head of Singapore University's faculty of architecture, remembers a football stadium there to which his father used to take him when he was still a boy.

When the P & O line came to Singapore they needed better facilities and a road had to be built in to the town.  But it was Robinson Road, parallel to Shenton Wy, that was built.

Then came the post-war period and the government decided that Shenton Way should be developed.  They came up with what, at the time, must have seemed an imaginative scheme.  All the buildings would be 10 storeys high, and all developers would build on only 40 percent of their lots, thus avoiding a concrete canyon.  And the planners insisted, too, that the buildings would be marble faced.

This was the boom period and the lots were snapped up at what was then a record auction of land, earning $4 million for the leases of the Shenton Way and Robinson Road plots.  But the glow soon faded.  The boom ended and, in the words of the land appraisers of the day, land investment was a big risk.

The prospective developers, who had eagerly snapped up the land in March, 1952, were having second thoughts by September.  They complained of disabling conditions, and began to doubt they would find rock close  enough to the surface to make building 10-storey blocks an economic proposition.

One developer even brought in a diamond-headed drill capable of cutting through 3,000 feet of solid rock at 40 feet an hour.  And he set up a company to do test borings for other developers.  By November they had found grey sandstone which apparently proved that there was, after all, rock at economic building levels.  They also found two underground rivers of sweet water, at 60 feet and 135 feet.

But the euphoria faded again.  For the next three years saw headlines like "Shenton scheme may flop," "Shenton Way plan: another flaw found" and even, in June 1954, "Shenton Way skyscraper scheme flops."

Shenton Way was a playing field in 1953.  Photo credit:  NAS

Aerial view of Shenton Way in 1956, with Lau Pa Sat in the foreground.  Photo credit:  NAS

....  The planners went back to their drawing boards, and, in 1966, the master plan was revised and approved.

This was the present imaginative plan.  There would be a continuous three-storey podium on both sides of the street with superstructures ranging from 22 to 50 storeys.  These tower blocks would be so spaced that they would not block the sea view of the buildings behind them.

The plan also envisaged the Shenton Way-Robinson Road complex as the new financial centre of Singapore.

Development was the watchword all over Singapore, with the government urging developers to huild hotels, shopping centres and office blocks.  Soon Shenton Way's first building, the Industrial and Commercial Bank, which had been built in the early 1960s, was acquiring neighbours.

But how had they overcome the problems which seemed so insoluble in the 50s?  An architect, Mr Kok Siew Hoong, who was involved in the Development Bank of  Singpore building provides the answers.  "More extensive soil investigations were made," he says.  "And the Port of Singapore Authority provided information regarding the old shore line and the reclaimed land.  With this extra background, we were able to determine more accurately what was beneath us, and so design proper foundations."

Hopes were given an extra boost when the present SIA building went up in Robinson Road and the builders found part of a sea wall running across the area.  Even so, they still had the problem of the slope.  "We used casson piles of different lengths," says Mr. Kok.  And the tower blocks are of different heights visually to counter the effect of the slope.  The plot ratio was raised from 3-1 to 5-1 and then to 10-1, giving developers even more encouragement.

Shenton Way Today  (25 April, 2013)

What better way to make a trip to Shenton Way early this morning, I thought.  Walk the talk and armed with a camera to capture the memories of Shenton Way on this blog.  While the sky was still dark and vehicular traffic was light because the ECP  central area zone had not started operation. Words are not needed ...

The train at Simei MRT Station arrived ...
Destination for the photo shoot ...

The photo journey to Shenton Way ends at Afro Asia Bldg at Robinson Road from a link at McCallum St but that's another story ...

How many buildings at Shenton Way over the decades where heritage friends could remember?

Are we moving forwards or backwards to build and develop for the future generation of this little island?

If  Mount Palmer was left alone over a century ago and our ancestors and forefathers did not reclaim and level the land, build the roads and infrastructures, the hard labour of the Samsui women at the construction sites and Singaporean and immigrant workers, how is Shenton Way today?

Shenton Way was an experiment of an engineering feat with human ingenuity of hundreds and thousands of Singaporeans and guest workers to discover solutions for Mother Nature on this little plot of land.  Thanks to the blessing of the strategic location to be protected and shielded as land masses from our neighbouring countries.

Many people said that without Sumatra and other Indonesian nearby islands, the high-rise buildings in Shenton Way could have been blown away during the Tsunami catastrophe on 26 December, 2004 which affected the entire Indian Ocean. 



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