Orchard Road (part 2) – the Underground City

In 2012, URA unveiled the underground master plan for Orchard Road as well as other parts of the central area. Before the master plan was drawn up, underpasses between developments were constructed on a more ad-hoc basis, usually by including the construction of underground pedestrian links as a requirement for the development of specific land parcels. An incentive programme was also launched by URA in 2004 to encourage the construction of underground links. However, today the underground network is still restricted to the areas near the MRT stations. The network around Orchard MRT Station, in particular, allows shoppers and visitors to reach 7 different malls without being exposed to the weather.

Orchard Road 03
The busy junction of Orchard Road, Scotts Road and Paterson Road – an underground network has grown beneath its surface

Orchard MRT Station
Constructed: 1987
Status: Found

Our underground journey begins at Orchard MRT Station. Ever since Singapore’s MRT network was in its planning stage, the station was intended to connect to its surrounding developments. Underpasses were supposed to link the station to Dynasty Hotel across Orchard Road, as well as the adjacent Wisma Atria. Provisions were also made to allow for future connections across Paterson Road and Orchard Boulevard. This was not surprising, as one of the reasons why the North-South line was built before the East-West line was to ease the traffic congestion in the vicinity.

During the planning stage, the station was known as Scotts Station. It was changed to Orchard Boulevard Station in 1982, and finalised as Orchard Station in 1984. Interestingly, Orchard Boulevard will be the name of an upcoming station along the Thomson-East Coast Line nearby. The station was constructed on the former grounds of the Orchard Road Police Station. The police station was established in the late 19th century. In 1980, its operations moved to the new Tanglin Police Station along Napier Road, and the buildings, constructed in 1922, were demolished in 1982 to make way for the MRT station.

One iconic feature of the station was the 11.5m diameter glass dome, bringing in daylight to the concourse level. There was also a wide range of shops focusing on fashion wear and electronic items. In 1995, Popular bookshop opened an outlet underneath the dome, overlooking the concourse level.

For many years, Orchard MRT Station was on its own; connected to yet distanced from the surrounding malls. It remained so until 2006, when construction for Ion Orchard and The Orchard Residences (then known as the Orchard Turn Developments) began. The park above the station had to give way, and along went the dome as well. The Popular bookshop underneath the dome was also closed in 2008. Since Ion Orchard was completed in 2009, Orchard Station has been “engulfed” by its basement levels.

From Orchard MRT Station, we head towards Tang Plaza via Exit A. This underpass was supposed to be constructed together with the station, and the development of the plot of land across the road (Tang Plaza) was approved with this construction as a requirement. However, Tang Choon Keng Realty (the developer which acquired the land) was unable to afford the construction cost at that time. The underpass was thus only built some time after the station was completed, and was overseen by the PWD. From 2010 to 2014, this underpass was widened. The narrow and often crowded underpass was transformed into part of Ion Orchard’s retail space in the basement.

Tang Plaza
Designed by Archiplan Team
Constructed: 1977 to 1982
Status: Found

Tang Plaza 01
Tang Plaza

Today’s Tang Plaza was completed only in 1982, but Tangs’ presence along Orchard Road can be traced back to 1958, when the iconic 5-storey House of Tang was built. It was designed in the Chinese National style, with the Forbidden Palace-inspired green-tiled roofs decorating an otherwise modern concrete building.

The House of Tang was the first major retail presence along Orchard Road. The plot of land chosen by founder Tang Choon Keng, in particular, faced the Tai Shan Ting Cemetery – an odd choice for a department store location. However, he believed in the commercial potential of Orchard Road, as it connected the Tanglin area (populated by the British) to the city area, making it a convenient stopoever for the British housewives. His decision was proven right, as Orchard Road soon began its transformation into a retail belt, while business for his C. K. Tang department store grew.

Tang Plaza 03
Tang Plaza

In the 1970s, he acquired a row of Victorian-type terrace houses next to the store, at the junction of Orchard Road and Scotts Road. He initially planned to build an office-cum-shopping complex, but after studying the tourism potential and hotel capacity along Orchard Road, he decided to expand his business into the hotel industry. The pre-WWI terrace houses were demolished, and a hotel-cum-shopping complex was built over it. The new development continued the Chinese National architectural style of the old department store building. The 400-room Dynasty Hotel opened in March 1982 (after repeated delays), while C. K. Tang shifted over in June the same year. As a condition for the approval of the development of the complex, Tang Choon Keng Realty was to construct two underpasses as well. The underpass across Scotts Road was constructed at the same time as the complex, allowing pedestrians from the other side of the road to enter the basement retail space directly. The other underpass leading to the upcoming MRT station was delayed due to a lack of funds.

Tang Plaza 02
Where the 1982 Tang Plaza meets the 1984 extension

With the completion of the new complex, the iconic old House of Tang was then demolished, and an extension to the retail podium of the new complex was constructed by 1984.

In 1994, Dynasty Hotel ended its business, and Marriott took over the hotel premises.

With the completion of the new Shaw House in 1993, the Scotts Road underpass now connects directly to its retail podium, allowing us to walk over without much hassle.

Shaw House 邵氏大厦
Constructed: 1990 to 1993
Status: Found

Shaw House 01
Shaw House, with Shaw Centre in the background

At the end of the underpass, a slope directs us upwards into the basement level of the Shaw House podium. Similar to Tangs and Tang Plaza, the presence of Shaw along Orchard Road predates the current building by a few decades. The original Shaw House, a 10-storey building located at the junction of Orchard Road and Scotts Road, was completed in 1958 as the Shaw Brothers’ first venture into Orchard Road. It was the first skyscraper along Orchard Road. The Shaw Brothers also set up the Shaw Foundation, a charity foundation, in the same year, and ownership of Shaw House was transferred to the foundation.

A year later, the Lido Theatre was completed, standing next to Shaw House. Both buildings, designed by Van Sitteren & Partners, boasted numerous features, such as imported Italian marble, Venetian glass mosaic tiles and accordion-type windows. Both were also fully air-conditioned. The Lido was thus deemed the most luxurious theatre in Singapore at that time.

Shaw House 02
Shaw House

In early 1990, the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre were demolished, making way for the new 24-storey Shaw House. 5 smaller cinemas on the sixth and seventh storey of the new Shaw House replaced the single theatre in the Lido, allowing more films to be screened at any one time. Since its completion, Isetan has occupied the bulk of its retail podium space. With the completion of the new Shaw House, the existing underpass from Dynasty Hotel was connected directly to its retail podium. Another underpass was constructed a few years later, along with the construction of Lane Crawford Place across the road, leading directly to its basement level.

Wheelock Place
Designed by Kisho Kurokawa
Constructed: 1994
Status: Found

Wheelock Place 01
Wheelock Place and its glass cone

After crossing the underpass, we arrive at the basement level of Wheelock Place, directly under its iconic glass cone. Designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, the glass cone is a recurring feature in a number of his works, including the Japanese Nursing Association Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan and Melbourne Central in Australia.

When it was completed, this 21-storey office-cum-shopping complex adjacent to Liat Towers was known as Lane Crawford Place, named after Hong Kong luxury retail company Lane Crawford, which was the anchor tenant. Lane Crawford was unable to survive the stiff competition in the local retail industry, however, and closed down in 1996. Following its closure, the complex became known as Wheelock Place from 1997 onwards, named after the parent company of developer Marco Polo Development.

Wheelock Place 02
The office tower

Most people would remember Wheelock Place as the location of book and music retailer Borders’ flagship store from 1997 until its closure in 2011.

The plot of land where Wheelock Place now stands was once occupied by Angullia Park Mosque. The mosque and the adjacent road were named after Ahmad Mohamed Salleh Angullia, a merchant and landowner. He built the Angullia Park Mosque, while his father, Mohammad Salleh Essof Angullia, built the Angullia Mosque along Serangoon Road.

Wheelock Place 03
Wheelock Place

When URA made plans to develop the plot of land, it offered a space in an upcoming 32-storey development along Bideford Road to MUIS. Al-Falah Mosque thus became the de facto “replacement” mosque for Muslims in the Orchard Road area.

Before Ion Orchard was built, the only underground access between Wheelock Place and Orchard MRT was through Shaw House and Tang Plaza. Today, the basement levels of Ion Orchard extends underneath Paterson Road and connects to Wheelock Place, allowing for a much quicker journey back to the MRT station.

Wisma Atria
Designed by DP Architects Pte Ltd
Constructed: 1986
Status: Found

Wisma Atria 03
Wisma Atria

The very first underground connection from Orchard MRT Station was constructed together with the station, linking it to the basement level of the then-recently-completed Wisma Atria. As part of the development requirements, a shop unit on the opposite corner of the basement level could not be leased out, as it was to be reserved for a potential underground link to the future development at Orchard Square. With the completion of Ngee Ann City, the underground link was completed, and this basement retail level doubled up as a connector between the MRT station and Ngee Ann City.

This underground spine was temporarily disrupted during the construction of Ion Orchard, as the underground link between the MRT station and Wisma Atria had to be closed for 3 years to allow for the construction to take place. Today, part of the underground link is within the retail spaces of Ion Orchard.

The centrepiece of the basement level was a marine aquarium, and was the first aquarium to be included in a shopping complex. The giant fish tank encases the lift lobby, and the two glass lifts seemingly emerges from the aquarium, bringing shoppers to the upper levels of the retail podium. This iconic feature, located conveniently along the underground spine connecting the MRT Station to Ngee Ann City and beyond, became an underground “landmark” and a convenient meeting point. Sadly, it was removed in 2008.

Wisma Atria 02
The marine aquarium in the basement

Wisma Atria’s main frontage is located along Orchard Road, allowing pedestrian access from the ground level (complementing the underground accesses). Vehicular access is located at the back, along Orchard Turn. This minimises traffic disruption along Orchard Road, as well as disruptions to the pedestrian mall along the road. It also maximises shop frontage exposure to the pedestrian mall. The façade cladding was changed twice, in 2004 and subsequently in 2012.

Wisma Atria 01
Wisma Atria and its 2012 façade

This office-cum-retail development stands on the former grounds of the Indonesian embassy building, known as Wisma Indonesia. The old building, designed by James Cubit Leonard Manasseh and Partners and constructed from 1962 to 1964, was meant to house the Indonesian consulate. There were also spaces dedicated to a mosque, restaurants, office space, an exhibition hall, as well as a hotel. However, the building was seized by the Malaysian central government in 1965, during the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation. It was eventually returned to the Indonesian government following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Singapore and Indonesia. Over the years, the building became yet another landmark along Orchard Road, with its Minangkabau roof and the Balinese carvings on the front façade easily identifiable. It was demolished in 1983 to make way for a new commercial development, while the Indonesian embassy shifted to Chatsworth Road.

Ngee Ann City 义安城
Designed by Raymond Woo & Associates Architects
Constructed: 1989 to 1993
Status: Found

Ngee Ann City 01
Ngee Ann City

At the opposite end of the Wisma Atria basement level, an upward-sloping underpass extends towards the B1 level of Ngee Ann City, a mixed-use development jointly developed by Ngee Ann Kongsi (which owned the land) and Metro Holdings’s subsidiary Orchard Square Development Corporation (which leased the land since 1973). Like the adjacent Wisma Atria, Ngee Ann City had to provide pedestrian accesses both on the ground floor (at the frontage along Orchard Road), as well as from the underpass. Two events space are strategically located to “catch” shoppers entering from the two main accesses. A semi-circular civic plaza is located in front of the development, serving as the outdoor an events space. A double-volume indoor event space known as B2 Fountain is located at the B2 level in the basement, serving as an attraction for shoppers entering from the underpass at B1. The B2 Fountain space is so named as a two-storey high fountain is located there. When Ngee Ann City first opened, the B2 Fountain also boasted the region’s first 24- screen high-definition video-wall.

Ngee Ann City consists of a 7-storey retail podium (as well as 3 levels of basement), and two 27-storey office towers. The two towers were originally supposed to be 34-storeys high, but as one of them was in the way of Singapore Telecom’s microwave links, they were reduced in height. The design of the retail podium is inspired by the Great Wall of China, signifying the strength and solidity of the Ngee Ann Kongsi. However, due to the semi-circular shape of the civic plaza frontage, there have been rumours of the complex being designed to resemble a tombstone, either as a reference to the site’s history as a Teochew cemetery or as a means to appease the spirits that is said to still linger there. While these are just rumours or urban legends, the history of the site is factual.

Ngee Ann City 02
Ngee Ann City and Takashimaya Shopping Centre

In 1845, Ngee Ann Kongsi, a Teochew charitable foundation set up by Seah Eu Chin, purchased a 29 hectare plot of land bounded by Orchard Road, Paterson Road and Grange Road. A cemetery known as Tai Shan Ting (泰山亭) was set up on the plot of land. The cemetery was cleared in 1957, and the exhumed bodies were transferred to the Teochew Funeral Temple at Ubi Road 4. The land was then parcelled up and leased to various organisations for development. Wisma Atria, Orchard Cineleisure and Mandarin Hotel all occupy parts of the former cemetery grounds. Ngee Ann Kongsi itself also developed a 10-storey Ngee Ann Building, which was demolished in 1985 to make way for Ngee Ann City (then known as the Orchard Square development).

Today, Ngee Ann City remains as one of the larger and more iconic developments along Orchard Road. Its anchor tenant is Takashimaya department store, which has occupied a large portion of the retail podium since the development’s completion. To many shoppers, the Takashimaya brand has become synonymous with Ngee Ann City itself. In 1999, Library@Orchard was opened on the fifth floor of the podium, aimed at young adults who frequent Orchard Road. The library was closed in 2007 amidst rising rents. 7 years later, a new Library@Orchard opened its doors at Orchard Gateway.

Lucky Plaza 幸运商业中心
Designed by B.E.P. Akitek
Constructed: 1978 (podium); 1981 (tower)
Status: Found

Lucky Plaza 03
Lucky Plaza

A well-hidden underpass connects Ngee Ann City to Lucky Plaza across the road. Upon entering Ngee Ann City from Wisma Atria, a flight of stairs will bring you to the islocated underpass. At the other end, the underpass leads to another flight of stairs that opens to the pedestrian mall in front of it. Construction of this underpass began in 1982, 4 years after the opening of Lucky Plaza. However, due to repeated delays in the development of Orchard Square across the road, the half-completed underpass was not put to use (the other half was supposed to be constructed by the developer of Orchard Square). With the completion of Ngee Ann City in 1993, the underpass was finally opened for use.

Lucky Plaza 01
Lucky Plaza

When Lucky Plaza was first designed, a very different idea of connection with adjacent developments was conceived. An elevated walkway was constructed at the mezzanine floor level, overlooking Orchard Road and spanning the entire length of the development. Overhead bridges were to be built on both ends of the walkway, connecting Lucky Plaza to future adjacent developments. This elevated network never came into fruition, and instead an underground network was constructed.

Lucky Plaza 04
The pedestrian mall in front of Lucky Plaza. The elevated walkway is above it

Lucky Plaza was developed by Far East Organisation and designed by B.E.P. Akitek, which also designed Far East Shopping Centre, another of Far East Organisation’s developments along Orchard Road. The 7-storey retail podium was designed with the concept of a vertical bazaar. A series of internal pedestrian streets are stacked on top of each other, connected by 26 escalators (most number of escalators in a mall in Singapore and Malaysia at that time) and 2 glass lifts (the first of its kind in Singapore). When it was first conceived, Lucky Plaza was billed by Far East Organisation as the “Ginza of Singapore”. Metro Grand Store, a “high-end” version of Metro department store, opened its doors in Lucky Plaza when the mall first opened. Today, it is more commonly known as the “Little Manila” of Singapore, due to the large number of Filipino restaurants and stores in the shopping mall. It is also a gathering spot for Filipino domestic workers.

Lucky Plaza 02
Lucky Plaza

A residential tower is located above the retail podium. Known as Lucky Plaza Apartments, it houses more than 70 apartments for rental.

Lucky Plaza Apartments 01
Lucky Plaza Apartments

Before Lucky Plaza was built, the land was owned by Champion Motors, a former Volkswagen dealer.

Lucky Plaza marks the end of this underground network (for now). While URA’s underground master plan features connections that stretch all the way to Somerset MRT Station, whether this will become a reality in the foreseeable future is anyone’s guess.

This is the second in a series of entries on Orchard Road. Click the following links for part 1, part 3 and part 4.

File Last Updated: December 11, 2016

3 responses to “Orchard Road (part 2) – the Underground City

  1. The old (pre-renovated) Wisma Atria had a playground hidden somewhere on its roof or an upper floor. I remember going up there to play when I was a kid in the 1980s. They were giving out helium balloons and it was around Christmas time.

    The Orchard MRT station is now buried in the depths of ION Orchard. Back in the day you would emerge from the MRT station’s dome-shaped entrance and exit to the street level of Orchard Road. The land ION Orchard is now sitting on was a sprawling grass field. Crowds of Filipino maids could be seen chatting with friends and having a picnic on it.

  2. Hi Sir/Mdm,

    My name is Li Jing, I’m a researcher working on a 1hour programme for Channel News Asia, tentatively titled ‘Subterranean Singapore’. We are still in the early stages of research and development, but in essence, it’s about stories that we can tell from Singapore’s underground spaces. We are slated to start filming in April and have an air date in August 2019.

    We did a similar documentary last year called ‘Singapore After Dark’ which featured interesting stories of night time Singapore. Similar to that programme, Subterranean Singapore won’t have a host or a narrator, and will be driven by profiles whose work are underground.

    We’re really interested to see if it will be possible to feature an expert opinion like yourself regarding the underground situation in a highly prolific area such as Orchard Road.

    Maybe we can set up a meeting at your convenience to discuss more about this project, please feel free to drop me a call at 9800 8348 to chat more!

    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Li Jing,

      Thank you for your kind words. I wouldn’t dare to consider myself an expert. I just share what I know and what I observe, and I’m glad it is of interest to you.

      I don’t actually know more about Orchard Road’s underground spaces beyond what I’ve written above, so I’m not sure if I would be of any further help to you. Do feel free to use the information and content in your show if you deem fit, though.

      Looking forward to your show in August!

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