Former Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place)
by Renuka, M.
The former Asia Insurance Building is located at 2 Finlayson Green. With 18 storeys rising above a double-volume ground floor, it was once the tallest building in Southeast Asia at a height of 270 ft (82 m). Designed by one of Singapore’s pioneer architects, Ng Keng Siang, the office building was completed in 1955 and served as the headquarters of the Asia Insurance Company, one of the first local insurance companies.1 In 2006, the building was sold to service apartment operator The Ascott Group, which has since converted it into a luxurious serviced residence known as Ascott Raffles Place.2
Before the Asia Insurance Building was constructed, another building stood on the site and it housed the Union Insurance of Canton until 1924, after which the South British Insurance Company moved in. The latter insurance firm remained here until the property was demolished to make way for the Asia Insurance Building.3
The Asia Insurance Building was originally planned as a seven-storey building, but this was revised in 1947 to increase the height to 18 storeys.4 The new proposal was rejected by the Municipal Commissioners later that year, as it exceeded the height limit stated in Singapore’s by-laws for buildings in the area.5 However, in February 1948, the commissioners were persuaded by Roland Braddell, then legal adviser of the Asia Insurance Company, to allow the construction of the 18-storey building.6
Although the plans were approved in 1948, construction of the building was slow as it encountered many difficulties and delays. Before any work could proceed on the site, the Municipal Commissioners required a formal assurance that the soil would be able to bear the load of the proposed skyscraper. In 1949, soil specimens from the site were sent to Europe for laboratory analysis. The results were satisfactory and construction commenced in early 1950.7
However, another challenge surfaced in April 1950, when the Municipal Commissioners rejected the contractor’s application to use a traffic island near the site to store the structural steel needed for the project. As a result, the steel had to be transported to the building site from a storage location that was further away, thus slowing down the construction.8
In November 1950, an application for an injunction to suspend the construction work at the site threatened to delay the project further, but the application was dismissed the following month. The application had been made by Clouet and Company, which claimed that the ongoing construction of the Asia Insurance Building had compromised the safety of its property – separated from the construction site by a common wall.9
In 1951, during the foundation piling operations, the subsoil was found to be softer than expected and investigations revealed that there was no solid rock at the desired level as earlier thought. This left the stability of the proposed building uncertain. Work was halted and a British soil expert was engaged to conduct further tests on the soil. The results were satisfactory, and construction was allowed to proceed after plans were modified to include measures for strengthening the foundation.10 Under the supervision of two specialists brought in from London in January 1952, the ground was filled in with concrete to provide a strong, solid foundation. The foundation was eventually completed after a year’s work.11
In May 1953, while the steel framework was being put up, the skeleton structure of the Asia Insurance Building was decorated with coloured lights to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. A giant crown was also erected at the top to mark the occasion.12 On 19 June 1953, then Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, laid the foundation stone for the building.13
Opening and early years
Singapore’s then governor, Sir Robert Brown Black, officially opened the Asia Insurance Building on 10 December 1955. The construction of the 18-storey skyscraper had cost $8 million, far more than the $3 million estimated in 1947.14
Other than offices, the Asia Insurance Building housed the highest and largest restaurant in Malaya at the time. The Sky Palace Restaurant, which occupied the 14th to 16th floors of the building, also had a bar, a dance floor, a roof garden and a private lounge.15
The Asia Insurance Building was designed in the Art Deco style by Ng Keng Siang, a prominent local architect. Ng received his training in London and was one of the first architects from Singapore to become a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.16
The building today has retained many of its original design features, including its general structure and façade. The top of the L-shaped building is highly distinctive, with a two-storey corner tower as well as the three-tiered scalloped stainless steel crown that was created to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Another distinguishing feature is the repetitive rows of windows, with horizontal concrete ledges that provide sun-shading.17
The exterior of the building is clad in premium Italian Travertine marble, while the five-foot way around its perimeter is made from Nero Portaro marble, a rare type of black Italian marble with gold and whitish veins.18 Internally, the Asia Insurance Building has retained its original James Cutler-designed brass mail chute, where mail is dropped from a high point and collected at a central depository.19
Conservation and restoration
In 2006, The Ascott Group purchased the Asia Insurance Building from the Asia Life Assurance Society for S$109.5 million, as part of its strategy to double its serviced apartment volume in Singapore.20 The group also announced its plan to conserve and refurbish the building rather than tear it down.21 On 18 April 2007, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) officially gazetted the building for conservation.22
The Ascott Group spent about S$60 million to restore and convert the building for its new use. Renamed Ascott Raffles Place, it opened for business as a 146-unit serviced residence in 2008. Several features of the original building have been preserved, including a mosaic staircase with timber railing. Not only has the brass mail chute been kept, it continues to be used. Some modifications to suit commercial needs have been necessary, though. For example, while the existing window frames with brass handles were retained, the windowpanes were replaced with new glass panels to block out the noise from outside. A gym and a rooftop swimming pool have also been added.23
Undertaken by RSP Architects Planners and Engineers, the restoration project was one of eight winners of the URA’s Architectural Heritage Awards in 2009. The award recognises those who have sensitively restored heritage buildings for present-day use.24
Renuka M, Ong Eng Chuan & Loh Pei Ying
1. Kong, L. (2011). Conserving the past, creating the future: Urban heritage in Singapore. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, pp. 207–208. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 KON); I built highest, he says. (1953, December 31). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tay, S. C. (2007, July 28). New lease of life. The Straits Times, p. 98. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Tyers, R. K., & Siow, J. H. (1993). Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 109. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
4. 18-storey waterfront building for S'pore. (1947, April 24). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Building scheme to be debated. (1947, December 31). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Eighteen-storey building allowed. (1948, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Colony skyscraper will start to go up soon. (1948, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 5; Colony's skyscraper: Test in Europe. (1949, February 26). The Straits Times, p. 4; Building progress in Singapore. (1949, April 12). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Singapore application deferred. (1950, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 7; No steel for traffic island. (1950, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. 18-storey building. (1950, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 4; Disputed building to go on. (1950, December 5). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. S'pore skyscraper project: Expert to test soil. (1951, June 26). The Straits Times, p. 8; Soil good, say experts. (1951, July 10). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Skyscraper expert says: It is really quite simple. (1952, January 21). The Straits Times, p. 4; Groundwork for skyscraper nearly finished. (1952, November 5). The Straits Times, p. 4; Dinner at building site. (1953, February 10). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Skyscraper steelwork goes up in record time. (1953, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 8; Skyscraper 'skeleton' goes gag far crowning. (1953, May 20). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3; Victor gazed and gazed as the decorations went. (1953, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Skyscraper is a 'sign of faith'. (1953, June 20). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. The Ascott Group. (2006, September 28). Fact sheet. Retrieved from The Ascott Limited website: http://www.theascottgroup.com/downloads/pdf/NewsCenter/FactSheet_NewsRelease710.pdf
15. Restaurant will be in the 'sky'. (1955, December 16). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Kong, L. (2011). Conserving the past, creating the future: Urban heritage in Singapore. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, pp. 207–208. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 KON)
17. Lim, C. (2007, May–June). Well-loved landmark saved. Skyline. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/skyline/skyline07/skyline07-03/text/09.html; Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2014, October 13). Former Asia Insurance Building. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: http://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=AIB
18. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2014, October 13). Former Asia Insurance Building. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: http://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=AIB
19. Chow, K. (2008, August 7). Modern comforts with a classic twist. Today, p. 64. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Teo, J. (2006, July 5). Ascott buys 2 prime properties for $218m in expansion drive. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. The Ascott Group Limited. (2006, September 28). The Ascott Group boosts Singapore presence with two Citadines and a luxurious 'all suites' Ascott [Press release]. Retrieved from The Ascott Limited website: http://www.theascottlimited.com/en/investorinfo/news/news710.html
22. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2014, October 13). Former Asia Insurance Building. Retrieved from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: http://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=AIB
23. The Ascott Group. (2006, September 28). Fact sheet. Retrieved from The Ascott Limited website: http://www.theascottgroup.com/downloads/pdf/NewsCenter/FactSheet_NewsRelease710.pdf; 2 Finlayson Green. (2009, October 6). The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. The Ascott Group. (2009, October 5). Ascott Singapore Raffles Place wins URA Architectural Heritage Awards [Press release]. Retrieved from The Ascott Limited website: http://www.theascottlimited.com/en/4ascott_singapore_raffles_place_wins_ura_architectural_heritage_awards.html; Awards for 8 restoration projects. (2009, October 6). The Business Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
A $600,000 marble ‘face’. (1953, May 22). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Loh, C. K. (2008, September 11). You’ve got… old mail. Today, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Relive the style of a bygone era. (2007, July 28). The Straits Times, p. 100. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, H. Y. (2008, June 7). Saved… but it’s a numbers game. The Straits Times, p. 110. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, P. P. (Director). (2002). Dawn of a new era [Television series episode]. In Building Dreams: In search of Singapore architecture [Videorecording]. Singapore: Mediacorp TV.
(Call no.: RSING 720.95957 BUI)
The information in this article is valid as at 16 October 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.