In Geylang, an enclave known for its heady mix of food, sex and history, streetwalkers ply their trade and the food-obsessed jostle for tables in wok hei-perfumed coffee shops. But at the atypical Lorong 24A, where the 1920s-era shophouses have been granted conservation status, things are a little quieter, a little neater and a tad bit quirkier. Clan associations and traditional medical halls stand beside flamenco dance studios and a Panama hat salon; young tykes peddle tricycles along 5-ft ways.
“Come. We don't have too much time to stop at each of [the shophouses]. They're all equally stunning,” says Low Seow Juan, who is giving us a walking tour of the street in which he and a few friends have been quietly purchasing old archetypical shophouses and transforming their interiors into “art”.
An engineer-turned-lawyer who sits on the board of a number of public and private companies, Low has entered that stage in life where one feels necessary to step back and return to the community. “We could have built a condo by preserving the facades and extending upwards, and we would have made more money,” he says. “But where's the fun in that? By remodelling each shophouse with unique features inside, people will better appreciate and enjoy these buildings.”
In all, eight shophouses — No 5 and the odd numbers from 9 to 21 — purchased in the mid-1990s by Low and company were entrusted to progressive architectural firms Atria Architects, Hyla Architects, Lekker Design, Linghao Architects, Liu & Wo Architects, Zarch Collaboratives, KD Architects and Farm. The last two collaborated on a unit, while Hyla designed two, and in the process earned a Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) Design Award and a 2012 URA Architectural Heritage Award. More recently, the entire Lorong 24A Shophouse Series was awarded the 2013 URA Architectural Heritage Award (Category B).
“The architects were given artistic licence,” says Low, as he leads us up the “red dragon”, a dramatic steel staircase that slithers out of a wading pool to connect all four storeys of No 13, the last of the shophouses to be completed.
“If you look around, you won't see any granite or marble like in a Roman house,” he continues. “We wanted the architects to focus on design and to challenge themselves, which is why we gave them a tight budget of $500,000 each. As a result, the homes all came out pretty awesome.”
And not to mention, unique, adds Han Loke Kwang of Hyla, mastermind of both the “red dragon” and the more subtly hued but no less intriguing No 19. “Because each unit is special in its own way, together they add to the [essence of the] development as a whole.”
“[Low] really did not attempt to tamper with the proposals, or tone them down. In fact, he encouraged them to be clearer and stronger. He kept asking: ‘Where's the oomph?'” shares Joshua Comaroff of the husband-and-wife Lekker Design team that gave No 15 a “floating” rear extension by rotating the horizontal plane of its upper floors 45 degrees (imagine a Rubik's Cube in mid-turn).
Available for rent, all eight shophouses have received overwhelming interest and are fully leased. In fact, so popular are they that even Low's adult children regularly receive applications of interests over Facebook. “What [the owners] have done is to develop this place for the future,” says No 15's Stuart Walker, a tenant from down under, when asked about the development's appeal.
Together with his wife Bronwen Fitzroy-Ezzy, Walker was attracted to his unit's generosity of space and its light-filled, home-in-a-gallery concept. The pair have also fully utilised the unit's pre-installed gallery tracks (available across all units) to display their art collection.
“When I say a house is art, I also mean that it should be occupied by people who appreciate art,” Low says to us. “You feel touched by some of the buildings as you walk through them.”
He cites us the example of No 11 by Linghao Architects, which features a series of steel bridges that criss-cross an open courtyard, stitching two halves of a home. Currently in between let, it is temporarily showcasing the works of more than 20 artists in a group exhibition titled Passports. One of the artists, Danya Yu, was so taken by No 11 that she painted not one, but two oil-on-canvases of the transformed shophouse.
“Architecture inspired the artist. Now, that's a nice feeling,” Low, an amateur photographer himself (he was one of the featured artists in Passports), muses. “This is why in this second phase of my life, I should focus on the things that bring joy to people,” adds the 60-year-old.
To this end, Low and Pocket Projects — the development and management consultancy firm set up to oversee the shophouses — regularly opens up the units for arts events; at times, even postponing tenancy and forgoing rent (of about $8,000-$11,000 a unit) to do so. In the last two years, over a dozen exhibitions have taken place at Lorong 24A and even the residents are in on the action. Last September, the tenants of No 19, for instance, hosted and curated a solo exhibition by portraiture artist Alexandr Mischan.
On stepping up to champion Singapore's burgeoning arts scene, Low says: “The country has been good to us. We should do what we can to help.”
After years studying abroad, Low's daughter Shu Min, who is in marketing, and son Fang Wei, a financial analyst, have also returned to Singapore and have begun curating art exhibitions with Dad. Of working with the younger set, Low says: “I hope to be able to spend more time guiding them.”
It was Low's university days in Australia (on a government scholarship) that ignited his passion for the art-architecture-real estate triumvirate. The vibrancy of Sydney's Paddington district and its wrought iron-embellished terraced houses, in particular, convinced him of the investment and cultural potential of Singapore's own shophouse typology.
While Low declines to reveal the number of shophouses he personally owns, he lets on that he and his friends started investing in such properties 25 years ago. Aside from Lorong 24A, the group is also behind a string of glazed ceramic tile-fronted 1920s shophouses along Petain Road. “We were just lucky. In those days not many wanted to buy into areas like these. They may be central, but they suffered image-wise,” he says.
Today, Lorong 24A has been reinvigorated, as Zarch Collaboratives' Randy Chan, architect of No 17, observes: “The ground-up initiatives, exhibitions and talks have attracted a myriad of curious people who never before stepped foot in Geylang to come here.” Property prices, not to mention, have shot through the roof. Originally purchased at $1 million-$1.5 million, each unit is now valued between $5 and $6 million post-development.
On the back of this place-making success, Low and his merry band of co-investors are heading to Kuala Lumpur and Penang — Malaysian cities likewise known for their colonial-era shophouses — where they have identified enclaves in which their real estate developments may also add to the fabric of the local communities.
“We should get involved in areas that we have passion for and leave things behind for people to enjoy,” he says, with a smile.
The Lorong 24A Shophouse Series
Formerly a run-down street in the red-light district, Lorong 24A is now an art enclave, a trendy place to live and a site for cutting-edge architecture
No 5 - Atria Architects
A bohemian respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, No 5 is an exercise in conservation and retains much of its original structure such as its brick walls, timber floors and stained glass windows. The three-bedroom, two-storey-plus-attic building has a koi pond tucked under the central stair shaft and a skylight that lets in an abundance of sunlight.
No 9 - Liu & Wo Architects
No 9's selling point could well be that it rains into the living room swimming pool, thanks to an open-to-sky air well that allows the elements in. Another unique feature is its perforated metal staircase that hangs down from the roof on steel rods. The three-bedroom unit also supplements its original timber floor boards with beautiful wood recycled from old kelongs.
No 11 - Linghao Architects
An unassuming yet intricate architectural tapestry, No 11 has been turned into a staggered five-level, 4,000-sq-ft abode characterised by a back-to-basics aesthetic and intertwining staircases and bridges. Architect Linghao used to work out of a dark and dank Chinatown shophouse and so with this terrace, wanted to create a place where indoor and outdoor activities could take place in what is seemingly the same environment.
No 13 - Hyla Architects
Home to the rising “red dragon” staircase and a matching red island kitchen, No 13 is an otherwise zen-esque oasis where clean lines meet a muted palette of whites and greys. The latest in the series to be renovated, it has five bedrooms, a skylight, a roof terrace and a large pond, which spans almost the full width of the shophouse.
No 15 - Lekker Design
Conceptualised as an art gallery meant for inhabitation, this unit by Lekker Design showcases architecture as a form of sculptural art with bedrooms “suspended” over a “living gallery”. High ceilings and whitewashed walls are intended to accommodate grand installation pieces, while pocket garden spaces throughout the house also allow most rooms to have a view of or a peek at greenery.
No 17 - Zarch Collaboratives
Gritty-trendy with its industrial aesthetic, No 17 could be described as a postmodern take on the shophouse typology. The tallest unit in the series, the four-bedroom, two-living room home's most intriguing feature is its metal platform bridge with industrial mesh balustrades that runs the length of the building. The second-floor living room is also housed in an industrial mesh cage, which allows light to filter down into the space below.
No 19 - Hyla Architects
The unit which earned Hyla both an SIA Design Award and a URA Architectural Heritage Award, No 19 boasts a spiral steel staircase that rises up to a newly constructed jack roof from which light filters through. Sheathed in the same screen-like metalwork, the second floor “pregnant bathroom” (so named for its bulge) is suited to those with an exhibitionist streak.
No 21 - KD Architects with Farm
The four-bedder No 21 is injected with a sense of spatial fluidity and airy brightness, which run contrary to the typical notion of shophouses being narrow and dark. A long, heated lap pool also runs the length of the ground floor, allowing for indulgent morning dips or evening laps in the privacy of one's own home.