In 1961, the American writer/urban activist Jane Jacobs penned an essay, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, she chronicled the successes and failures of the country’s metropolitan areas. One of the most famous takeaways from that widely acclaimed paper was that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings”.
Jacobs argued that cities with older, smaller buildings support a greater number — and diversity — of small businesses, and thus more entrepreneurial activities. Far from being relics of a distant past, tracts of such buildings provide a strong foundation for innovative startups. In contrast to new builds or towering office blocks, these modest structures are economic development engines in their own right.
This is also the view held by Kelvin Ang, Director of Conservation Management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). “Everyone talks about heritage as being sentimental. But let’s not overlook the role that heritage buildings play in supporting a more diverse economy, and how heritage buildings are places whereby new enterprise can happen,” he says.
In Singapore, there is no shortage of creative agencies and unique F&B concepts that began life in heritage buildings. The majority of these are located in shophouse units or former godowns. The Warehouse Hotel, a 37-room boutique hotel housed in a circa-1895 godown, is a recent example. But just what about historic properties makes them so alluring to developers, owners and tenants?
Wee Teng Wen, Co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group, which runs the hotel, offers: “The Lo & Behold Group has always been drawn to places with rich histories and strong personalities. We believe in following our heart into projects. Many have started with falling in love with a space and shaping a concept that would bring the space to life.” The Group is also behind resto-bars Odette, The Black Swan and The White Rabbit, all of which are located in heritage sites.
Architecturally, these sites are as varied as they come. There’s the monumental classicism of the Supreme Court (Odette). There’s the Art Deco stylings of the Kwangtung Provincial Bank Building (The Black Swan). And then there’s the modest character of the Ebenezer Chapel (The White Rabbit). “With The Warehouse Hotel, the space’s roots in local history at the heart of trade and distilleries in Singapore provided the backbone for our reimagining it as a tribute to all things local, both past and present,” adds Wee.
Tribute comes in the form of industrial touches in the interior design. The rooms sport double-height ceilings with exposed roof trusses, a nod to the building’s past. Black powder-coated steel accents doors, vanity mirrors and room dividers, echoing the roof trusses.
“The Warehouse went from being a godown to a disco to an upmarket hotel,” observes Ang. Warehouse Disco — Singapore’s largest at the time — flourished from 1986 to 1996. “You couldn’t create that sort of character in a new space. You’d have to spend extra effort. Now, in an era where everyone craves authenticity, heritage buildings provide that authenticity as a medium to develop something new.”
Wee’s next project, Straits Clan, is a private member’s club that will occupy the former New Majestic Hotel. It is a joint venture with three other partners. One of them is New Majestic owner Loh Lik Peng, Founder and Director of Unlisted Collection. Loh also happens to be one of Singapore’s most passionate heritage property enthusiasts. Over the past two decades, he has carved a string of boutique hotels in Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai and London from old buildings.
As he puts it: “I think I’m a little obsessed with heritage buildings. I find them to be very interesting and also very rewarding to fix up and transform into something fit for modern use. Old buildings are very inspiring — really, my ideas start from there! The hotels I do are always about the buildings and their locations and context to the resident community.”
Loh’s Hotel 1929 kickstarted the gentrification of Keong Saik Road when it opened in 2003. What was once a red-light district is now a pulsating hub of high concept restaurants and chic cocktail bars. In 2015, a new element was added to the mix: Co-working space The Working Capitol. It took over five adjoining shophouses that served as a biscuit-making factory in the 1920s.
“It was exciting for us to choose an empty, restored site with so much history, to tell a new story of our own,” remarks Ben Gattie, CEO and Co-founder of The Working Capitol. “The heritage and architecture of the building, coupled with the revival of its Tanjong Pagar neighbourhood to focus on creative industries, made it a perfect place for us to launch our first site.”
The shophouse typology makes a very attractive proposition in a climate where collaboration is king. Sheltered walkways offer protection from the elements. Street frontage offers easy pedestrian access. Most importantly, there is that human scale —most shophouses are only two or three storeys tall. A modern office block might offer efficient layouts, but it cannot escape the stigma of being a monolithic machine.
Explains Gattie: “We believe that human-centric spatial design is crucial for creativity and innovation. The best ideas can live and grow if the immediate surrounding puts people first. This helps to fortify communities, facilitate collaborations and drive personal well-being and professional growth towards positive business outcomes. This is what we saw in 1 Keong Saik Road.”
On nearby Duxton Road, The Co. is another co-working space that opened in 2016 in a renovated corner shophouse. Realtor Simon Monteiro, Director of Historical Land Pte Ltd, brokered the deal. He says: “Normal offices are square boxes without character. When you look at shophouses, they each have individual character: The five-foot way, the pintu pagar (double doors). People love history, and history is imprinted in all these buildings.”
Monteiro notes that creative companies were among the first to take root in heritage buildings. These pioneers include advertising agencies Batey Ads in Ann Siang Hill and BBH in Duxton Hill, as well as multimedia production firm Frameworks in Tanjong Pagar Road. Affordable rents were a big draw. Realtor Krystal Khor, Director of Mondania Pte Ltd, says that in 2005-6, shophouses on Tras Street were being sold for $550 psf. Today, that figure is closer to $2,100 psf. Rents have also risen in tandem.
Around a decade ago, a new breed of tenant-occupiers started moving into shophouse spaces: Investment bankers and technology entrepreneurs. “People from those industries tend to work odd or late hours. In a shophouse, they feel more at home. They can work overnight,” explains Monteiro.
Ashish Manchharam, Founder and Managing Director of boutique real estate investment firm 8M, echoes this sentiment. “In terms of our tenant profile, the number one occupiers are well-funded tech startups. Their style of working is a little different. Being in an office building is a little constricting in terms of being able to move around. If they’re in heritage buildings that aren’t high-rise, they can move around to different spaces quite easily. Accessibility is important. Most of these spaces are also in proximity to retail and F&B amenities. The workers might have meetings in those environments. That’s part of what’s driving the makeup of office tenants who are in heritage spaces.”
8M owns some 15 shophouses in the CBD, mainly along Amoy Street, Tanjong Pagar Road and Gemmill Lane. Among the firm’s tenants are digital consultancy Adelphi Digital, Telstra-backed incubator muru-D, digital marketing agency Tube Mogul, and fintech company Xero.
Clearly, heritage buildings are fertile nurseries for new ideas. So perhaps it is ironic that the dream of every shophouse startup is to grow the business and then move into a larger, swankier office. However, the founders of those startups remain grateful for the opportunity to have worked in such an environment.
Khor relates the example of My Art Space’s founder Teh Chankerk, who was a tenant at 21 Tanjong Pagar Road before moving to Istana Park. “Chankerk said that if it were not for this space (21 Tanjong Pagar) that brought out what he could do with the art, the National Environment Agency and National Parks Board would never have found him. The business would never have grown, and nothing would have taken off, if the space didn’t give expression to his dreams.”
In March 2017, The Working Capitol opened a second co-working space in a modern office building on Robinson Road. Like Teh, Gattie is full of gratitude. “Keong Saik was a great first site for us to make a statement about doing things differently and breaking out of the cubicle,” he says. “Our second site is actually in a completely new build in the CBD. (But) we’re still able to make a statement about bringing a new way of working into a traditional office district.”
Given the complexities of the modern working world, it becomes apparent that the more character-rich spaces a city has, the more likely it is to attract and retain a youthful, talented workforce. Of course, there is also the added benefit of patrimony. Loh sums it up. “I think (the utility of heritage buildings) is not just financial. It’s also in the intangible. You’re preserving something for the next generation and you’re looking after heritage, culture and history. That’s at least as important as the economic argument.”