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An architectural lesson about life

An architectural lesson about life



Details matter. Whether it's work or life in general, details matter.

This statement rang true during a short walking tour organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) called Architrek Through Time: An Architectural Odyssey through Landmarks.

The two-hour walking tour sounded simple enough. Starting from Exit B at City Hall MRT station, our guides, architects from DP Architects, would take us to places such as St Andrew's Cathedral, National Gallery, Supreme Court, Victoria Theatre, Fullerton Hotel, and Fullerton Bay Hotel.


Along the way, they would take turns telling us not just about the buildings, but also about any repair and restoration works undertaken over the years.

It sounded simple on paper, and frankly, it's easy to say, "Why not just look up the information online and save yourself the trouble of sweating through a walking tour?"

But there's only so much one can glean from reading stuff on the Internet. Being physically present and listening to professionals sharing their knowledge - now that's what makes learning feel genuine and fun.


Eye-openers: St Andrew's Cathedral

At St Andrew's Cathedral, I discovered (I had long forgotten) that the property was once surrounded by an iron fence. When improvement works were undertaken, it was proposed that the fence be removed. Without this physical barrier, this place of worship immediately became and felt more accessible to all.

The architects also discussed the emblems on the West wall of the North Trancept. These were no mere simple decorative elements - they are actually coats of arms. Each one symbolises an allied country that helped Singapore during the Second World War.

Apart from the British, Americans and Australians, the Netherlands is also represented for they, too, had lent assistance. Interestingly, China is symbolised by a four-clawed Chinese dragon instead of a coat of arms.


Coats of Arms, from left to right: Australian, American, Chinese, Netherlands, India

This, I was told, was because the British were working with both the Communists and Nationalists at the time, and this was the only way to symbolise the country without offending either party.

Equally interesting was the fact that these 'medallions' were once painted white, which made them barely noticeable. Then, once they were painted in colour, there were complaints from those who felt that the move was in poor taste.

Learning about the addition of a skylight to the Cathedral to brighten the interior was nice, but these historical titbits were a lot more fun.


The lighting was gorgeous, but it also meant that the conditions were unbearably warm

The land, or more pertinently, the soil that the Cathedral was built on proved to be another interesting topic. Most of us aren't architects, so we don't think about the ground beneath our feet. So, it was interesting to learn that architects must take the type of soil into account. Marine clay is apparently soft and can lead to subsidence.

The variations in the soil are also why St Andrew's Road is higher compared to St Andrew's Cathedral itself.


Stone-y stuff: The National Gallery 

Now, learning about building history is nice, but by 10-something that morning, the back of my shirt was soaked in sweat. Stepping into the National Gallery gave the tour group some much-needed respite from the unrelenting weather.

Here, my attention was directed towards the weathering of the facade and the resulting rough surface. But merely centimetres away, the stone surfaces shielded from the sun remained nice and smooth.


Not surprisingly, these intricate details were carved by an Italian sculptor, or so we were told

We did not spend too much time here. Walking through the Gallery, we soon found ourselves at a foyer and my mind began to wander as one of the guides talked about flooring.

The lesson soon drifted towards the top of some steps, at which point a guide mentioned that during colonial times, an enormous oil painting of the current governor of Singapore would be hung.

I can't recall any other details, but I did notice that this spot seemed popular with Instagrammers, several of whom happily used the unique lighting to have their portraits taken.


Do you notice the OCBC Centre's rounded sides?

Admiring skyscrapers: OCBC Centre, UOB Plaza One and Plaza Two 

Passing Victoria Theatre, our guides began telling us about OCBC Centre. Only then did I learn that this 52-storey structure was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. It also cost $100 million, which even in the 1970s, was a princely sum. For a young nation still finding its feet, it was certainly an achievement.

To maximise space and keep the banking hall pillarless, two massive semi-circular cores that served as the main structures were built. Once completed, the building's floors were hoisted and stacked into place. I'm not an architect and I know I'm not describing this right, but I imagine it's akin to stacking LEGO bricks between two support columns.

The guides then spoke about the unique design of the two UOB buildings: UOB Plaza One and UOB Plaza Two. Not surprisingly, the shorter of the two buildings (Two) was constructed in the 1970s and its taller sibling (One) followed about two decades later.

As Plaza One looks more modern, renovations for Plaza Two also included upgrades to the exterior, so that the facade's design was more closely aligned to the newer structure.


Once just a post office, this building is now familiar to millions thanks to the annual Singapore Formula One Grand Prix

A legacy of our mail service: The Fullerton Hotel

It was time to take cover from the sun again. This time, we headed into The Fullerton Hotel. Rather than architectural history, however, the guides discussed how the former Post Office was set as Point Zero or the 'centre' of Singapore.


That is how malls such as Junction 8 and Junction 10 got their names, for these places are eight miles and 10 miles away from the Post Office. As the British use imperial units of measurement, miles rather than kilometres, was used back in the day.

Wilting in the heat: The Clifford Pier, and reflecting on the day

We headed for The Clifford Pier next, where history aside, the guides discussed the internal trusses that hold up the structure.

I wanted to hear more, but at this point, the merciless sun had taken its toll. Even the short respites from the heat were no longer enough. After over two hours of mostly standing in the sun, all I could think of was going home for a cold shower and pouring myself an even colder Jever Pilsener.

I needed a coffee before getting back behind the wheel, though.


The use of these trusses ensures that internal space is maximised, since the support columns are relatively thin

This caffeine stop allowed me to start cooling down and more importantly, start digesting the knowledge consumed. I believe that learning mostly happens after a lesson has ended, and indeed, even while we're asleep.

Pondering, I remembered how OCBC Centre looks flat when viewed straight on. But only when I observed it could I notice the shape of the semi-circular cores and imagine the floors being 'stacked' during its construction.

Why didn't I ever wonder about why there are malls called 'Junction 8' and 'Junction 10'? Perhaps I was content to put it down to the developer's theme or naming convention. I didn't think beyond that.

Then there's St Andrew's Cathedral. I never thought of it as more than an Anglican place of worship located beside Raffles City. Only as I listened to professionals and walked its grounds did I discover its unique characteristics and the stories they tell.

I've learned to be more curious and pay more attention. Because details matter. Whether it's about work or life in general, details matter.





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