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Architectural Elements: Colonial House Interior Design Styles in Singapore

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Influenced by its colonial past and its multicultural present, heritage is reflected is in the architecture and interior design of many Singaporean homes, especially the black-and-white colonial houses that are exclusive to certain areas of the island. Here is where you can find them.

One of the reasons these houses have stood the test of time is their adaptability. Over the years, many have been repurposed for various uses, such as restaurants, offices, and private residences. Their open and flexible floor plans make it easy to modify the spaces to suit modern needs while preserving their historic charm.

Known as black-and-white bungalows, they were built in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, when Singapore was under British rule. They were designed to house British high-ranking officials, rich businessmen, and plantation owners. However, during the Japanese Occupation, they were abandoned and taken over by the Japanese. With urban development and land price increasing, most of these houses were demolished or converted to other uses.

Colonial houses encompass a range of styles influenced by European architectural traditions, each with distinctive features. Some common elements include:

  • Symmetry: Colonial homes often feature symmetrical designs, with a centred front door flanked by evenly spaced windows on either side. This symmetrical layout provides a balanced and classical aesthetic. Cross-ventilation is a crucial design feature. The layout often includes strategically placed windows and doors that promote the flow of air through the interior spaces. This natural ventilation system helps combat Singapore's heat and humidity.

Colonial House Singapore
Credit: SLA

  • Columns and Pillars: Many colonial houses showcase columns or pillars, often found supporting a porch or entryway. These columns draw from classical Greek and Roman architecture, with styles like Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns, as seen above.

  • Gabled Roofs: Gabled roofs are characterised by their triangular shape, are prevalent in colonial architecture. Some variations, like the Dutch colonial style, may have gambrel roofs, creating more space in the upper levels. They are often covered with red clay tiles or thatched with attap leaves, adding a rustic and exotic charm to the houses.

Colonial House Singapore
Credit: Instagram @sgr_since_2018

  • Shutters: The windows are typically made of wood and designed with louvered shutters that can be adjusted to control light and ventilation. The louvers help keep the interiors cool while allowing residents to enjoy natural light and fresh air.

Colonial House in Singapore
Credit: Villa Samadhi

  • Elevated Structure: One of the most noticeable architectural elements of these houses is their elevated structure. Built on stilts, they are raised several feet off the ground. This design serves several purposes:

  • Symmetrical Chimneys: Chimneys are typically placed at each end of the house to maintain the symmetrical design. They might be made of brick or stone, depending on local materials.

Colonial House with two chimneys
Credit: Patrick Ahearn

  • Pilasters and Mouldings: Pilasters—rectangular columns that protrude from the wall—often decorate the exterior, adding a sense of depth and elegance. Elaborate mouldings and trim work around doors, windows, and along the roofline are also common.

Grey Colonial House
Credit: Michael Freeman

  • Simple and Clean Lines: Colonial architecture tends to favour clean lines and a sense of orderliness, emphasising proportion and balance in its design.

Dining Table with windows in Background
Haus Atelier

  • Central Hallway: Some colonial styles, like Georgian and Federal, incorporate a central hallway that runs from the front to the back of the house, dividing it into equal sections on either side.

Hallway of a house
Credit: Kerry Hill in Architectural Digest

The black-and-white colonial houses are a style that celebrates the past, but also embraces the present and the future. They are a style that reflects the rich and diverse heritage of Singapore, as well as its tropical climate and modern lifestyle. They are a style that is elegant and exotic, spacious and bright, rustic and charming, and personal and unique. They are a style that is timeless and timeless in Singapore.

These elements collectively define the classic and enduring aesthetic of colonial house design, blending European influences with practical adaptations suited to the climates and materials of different regions.

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