Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Istana - from nutmeg plantation to Presidential Palace

Queen Victoria,  relegated from the State Room to the gardens in 1959. Not a bad move, actually - I know at least where I would rather be...
Again, I've been too busy write anything down here... But now that I do, at least it is garden-related. The Chinese Lunar New Year started on February 1st, and the Istana was open from early morning until evening. It opens only four or five times a year, so luckily we were there shortly after 8 AM, as when leaving the grounds, the queue trailed well over half a kilometer around the huge block. Combined with a heat of 36 degrees C, visiting after 10 AM that day must really have been for the truly committed ones.
The Istana itself - difficult to photograph as it is surrounded by lush greenery; one would need some kind of a crane to get high enough...

Fountains on a lower terrace in front of the Istana; a huge Tembusu tree from the original times grew in the same spot until quite recently.
Istana means 'palace' in Malay, which describes well the handsome building housed in the over 100 acre gardens in the middle of the busiest business district of Singapore - just stepping in to the specious greenery from the never-sleeping Orchard Road feels positively unreal. It was initially built by the British Colonial Government as a residence for its governors in 1869, and handed over to the Singaporean Government in 1959, when the country gained self-government (that's a lot of government and governors in one single sentence...). While the president of Singapore has never lived there, the building serves frequently for ceremonial and entertainment purposes, and also houses the offices of the President and his staff; what a magnificent place to go to work.
 Tropical splendor from around the Queen Victoria pond - ginger lilies and hibiscus, a bit of a challenge to catch in the glaring morning sun. 
And whites from the large shrub borders around the palace - must check what these are, my knowledge of the local flora is still far too limited...
The rolling grounds used to be a nutmeg plantation when construction works were started in 1867. The plans were drawn by Colonial Engineer, Major John F.A. McNair, who decided on a neo-Palladian style look similar to many other 18th century buildings designed by British military engineers throughout India. The layout of the building is adapted to the tropical climate and takes influences from Malay houses with columns, deep verandas, louvred windows and  paneled doors, which all promote cross-ventilation and cool down the interiors. The grounds contain a 9-hole golf course, "themed gardens" and several smaller bungalows (any of which I happily volunteer to rent in case there are any openings...). A bit too stiff to my taste (understandably, but still...), a nevertheless magnificent garden residence for a President of a tiny country like Singapore - and if I would be him, I would move in in a flash!
The large rolling hills, with the central business district behind - the whole place feels like a dream from the past (at least to us visitors, without any concerns about the state matters).
The Istana at Orchard Road, open at Lunar New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Pusa, Labour Day and National Day - arrive early to beat the huge crowds, and the heat.