This Geylang Lor 24A shophouse by Goy Architects melds modernism with regional craft and aesthetics
Sometimes, Goy Zhenru of Goy Architects observes wryly, “design happens accidentally”. In the case of this bijou home in a handsome Geylang Lor 24A shophouse built in the 1920s, serendipitous design outcomes certainly occurred on more than one occasion during the course of its renovation.
The clients – a young Singaporean couple relocating home after a stint in New Delhi – decided to move into the second floor of the shophouse owned by the wife’s parents, who lived on the ground level. This marked the beginning of a multi-generational home – albeit one with independent access to the respective homes.
Drawn by Goy’s reputation for liveable, tropical modernist spaces, the clients decided to commission her to create their new home even though their notion of “home” was a little vague. “We were still living in New Delhi at the time,” they explain. “All we knew was that we wanted something that would age well. In the end, the renovations and final design were very much an iterative process.”
From Goy’s perspective, what came through clearly was the sense that her new clients wanted a place that would be sensitive and sympathetic to the extant heritage of the conserved shophouse.
However, when the Singaporean and Swiss-trained architect and her team first visited the long, narrow, 98sqm space, their impressions weren’t positive. “The floor was divided into two studio apartments, which meant the internal spaces were all dark and closed in,” she remembers.
The first task was to realign the home by stripping away the accretions of the past few decades, including non-load-bearing walls, cramped makeshift bedrooms and the communal bathroom that hugged the central air well. The design direction, Goy decided, was to frame and restore historical shophouse elements, such as timber battens.
A key design move involved relocating the living room to the west-facing front of the shophouse, so that her clients could look out onto the street and enjoy the view of the neighbours, which include a clutch of clan houses, Buddhist associations, temples and a Buddhist library.
Goy had originally intended the living room to have a false ceiling, but when the demolition of the internal walls was complete and the original high ceiling revealed itself, she immediately saw its potential and went back to the drawing board to redirect piping and wiring.
In one fell swoop, the space opened up like an exhalation of breath with the living room – now a lofty aery framed by louvred period window shutters and clerestory fan glass windows – drawing in plenty of natural light and ventilation. This leads like an arrow through to a broad dining area and powder room to the side, a capacious bar and galley kitchen looping around the air-well, and the bedroom and ensuite at the back.
The cross ventilation, a hallmark of shophouses of this era, is so good that air-conditioning is rarely used – a design hack that, incidentally, is embedded in many of Goy’s projects, especially those in Indonesia and Thailand.
“We really worked hard to get back to the essence of a shophouse,” she adds. The aluminium windows framing the air well, for instance, were replaced with French windows, the better to swing them open to look into the internal courtyard, which features a vivacious mural of tropical foliage, toucans and cats painted by a former tenant, Didier “Jaba” Matheiu, who was a concept artist at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic division.
Elsewhere, Goy cleaved to natural materials for their rustic texture, such as a customised wooden dish cabinet and a dining table made in Chiangmai of Monkeypod wood. “We also used traditional patterned glass in our kitchen cabinets and entry partition, framing each glass piece with Chinese ash timber veneer.”
In the galley kitchen, the green-glazed back-splash ceramic tiles were also hand-made by Saraphi Ceramics Arts and Design in Chiangmai. Goy is practically evangelical about the imperfections of artisanal furnishings and decorations, especially in the context of a shophouse. “Irregular variations add a human touch to the interiors in a way we feel pays homage to the handcrafted elements in the traditional shophouse,” she says.
With the bones of the home properly set, Goy then worked closely with the clients to create space for their art and furniture collection, among them, a whimsical pencil rendering of Ganesha by the Thai artist Home-Sawan Umansap, a watercolour triptych of bottles of sauces by Singapore-based South African artist, Sue Gray, a Nakashima-inspired bench cut from Indian rosewood, and a handsome late 1970s Afghan rug.
The result is a spacious home that belies its long and narrow proportions and which, by all accounts, exceeds the clients’ expectations on every metric, especially in its artful melding of modernism with regional craft and aesthetics. Shares the clients, “Our initial brief to Zhenru was just to have a space that would age well and to her credit, she responded in an evolutionary, consultative way. She was meticulous and had a clear plan, which really helped.”
For Goy, the Geylang shophouse is a useful semaphore for her and her small studio of seven designers, not least a desire, bred by her stint in Switzerland, to take time to create through trial and error. “In Singapore, we’ve lost that ability to have carefree experimentation, and to have conversations about memories and culture. This project really allowed us to try new approaches, especially in the context of climate.”