Elegant reminders of a bygone era, Singapore’s black-and-white houses are one of the city’s most iconic architectural features. But how did they come about, where can you find them, and what are their functions now?
Created by the British in the 19th century, Singapore’s black-and-white houses were refined accommodation for society’s crème-de-la-crème, from top-tier government representatives and influential titans to powerful judges and high-ranking military officials.
But it wasn’t until Regent Alfred John Bidwell—the architect responsible for other iconic structures like the Raffles Hotel and Singapore Cricket Club—designed the W. Patchitt House on Cluny Road in 1903 that black-and-white houses became a thing. The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday for these glamorous bungalows, but, during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II, the houses were abandoned and taken over by the Japanese military. Now, some 500 black-and-white houses remain, including the famous Atbara House on Gallop Road, which was built in 1898.
Taking their name from the dark timber beams and white walls of their construction, Singapore’s black-and-white houses are a unique cultural phenomenon. Often referred to as “Tudorbethan” architecture, these houses draw design elements from a range of disciplines, including Tudor, Art Deco and Victorian. Elegant verandahs, moulding, and plantation shutter windows are common features.
Many elements of the black-and-white houses are taken from traditional Malay kampong [village] homes. High ceilings, shutter-style windows, and open layouts allow through-breezes for ventilation, overhanging eves provide shelter from sunlight, while stilts elevate the houses to protect them from tropical insects and flash floods.
WHERE ARE THEY?
Though black-and-white houses aren’t as abundant in Singapore as they used to be, you can still find some scattered across the city.
With houses dating back to 1906, Alexandra Park has some of the oldest examples of black-and-whites, though Goodwood Hill has some equally aged houses in the heart of the city. Further west, Wessex Estate holds a large collection of black-and-white houses built in the 1930s and 1940s—many are now art galleries.
Because some black-and-white houses were affiliated with barracks, many have military histories. The homes at Ridley Park and Ridout Road provided married quarters for senior officers at the Tanglin Barracks, while 19 houses at Adam Park witnessed a three-day battle during World War II and served as a prisoner-of-war camp.
40 bungalows in Rochester Park were used by the British military in the 1940s; many are now bars and restaurants, including a Starbucks. Naval officers were sent to the far north of the island, where Sembawang Park had a sizeable collection of houses near the British naval base. Built in the 1930s for high-ranking officers—including some from the Police Depot—the black-and-white houses around Mount Pleasant are some of the most impressive in Singapore—Ascott now runs some of them as serviced residences.
LIVING THE HIGH LIFE
Once, only Singapore’s elite resided in these coveted houses. Now though, with a little luck, a lot of effort, and a sizable bank account, anyone can live in a black-and-white house.
It may not be possible to buy one of these bungalows—but it is possible to rent one. For government-owned houses, you’ll need to go through the Singapore Land Authority. It’s a tedious process—you’ll need to see what’s available on the website, apply through a bidding system, and cross your fingers. Alternatively, you could scout around Singapore’s rental websites to see if any privately-owned black-and-white houses are up for grabs.
Make sure you have ready access to cash, though. Rentals for black-and-white houses start from SGD5,000/month in the outskirts and can skyrocket up to SGD35,000/month in central areas.
They might be a rarity these days, but Singapore’s black-and-white houses are a refined reminder of the Lion City’s unique east-meets-west past. \