The relationship between architecture and education is often an intriguing one. Whether it’s meant for practicality, or to foster creativity within the community, there is perhaps none that historically stands out more than the NUS Bukit Timah Campus, which first began in 1928 as the Raffles College.
Designed by Cyril A. Fahey and Graham R. Dawbarn, the Raffles College was constructed by the renowned firm Swan & McClaren. It first opened its doors to 43 students in June 1928, a move made possible thanks to donations by members of the Straits Settlements and notable philanthropists, including Eu Tong Sen and Sir Manasseh Meyer, two names that are still firmly etched into the names of the today’s current campus.
Two main quadrangles of grass courtyards, lined by neo-classical inspired two-storey buildings filled with arched corridors, would serve as the core design of the campus, a reflection perhaps of the traditional British college campus that aimed to create a stimulating environment for a mix of communal interaction and scholarly reflection.
For many students, whether it was eyeing the girl literally next door, or participating in political demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s, the spatial design of the place undoubtedly aided in the retention of long-standing memories and emotions for the students, which count the late Dr Goh Keng Swee and E W Barker as its notable graduates.
As with all developments in time, the expansion of the campus over the years also welcomed additional buildings such as the present Block B, which was built in 1959 and designed by Palmer and Turner. Unlike the neo-classical look of the old campus, the four-storey building adopts a more geometric and rational take, with its main façade filled with thin concrete fins that form a grid, together with a floor-to-ceiling expanse of ventilation bricks that provided natural airflow and shade from the sun.
The adaptability, whether unfortunate or not, also saw the campus having to halt all academic activities as of December 1941 to serve as headquarters of the Medical Auxiliary Service (MAS) during World War II. Upon the surrender of Singapore in 1942, it was eventually taken over by the Japanese to be used as their official Military Headquarters.
Aside from its functional purpose and architecture, the names and people who pass through the building would see continuous changes throughout the years.
In 1949, Raffles College officially merged with the King Edward VII College of Medicine to become the University of Malaya, which was followed by its change to the University of Singapore in 1962, and eventually the National University of Singapore come 1980 upon its merger with Nanyang University.
Today, the campus, which has been preserved as a National Monument as of 2009, serves as the NUS Faculty of Law, and counts the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as notable additions in recent years.