Words: Daven Wu    


Raffles Singapore is undergoing a major restoration to reflect its past, present and future as a modern luxury hotel and a national monument

Recognised the world over for its iconic colonial architecture — not to mention its status as the birthplace of the Singapore Sling — Raffles Singapore has been a bastion of history, luxury and first-class travel for more than 130 years. Yet it has never been afraid of change and a major, three-phase restoration project is now underway.

Above: Charlie Chaplin and his brother Syd at the hotel in 1933; memorabilia related to regular guest Somerset Maugham includes his letter allowing the use of his quotation that Raffles Hotel “stands for all the fables of the Exotic East”; dancing in the hotel’s ballroom in 1905. An even larger ballroom was added in 1920

One of the secrets of the hotel’s success for more than a century, explains its General Manager, Simon Hirst, is that it has “always changed and evolved to keep in step with the needs and expectations of our guests. This restoration is designed to ensure that we retain what is so special about Raffles Singapore — the ambience, the service, the charm and the heritage.”

It’s quite a task. “Any restoration is challenging, especially if it’s going to stay true to its soul and heritage,” says the Raffles’ former General Manager, Jennie Chua, “otherwise, it would be much easier to just tear it down and build a new hotel.”

Chua knows only too well what is involved; between 1989 and 1991, she and Richard Helfer, the then CEO of Raffles Holdings, closed the hotel for remodelling. This included restoring the grand lobby staircase and gutting three floors to uncover the original foyer atrium that Joseph Conrad once described as being as “airy as a birdcage”.

Above: Raffles Singapore is an icon of British colonial architecture

Talk to anyone involved in the latest restoration project and the idea of relevance crops up time and again. “This is an ideal time to prepare Raffles Singapore for what well-travelled guests have to come to expect,” says Hirst. “Yes, they are looking for all the modern advantages and conveniences, but theyare also looking for a unique experience of being somewhere special, which gives them a glimpse into times past and which you can only nd in a heritage hotel such as the Raffles in Singapore.”

Perhaps because her maternal grandfather supplied curries to Raffles’ restaurant in the 1950s, Chua’s view of the restoration has a personal tone: “When we did the 1991 restoration, we wanted to ensure that this would be a place that Singaporeans would want to come to and say, ‘This is our hotel.’ We wanted it to be a place where they would come to celebrate milestones in their lives — weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. We wanted them to walk in the gardens and the courtyards and generally show it off to their friends. In other words, the hotel must be one for Singaporeans rst. Otherwise, it is a very arti cial entity that will appeal only to transient guests.”

Above: Raffles Singapore is an icon of British colonial architecture

If the past is any guide — or, more accurately, if its guardians have anything to say about the matter — there is little danger of the hotel being afflicted by such transience. Indeed, it was officially declared a national monument in 1987 and is the jewel in a crown that includes sparkling gems such as the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap and Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris.

The aim is to respect the heritage of such an iconic hotel yet craft a space that speaks of modern luxury

Much has already been written about the hotel’s beginning in 1887 when the Sarkies brothers, a brood of savvy Armenian businessmen, thought that Singapore, then a edgling British colony, needed an upmarket guesthouse. They decided to build their two-storey, 10-bedroom bungalow on Beach Road, at the time a quiet stretch facing the South China Sea. Along this same stretch lived some of Singapore’s most prominent families, including the d’Almeidas, Balestiers, Purvises and Alsagoffs.

Today, old Beach Road has become a wispy echo of its former self, its families and the past now remembered only casually as street coordinates. Land reclamation projects, begun in the 1840s and which continued well into the 20th century, have pushed the sea back from the road in ever-increasing swathes.

Above: Raffles Grill will be sympathetically reimagined as part of the restoration; the doorman remains a reassuring sight of times past

Yet the hotel itself has been an enduring constant. Such was its early success that, within its rst decade, two extra wings comprising nearly two dozen new suites had to be added. The Bar and Billiard Room was added shortly after and, in 1894, the Palm Court Wing was inaugurated.

In the following century, Raffles went from strength to strength, trading on its twin core characteristics: a quintessentially British façade paired with an unmistakably Oriental welcome. By 1905, the hotel sprawled over 200,000sq ft of prime waterfront real estate, a quiet bucolic bolt-hole whose name was known throughout the Empire. Its views and impeccable service were applauded by all, as well as its revolutionary electrical lights and cooling fans that had been unveiled in 1899.

Such has been the hotel’s reputation over the years that famous gures as varied as Rudyard Kipling Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, Karl Lagerfeld and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have stayed here. So the new restoration has much to live up to, but happily Raffles Singapore's owners, Katara Hospitality, has assembled a crack team of experts.

Leading the efforts are architects Aedas, design consultants ICN Design International, lighting consultants Tino Kwan, and restoration and research consultants Studio Lapis. The work on the interiors will be spearheaded by the celebrated Alexandra Champalimaud. As Simon Hirst points out: “We are working with partners who understand the essence of the Raffles brand and what makes it so special.”

At the core of Katara’s brief is to respect the heritage of such an iconic hotel yet craft a space that speaks clearly to Hirst’s ideal of modern luxury for the international traveller. For the designers, this means delivering a fully edged restoration while maintaining the hotel’s classic architectural envelope.

Above: the celebrated Writers Bar

“We’re working inside a national monument, which is a great honour and we take that responsibility very seriously,” says Jon Kastl, Champalimaud’s lead designer. “We’re going to great lengths to maintain as much of the historic original as we can — both in the interior and on the exterior.

“We’re lighting the architecture in different ways to emphasise the historic beauty and silhouettes, but the envelope of the main building and the guest rooms will stay quite true to the history of the hotel. We also want to ensure that what we’re inserting as new features will sit nicely within this historic shell, so you will see an attitude towards furnishings that is respectful.”

Every room and space has a story and will be a celebration of interesting materials

While much of the interior architecture will stay, everything beyond that will be reimagined. Historical oors will be restored. New mechanical systems will be inserted into ceilings alongside upgraded electronics and technology in bedrooms. The presidential suite will be recon gured to make it more contemporary. The rooftop swimming pool will be refreshed and the shopping arcade will have a new ballroom, restaurants and spa and new public spaces to enhance a sense of community.

In interpreting Katara’s brief, the interior designers were particularly inspired by British Colonial furnishings. “Stylistically, British Colonial was a very contemporary design movement,” says Kastl. “The starkness of those white buildings and white rooms against the contrasting black furniture was graphically very strong and we’ve built on that notion. All the new furnishings will be bespoke. We’re incorporating a signi cant amount of wood alongside fabrics, stone, glass and metals to contemporise the effect.”

Above left to right: the Singapore Sling, created at the hotel, are part of a rich heritage; the foyer atrium once described by Joseph Conrad as being “airy as a birdcage”

He adds: “Every room and space has a story and “ will be a celebration of interesting materials. We have also studied the Peranakan movement, which was a period where colourful, local ceramic tilework prevailed in Singapore.”

The enthusiasm and anticipation of the project team is infectious. For everyone involved, the restoration will not only ensure that the hotel remains the best in its class, but also that its story and legacy remain fresh.

“We’re not trying to recreate a period piece. The Raffles clientele is looking for that wonderful blend of new and old and it shouldn’t feel dated in anyway,” says Kastl. “When guests stay at the Raffles, they are not only staying at a beautifully renovated hotel, but also a national monument that’s one of the great icons of British colonialism from that period of history. To us, there’s a romance to this hotel you cannot find in others.”

As the restoration continues, the hotel will be closing certain areas before fully closing towards the end of the year for the final phase of the project. The grand reopening is planned for the middle of 2018. In a world measured in instants, it seems like an eternity, but as the Sarkies brothers knew full well, some things are worth the wait.

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