The Monocot Studio reintroduces the courtyard into a heritage apartment in Tiong Bahru

The Monocot Studio reintroduces the courtyard into a heritage apartment in Tiong Bahru

The Monocot Studio reintroduces the courtyard into a heritage apartment in Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru has long been prized as much for its heritage-listed Art Deco vibe and low-slung silhouette, as for the interior proportions of its renovated apartments with their spacious rooms and high ceilings. Even so, entering this sleek ground floor apartment on Eng Hoon Street, designed by The Monocot Studio, is apt to provoke a startled intake of breath. 

The moment probably approximates the experience of stepping into the TARDIS, Dr Who’s dimension-bending spaceship. It hardly seems possible that the relatively nondescript exterior — a white low-rise apartment block built, like the rest of the neighbourhood, in the mid-1930s by the Singapore Improvement Trust as a test case for public housing — could contain such a completely unexpected interior.

When Mikael Teh — the principal of Monocot and alumnus of SCDA and Forum Architects — first encountered the 1,614 square feet space, it was “a dark and gloomy warehouse for a nearby food store, segregated by intersecting walls to make various rooms”.

It was not the most encouraging of starts, but the Melbourne-trained architect who had worked at Studio Milou on the renovation of the National Gallery Singapore, saw potential. It certainly helped that the clients — a busy couple always travelling for work — began with a clear notion of what they wanted. 

“They were inclined towards Chinese and Japanese design elements and styles, which they hoped would blend in with the old charm of the Tiong Bahru estate,” Teh says. “They particularly loved the idea of the Chinese siheyuan — a residential compound centred on a courtyard — which would considerably brighten the space.” 

Tiong Bahru heritage apartment by The Monocot Studio, courtyard
View from the master bedroom across the revived internal courtyard that doubles as a Zen garden and air well.

A minimalist mood

Teh set to work demolishing walls and realigning the interior spaces, the entire process taking a year because the apartment is conserved under URA and HDB regulations and, so, time-consuming submissions and approvals had to be obtained.

The result, though, is literally illuminating with natural light flowing in through the entire axis of the apartment through both the front windows and a central open courtyard — its old roof now removed — that doubles as a Zen garden and air well. 

Though the apartment is kitted out with air-conditioning and fans, one gets the sense that these are rarely used, the clients preferring natural air flow where possible. “Despite this being a physically long and deep apartment,” Teh says, “the interiors are filled with bright natural light and ventilation.” 

Indeed, there is a sense of exhalation as one drifts through the calm, open-plan rooms, the eye travelling along the timber-laminated walls in the corridors, living room, kitchen and bedroom; dark grey tiles in the kitchen splash back and capacious bathroom; warm parquet flooring, and reed glass doors. 

The dining area, designed to be flexible for the clients to host large parties with sufficient space for an extendable table and ample circulation, adjoins an open plan kitchen, and island bar counter.

If there is a minimalist mood, it is deliberate, with Teh keeping the colour palette and materials simple, with soft wood tones for a modern touch. Key pieces were customised and built-in, including storage, the kitchen island cabinetry, bed headboard and wardrobes, and TV console. 

All the loose furniture were curated from various brands to elevate the residential experience“All the loose furniture were curated from various brands to elevate the residential experience,” Teh adds, pointing to the Artek Aalto Chair 65 and Carl Hansen PK1 Chair, alongside armchairs, table lamps, pouffe, floor reading lamps, and even the toilet brushes sourced from VIPP.

An enhancement of the context

As expected, the courtyard is the heart of the apartment’s design, its generous proportions and negative space anchoring the entire layout by providing a clear sightline through to the living room and kitchen, on one side, and the master bedroom on the other. 

Cannily, the designer also decided to keep the existing cantilevered roof line over the courtyard. Its curvaceous Art Deco silhouette acts as both an interior accent of Tiong Bahru and a literal platform on which to display the clients’ large collection of antique earthen pots, harvested on their trips abroad. And, to provide a degree of sun shade and privacy from the unit above, Teh installed aluminium louvres clad in faux wood grain.

For him, the design of the apartment fulfils not just the clients’ brief of an open space, it also allows the interiors to be experienced in a genuine way that, in every respect, pays homage to the apartment’s heritage. 

Tiong Bahru heritage apartment by The Monocot Studio, courtyard
The designer also decided to keep the existing cantilevered roof line over the courtyard.

“We tried to keep the accents of Tiong Bahru within the space,” he says. “We wanted to be sure that anyone walking past the apartment and looking in should feel something that closely relates to the neighbourhood. So, for us, it was important that we respect the existing heritage and architectural elements as much as possible. For although we were redesigning the whole spatial layout, it needed to feel like an enhancement of the context, instead of creating something that was totally different or contrasting to the setting.”

We say, mission accomplished.

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