Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men.
Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall.

Frank Lloyd Wright, US Architect (1869 – 1959)

I used to sleep in Nenek’s room in Gedung Kuning. Every night, before sleeping, Nenek would tell me stories from the Prophets’ times. We would also recite our doa (prayers) together. The last thing I would see before dozing off was the wooden beams running across the high ceiling of Gedung Kuning. Such simple structures, yet they fascinated me.

Gedung Kuning was definitely unlike Abah’s kampong house in Lorong Marican. The typical Malay kampong house stands on stilts (2 metres above the ground) and consists of rumah ibu (core house), rumah dapur (the attached kitchen) and its pitched roof. My interest in Gedung Kuning’s architecture soon ‘influenced’ Firus, my former student, to embark on an architectural research of Gedung Kuning.

Gedung Kuning’s architecture is essentially Palladian-style after the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Although Gedung Kuning is a building of strong Italian Palladian influence, certain aspects of the building have been tinkered to fit the tropical climate of Singapore, such as the adjustable window louvers.

The Palladian architecture was transplanted to Singapore when the British colonial masters set foot on Singapore. The British built 2 Palladian-influenced bungalows – one for the Sultan’s Palace (to replace its former attap-roofed palace of Javanese architectural influence) and one for the Bendahara (Prime Minister). The latter came to be known as Gedung Kuning.

There are 3 main elements in Palladian architecture: Dramatic exterior motifs, economical materials, and internal harmony and balance.

The ‘Dramatic Exterior Motifs’ can be seen through the exterior elevation. The first type is the loggia pierced by three openings.

The second type replicated the Greek temple front. Palladio was inspired to adapt the Greek pediment and columns to private residences. He mirrored a Greek temple front and mounted it on the residence of a mere mortal.

The third is the double-columned loggia – complete columns above and below (both ground level and the second storey).

Palladio built his magnificent villas out of bricks instead of stone. He merely covered the bricks with stucco instead of marble. He even used terra-cotta instead of actual stone for the column capitals. It is interesting how the great architect use cost-cutting devices even though his clients were wealthy. To Palladio, he had achieved visual impact through his dramatic design motifs. Thus, there was little need to focus on the opulence of the building materials as the eyes are distracted on the ornamentation and design of the façade.

Gedung Kuning is made mostly out of wood and bricks clad with plaster for a smooth finish. It is not even made out of expensive stone or marble even though it was a funded by the British to the Sultan as a residential building for his Bendahara. All the carvings and cornices are never stonework but woodwork. The same goes for the balusters of the stairs and the beams and joists floor and roofing systems. This is simply due to the fact that wood is the most abundant yet economical building material in Singapore. 

I mentioned to Firus how Gedung Kuning’s mighty hall reverberated with pride to Quranic verses read during religious ceremonies. Firus said perhaps that could be due to the “internal harmony and balance”; there is symmetrical balance from left to right in Palladianism. According to Firus, Rudolph Wittkower in his architectural book proposed that the ratios of width to length in Palladio’s rooms are based on the harmonic proportions of music. In other words, Palladio worked on an “If it sounds good, it’ll look and feel good” principle.

Firus elaborated about Gedung Kuning’s strategic location. Gedung Kuning nestled between Pondok Java (a residence that housed some Javanese immigrants when they first arrived in Singapore) and the Sultan’s Palace. Pondok Java had unfortunately been demolished in the 1980s.  These three buildings congregated in the middle of Kampung Gelam. They form one of the two “core” areas of Kampung Gelam. 

The Sultan’s Palace and Gedung Kuning have the luxury of looking inward to the trading core and the Sultan’s Mosque through Muscat Street (west view) and towards Kampung Bugis (east view). These buildings generally have a unique abundance of open spaces of large scale. This spatial relationship is a unique feature of the urban fabric due to the absence of similar scenario elsewhere in Kampung Gelam.

Map: Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore’s Kampong Glam book

The second core comprises the trading core of Bussorah Street and Arab Street which has a complete clash of streetscape by having tightly-packed shophouses that offers limited greenery. Shade is offered only by the five-footway or perhaps inter-shading between the shophouses in early mornings or late evenings. Hence, Gedung Kuning pageants its extreme importance in the community by being located in the elusive core of having wide open spaces amidst a highly compacted society.

After reading Firus’ research findings, I became more intrigued by my childhood home. Even the architecture and physical location of Gedung Kuning are of great significances. Haji Yusoff must have known how special Gedung Kuning was when he bought it. It is no wonder why the paralysed Tok Man (one of Haji Yusoff’s sons) who lived in Melaka, Malaysia before his demise in 2008, longed to return to Gedung Kuning. I looked away when Tok Man’s wife conveyed his intentions to me. I did not want Tok Man and his wife to see the tears in my eyes reflecting the same sentiments.

*Research done in 2005 by Firus Faizal, a National University of Singapore’s Architecture student