Whether you’re a student of architecture or a casual admirer of interesting buildings, Singapore is an observational hothouse (to go along with its tropical climate).
The city-state’s buildings represent an enchanting mix of Asian, British colonial and modern global influences.
“Singapore has its fair share of iconic buildings, especially (those built) in the ’90s and 2000s, that have contributed to a skyline that is distinctive from other Asian cities,” said Chong Keng Hua, associate professor of architecture and sustainable design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
“It’s never straightforward to label Singapore architecture under a specific style … If there are consistent creative forces underlying its evolution, these would be our response to our tropical climate and space constraints.”
Sustainability is another theme showing up in the mix, Chong said.
“The juxtaposition of futuristic, high-rise green buildings with post-independence (after 1965) modern complexes and older colonial buildings and shophouses gives Singapore’s urban landscape a unique identity and experience,” he added.
Here are 10 of Singapore’s most famous buildings, representing its past, present and future.
Raffles Singapore reopens following extensive renovations
Opened: Opened in 1887 (as a 10-room bungalow)
Architect: Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swan & Maclaren (main building, 1899)
The grande dame of famous Singapore buildings has somewhat modest beginnings.
In the late 1880s, the Armenian Sarkies brothers leased a bungalow owned by an Arab trader. They named it after British colonizer Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and started out with just 10 rooms for their guests. It didn’t stay modest for long.
From the opening a new three-story main building in 1899 to a huge overhaul in 2019 (and numerous makeovers in between), Raffles Hotel has become the signature example of colonial architecture in Singapore. Its white exterior and neo-Renaissance design includes tropical necessities such as high ceilings and extensive verandas.
“Raffles Hotel is well-known for its history and luxurious ambience,” Chong said. “Fun fact: This is also where the famous cocktail Singapore Sling was invented.”
Jewel at Changi Airport
Architect: Moshe Safdie
Use: Entertainment and retail complex
We go from an old-school colonial classic to the newest building on the list: Jewel at Changi Airport.
From the fertile mind of architect Moshe Safdie, the building is impressive both inside and out. The exterior takes the form of a dramatic doughnut shape framed in glass and steel. The interior, meanwhile, nods to nature with a hedge maze, glass-bottomed canopy bridge and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, known as the Rain Vortex.
Also found inside the 10-story building (five below ground, five above) are entertainment venues, shops, restaurants, a hotel and services for airline passengers, such as early check-in, baggage storage and connections to three of the airport’s terminals.
“Jewel has redefined airport, retail and public space all at once,” Chong said. “It creates a huge impact in making Changi Airport the most recognizable – and probably the most Instagrammable – airport in the world.”
Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Architect: DP Architects and Michael Wilford & Partners
Use: Entertainment complex
You might know Esplanade by its informal name: “The Durian.” That’s because the theater’s twin glass domes – made from more than 7,000 triangular aluminum sunshades – bear a striking resemblance to two halves of a durian, a strong-smelling fruit popular in the region.
Chong says the building’s signature spiky facade wasn’t part of the original design.
“It was initially conceived as two glass shells without shading, which drew much criticism for its insensitivity to the tropical climate, as it would create a greenhouse effect.” Thus, the iconic shades.
The building may be famous, but that doesn’t mean the design is universally loved. Since opening in 2002, Esplanade has been given various other nicknames, some not so flattering. Beloved or berated, however, it’s an undeniable part of Singapore’s urban identity.
Marina Bay Sands
Architect: Moshe Safdie
Use: Hotel, casino and mall
Marina Bay Sands is another notable Singapore project from architect Moshe Safdie. The hotel has become a signature part of the city’s skyline, immediately identified by its three towers and cantilevered sky garden, which hosts the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool (check out the video above to see what it’s like to swim there).
“To me, this is more of an urban project than an architectural project, as it has transformed both the waterfront and downtown skyline,” Chong said.
National Gallery Singapore
An inside look at National Gallery Singapore
Architect: StudioMilou and CPG Consultants
Use: Art museum
The National Gallery is a microcosm of what the city-state does best – blend the old with the new. In this case, the City Hall and Supreme Court buildings have been transformed into Singapore’s premiere art museum.
The neo-classical City Hall first opened its doors in 1929, and the Supreme Court building came along a decade later. Significant parts of the structures were preserved – including the chamber where the Japanese surrendered to the British at the end of World War II – so visitors can take in their historical significance as they explore an impressive collection of Southeast Asian art.
Chong said “the result is simple yet elegant.”
Sri Mariamman Temple
Opened: 1827 (then known as Mariamman Kovil or Kling Chapel)
Use: Place of worship
No list of Singapore buildings is complete without representation from the myriad religions that have found a foothold here.
Chief among them is the ornate Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore (and the oldest building in this list).
Although first opened in 1827, much of the present structure dating back to the 1860s. It was built by craftsmen from South India and is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, who is known for her curative powers.
One of the building’s most outstanding architectural features is its “gopuram” (entrance tower). The highly ornamented tower, festooned with colorful figures, is a well-known landmark in Singapore’s Chinatown.
Architect: George Drumgoole Coleman
Use: Dining and nightlife venue
As is the case with many older structures, the purpose of CHIJMES – which is pronounced “chimes” – has evolved over time.
The oldest building in the complex is Caldwell House, which later became a Catholic convent for girls (the name CHIJMES relates to its name, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School). It is now a peaceful oasis by day and a bustling entertainment center at night.
But the standout structure is the complex’s Gothic chapel, which features a five-story spire and flying buttresses. The structure’s 648 columns feature carvings of tropical plants and birds, while inside, a dazzling white chapel can be reserved for weddings. Along with other entries on this list, you may have seen this building in the 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Fullerton Hotel Singapore
Opened: 1928 (as site of Singapore’s General Post Office)
Architect: Major Percy Hubert Keys and Frank Dowdeswell
Here’s another impressive example of Singapore renovating old buildings. What is now the site of a luxury hotel was once a fort named after Robert Fullerton, the first governor of the Straits Settlements (a group of British territories). Fort Fullerton was torn down in the late 1870s and replaced with the Exchange Building. It, too, is gone.
The Exchange was replaced by the Fullerton Building in 1928, which served as the General Post Office. Myriad other uses followed, including its upper floors providing a home for the exclusive Singapore Club.
The stunning gray granite neoclassical building wasn’t used as a hotel until 2001, before which it sat empty for years.
Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall
Opened: 1862 (theater building) and 1905 (concert hall building)
Architect: John Bennett (theater building) and Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swan & Maclaren (concert hall building)
Current use: Theater and concert hall
Set in the Civic District, the neoclassical Victoria Theatre (614 seats) and Concert Hall (673 seats) are among the most illustrious venues in Singapore, and the building is notable for its iconic clock tower.
The theater started out as the Town Hall and was one of the first buildings of Singapore’s Victorian Revivalism era. The concert hall, meanwhile, began life as the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1905, named after the British monarch who had died less than five years prior.
Back in 2010, this national monument was closed for a four-year, $158 million Singapore ($116 million) makeover to restore its neoclassical facade and to install state-of-the art facilities, according to the theater. It reopened with a big splash in 2014.
Architect: Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and Buro Ole Scheeren
Arranged around eight courtyards, The Interlace is a distinctive residential complex formed of 31 stacked apartment blocks
Speaking to CNN in 2016, when the structure was named World Building of the Year, one of the architects involved in the project, Eric Chang, said: “Our main thought was how to conceptualize something that’s more of a vertical village than really a building for housing.”
5 bonus buildings
- Pinnacle @Duxton: This 50-story tower is the leading example of Singapore’s groundbreaking approach to residential structures, according to Chong, who noted that “the unique architectural design was a result of worldwide competition that attracted more than 200 entries.”
- Kampung Admiralty: Completed in 2017, the housing complex for senior citizens features a medical facility, pharmacy, community garden and more. It was named 2018’s World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival. This project “signifies a global shift from iconic architecture to one that is responsible and socially meaningful,” Chong said.
- Robinson Tower: More trees, please. This eco-friendly building in the Central Business District aims to create the “sustainable urbanism” that has become one of Singapore’s calling cards. The tower’s gravity-defying upper section appears to float above a verdant garden terrace.
- Golden Mile Complex: Resembling a typewriter, this building is “probably the most daring mixed-use architectural design in 1970s,” Chong said, adding: “The dramatically terraced Brutalist building was originally imagined to be a prototype of an urban form, which could have been the blueprint for the entire tropical city.”
- Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum: Opened in 2007, this five-story temple is a great place to experience the influence of Buddhist culture in Singapore. The building, located in Chinatown, reflects the architectural style of China’s Tang dynasty.