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Behind the Façade – Ong & Ong

Behind the ornate façade of a traditional Singapore shop house lies an interior by Ong & Ong that purely defines its vertical and horizontal axes. Darlene Smyth experienced the subtle and delicate contrast between interior and exterior.

T he narrow winding streets of the Blair Plains conservation zone in Singapore are lined with highly decorative and colourful façades that characterise the historic shop houses in the area. Dating back to pre-War times, these slender and long terrace houses with their shallow forecourts and common covered passageway (called the ‘five-foot way’) are one of the older housing types in Singapore. The experiential quality of this indigenous housing typology is partly a result of its symmetrical and ornate façade, as well as the mystery of its narrow interior and internal courtyards.

No 55 Blair Road shares the same ornate façade details and mouldings as its neighbours. Designed by the husband and wife team of Diego Molina and Maria Arango from Ong & Ong of Singapore, the secrets hidden behind this façade reflect an unusual mixture of influences. The crafting of the internal spaces is not only a transformation of the existing building, but takes into account the desires of an expatriate owner as well as the expatriate designers’ interpretation of the internal experience of the shop house.


From the outside – which is largely characterised by the conserved detailing and proportions of the shop house – subtle clues are given as to the nature of the internal spaces. Firstly, a simple grey-on-white colour scheme for the façade contrasts with the more colourful neighbours along the street. Other hints of the subdued internal material palette are given in the choice of the sleek stainless steel gutter and rainwater downpipe and matching stylised signage for the house.

The designers’ intentions and modern style are more fully revealed upon entering the house. The strict symmetry of the façade is carried into the internal living spaces. However, here it is executed in a clean, minimalist way. From the entry of the house, a slightly curved stainless steel mesh screen is centrally located and defines a narrow entrance vestibule. This axially-positioned screen is the first in a linear sequence of centrally positioned elements throughout the length of the house. From the living room furniture, to a centrally positioned sculptural spiral staircase, to the middle island of the kitchen beyond, a strong axis is defined. The two side walls flanking the central axis are thickened with carpentry and conceal the sound and electrical services of the house. In order to create a sense of centrality to the otherwise linear rooms, large niches are recessed into these walls which house bold pieces of artwork.


Also punctuating this horizontal axis throughout the house are two interjections of vertical symmetry. The first vertical space is a small central void in the high ceiling of the first storey, just beyond the entrance screen, which peeks up into the master suite on the second storey. The more prominent vertical expression in the house is a large open courtyard space that separates the main conservation building from a rear service block.

“We wanted the house to act like a light box,” explains Molina. “To be lasting, but edgy and not just stylish.” This modern light box is expressed in the central courtyard by a vertical well, lined on three sides with a modern pattern of vertical aluminium strips that run down the walls to a swimming pool below. With the combination of daylight bouncing down the metallic strips and the reflections off the water of a swimming pool below, a literal ‘box’ of light is created that brightens the spaces surrounding it. Aside from the light and wind that is introduced into the house through the courtyard, other natural elements such as a sculptural Frangipani tree and creepers bring a sense of internalised nature to the house.


Above this courtyard space, the master bathroom is expressed as a cantilevered room on the second storey that is detached from the side party walls and encased in glass, seemingly hovering over the swimming pool. Within this symmetrical bathroom, the centrepiece is a sculpted stone bathtub positioned at the edge of the cantilevered box and enjoying views of the courtyard and the pool, as well as the presence of the sky above through a frosted glass skylight.

In a nearly doorless open configuration, the master bath is separated from the master bedroom by the winding, sculptural spiral staircase. Below, this stair has open timber treads wrapped around a central column with the outer edge of the treads supported by a twisting ribbon-like steel plate. On the second storey, the same staircase is enveloped in a stainless steel mesh and glass screen that recalls the detail of the curved screen at the entry of the house.


Similar to the arrangement of the first storey, the second storey that houses the master bedroom itself is organised with all the furniture along a central axis and the two side walls in carpentry. Toward the front of the master bedroom, the ceiling opens up to a double volume space and these side walls are lined with ultra-clean built-in bookshelves and storage. An attic was added above the master bedroom with a guest bedroom and en-suite. Natural daylight is cleverly designed to enter this space through a jack roof that looks down into the front area of the master bedroom below. The series of visual connections from this attic down to the reading area of the master bedroom and, finally, to the main entrance on the first storey, allows light and air movement throughout the front portion of the house. The modern detailing of the interior of the house contrasts with the traditional ornate elements of the façade, yet the two are somehow happily linked together through their respect for the symmetry, material palette and clear central axis of the design.


Photography: Derek Swalwell

Kitchen stool Grace by E15, e15.com. Coffee table in Lounge from Flexform, flexform.it, in Living room Florence by Minotti, minotti.com. Sofas Marocco by Casamilano, casamilanohome.com, and custom-made. Rug silk pile by Jehan Gallery, jehan.com.sg. Ceiling fan Minimal Air by Boffi, boffi.com. Armchair Ming by Casamilano. End table Baran by Hudson Furniture, New York, hudsonfurnitureinc.com.

Stone Ivory travertine honed from Polystone, polystone.com.au, in Guest Bathroom white mosaic Polystone by Sicis, sicis.it. Timber 200mm Teak strips stained with water-based coating on second floor and attic, also Bona Naturale from Wood Doctor, wooddoctor.com.sg, on roof terrace naturally-aged Balau. Aluminium cladding on courtyard walls.

Kitchen system b3 by Bulthaup, bulthaup.com. Steam oven, induction hood, rangehood and wine chiller from De Dietrich, dedietrich.com.au. Integrated dishwasher by Fisher & Paykel, fisherpaykel.com.au. Integrated fridge by Liebherr, liebherr.com.

Sanitaryware includes concealed wall basin mixer and free-standing bath/shower mixer from Antonio Lupi, antoniolupi.it, Xilox1 cylindrical free-standing Corian basin from Antonio Lupi, custom limestone bathtub and basin from Polystone and ceramic wall-hung WC from Flaminia, ceramicaflaminia.it.

Ong & Ong

Diego Molina, Maria Arango, Camilo Pelaez

Interior Furnishing
YPS Design

Civil Structural Engineer
KKC Consultancy Services

Quantity Surveyor
Rodney Chng & Associates

Mechanical & Electrical Engineer
Rankine & Hill (Singapore)

Jia Construction

Ong & Ong


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