Swan & Maclaren

Singapore Infopedia


The famous colonial architectural firm Swan & Maclaren had its beginnings in 1887 as Swan & Lermit.1 It is considered to be one of the pioneer architectural firms in Singapore.2 Archibald Swan and Alfred Lermit, started Swan & Lermit, but the latter left the partnership in 1890. Swan, an engineer from New Zealand, was on his own for about a year,3 until James Waddell Boyd Maclaren joined him as a partner in 1892, and the firm was renamed Swan & Maclaren.4 Maclaren had been trained as a civil engineer in Edinburgh, Scotland.5 The firm has since contributed to the architectural greatness of several historic buildings in Singapore such as the Teutonia Club (today’s Goodwood Park Hotel)6 and the Victoria Memorial Hall (presently Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).7

Early history

Regent Alfred John Bidwell joined Swan & Maclaren in 18958 as the first professionally trained architect in Singapore since G. D. Coleman, who practised in the 1820s and 1830s.9 Four years later in 1899, Bidwell entered into a partnership with the firm. Born in London in 1869, and trained as an architect, Bidwell served as assistant to the Superintending Architect of the London County Council. He had also taken a stint in Selangor, Malaysia where he designed the Federal Offices at Kuala Lumpur.10

Bidwell’s talent propelled the firm to become a leading name in its field, and he was responsible for the blueprint of many illustrious buildings like the extensions to Raffles Hotel,11 the Teutonia Club, the Victoria Memorial Hall, the Chesed-El Synagogue, and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building.12

He was known for his classical designs, as reflected in the mansion he designed in 1903 for the Jewish merchant, E. S. Manasseh, on Lady Hill, and also in more public works like the Victoria Memorial Hall he designed in 1905.13

There was a move towards modernism in Singapore in the late 1920s, and unsurprisingly, Swan & Maclaren had a hand in it – thanks to one of its architectural assistants, Frank Brewer, who joined in 1922. One of Brewer’s famous modernism-influenced residential works is the Belmont House on Belmont Road.14  Brewer remained with the firm until 1930, before leaving to start his own practice.15

New construction techniques in the 1920s also saw the introduction of steel-framed buildings of larger scales.16 Swan & Maclaren utilised several of these in their projects, including the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building, Union Building, and Mercantile Bank Building.17

Later developments
Before World War II, houses designed by Swan & Maclaren were exclusively for the prominent Europeans: senior civil servants and managers of the larger private firms or wealthy individuals like E. S. Manasseh, Manasseh Meyer, B. N. Elias and N. Reuden.18 After the war, the first Singaporean architects returned from architectural schools in Britain, increasing the competition of jobs with Swan & Maclaren. Among them was Ng Keng Siang, whose work includes the Asia Insurance Building, situated at the corner of Finlayson Green and Raffles Quay.19 Today, the firm offers the services and knowledge of its professional teams in the areas of architecture, planning, interior design and project management.20

In May 1999, the firm was chosen to design the new National Library Building at Victoria Street, after it won a tender organised by the National Library Board, beating 29 other firms in the process.21 However, the team designing the building split up in 2001, when leader and Malaysian architect Ken Yeang ended his partnership with Swan & Maclaren.22 The library itself was eventually completed by T. R. Hamzah & Yeang,23 and officially opened to the public on 22 July 2005.24

Timeline (selected major architectural works before the war)

Church of Our Lady of Lourdes25

1899: Made extensive additions to Raffles Hotel26
1900: Teutonia Club27
1905: Refaced Victoria Memorial Hall28
1905: Chased-El Synagogue29
1908: Eastern Extension Telegraph Company staff quarters30
1922: Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building31
1923: Union Building in Collyer Quay32
1924–1928: Sultan Mosque on Muscat Street33
1927: College of Medicine34
1929: Mercantile Bank Building at Raffles Place35
1933: Singapore Turf Club36

Christopher Ong 

1. “History,” Swan & Maclaren, accessed 13 October 2016.
2. Swan & Maclaren, “History.”
3. Lee Kip Lin, The Singapore House, 1819–1942 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions; National Library Board, 2015), 190. (Call no. RSING 728.095957 LEE)
4. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 190.
5. “The Late Mr. J. W. B. Maclaren,” Straits Times, 24 September 1910, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Teutonia Club,” Straits Times, 21 March 1899, 3; “The Teutonia Club,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 22 September 1900, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Jane Beamish and Jane Ferguson, A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City (Singapore: Graham Brash Pte Ltd, 1985), 89. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 BEA)
8. “Death of Mr R. A. J. Bidwell,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 9 April 1918, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Beamish and Ferguson, History of Singapore Architecture, 88.
10. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 228. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); “Death of Mr R. A. J. Bidwell.”
11. “The Raffles Hotel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser(1884–1942), 1 July 1897, 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Norman Edwards, The Singapore House and Residential Life, 1819–1939 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990), 221. (Call no. RSING 728.095957 EDW)
13. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 221.
14. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 249.
15. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 134.
16. “Skyscrapers Won't Come to Malaya,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 24 February 1936, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 131.
18. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 223.
19. Beamish and Ferguson, History of Singapore Architecture, 150.
20. “People,” Swan & Maclaren, accessed 13 October 2016.  
21. Laurel Teo, “National Library Design Team Splits,” Straits Times, 18 January 2001, 3; Tan May Ping, “Swan and Maclaren to Design National Library,” Business Times, 22 May 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Team Splits,” New Paper, 18 January 2001, 7; Teo, “National Library Design Team Splits.”
23. Yvonne Tan, “Library for the 21st Century,” Straits Times, 12 December 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Kristina Tom, “New National Library Opens,” Straits Times, 23 July 2005, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Catholic Progress in Singapore,” Singapore Weekly Herald, 4 August 1888, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Beamish and Ferguson, History of Singapore Architecture, 80, 87.
27. “Teutonia Club”; “Teutonia Club.”
28. Beamish and Ferguson, History of Singapore Architecture, 89.
29. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 221; Beamish and Ferguson, History of Singapore Architecture, 90.
30. “The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company,” Straits Times, 29 December 1908, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 131.
32. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 131.
33. “History of the Sultan Mosque,” Straits Times, 8 July 1993, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 131.
35. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1942, 131.
36. “Money Well Spent,” Straits Times, 15 April 1933, 21. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resource
Julian Davison, “Mansion Blocks, Flats and Tenements: The Advent of Apartment Living,” BiblioAsia (Jul–Sep 2021).

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without prior permission of the copyright holder.|