Changes in the City – Afro-Asia Building

One of the oldest office buildings at the Central Business District (CBD), the Afro-Asia Building will be demolished and replaced by a new 19-storey tower that is expected to cost $320 million in construction. The current Afro-Asia Building, owned by Afro-Asia Shipping Company (AAS), was built in the 1950s.

The Afro-Asia Building was designed in typical post-war modernism with a heavy emphasis in reinforced concrete and glass. At seven storey tall, it towered over rows of shophouses and other buildings, most of them only three storey tall, along Robinson Road when it was completed in the fifties.

By the late seventies and early eighties, the CBD area experienced a property boom with Raffles Place “competing” with Shenton Way in the development of new office building projects. Within a few years, new skyscrapers such as the Raffles Tower, OUB (Overseas Union Bank) Centre, Chartered Bank Building and HSBC (Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank) Building were built.

In 1982, the office space rental at Raffles Place’s buildings and towers reached a high range of $80 to $100 per square metre. The office buildings located at the fringes of Shenton Way and Robinson Road, such as International Plaza and Afro-Asia Building, began to pale in comparison, as they charged at a lower range of $40 to $60 per square metre.

Several unions had made their headquarters at the Afro-Asia Building in the seventies and eighties, including Singapore Bank Employees’ Union and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Other tenants were largely made up of banks, shipping and trading companies.

One of the better known tenants of Afro-Asia Building was MPH Bookstores, opened at the first level of the building in 1976. The book publishing company has a long history – it was first established in Malacca and moved to Singapore in 1890. Initially known as the Methodist Publishing House, it changed its name in 1927 to Malaya Publishing House, and Malaysia Publishing House after 1963.

Affected by the redevelopment of its landlord, the bookstore’s Robinson Road branch was closed in March 2017. This was after the closure of its iconic century-old flagship store at Stamford Road in 2002.

There was also a restaurant beside MPH Bookstores. It was once occupied by Pizza Hut between the mid-eighties and nineties. One of the largest Pizza Hut outlets in Singapore then, the popular fast food restaurant, patronised by many office workers during the lunch times, had a 150-seating capacity that cost $600,000 in renovation, including a $40,000 conveyor-belt oven that churned out pizzas in half the time compared to other outlets.

Beside the Afro-Asia Building, other office buildings at Robinson Road that were built during or before the 1950s included the Sindo House, Ramayana Building, AIA (American International Assurance) Building, Denmark House and Finlayson House. Most of them had been demolished or redeveloped. The former Telecoms Building (later Ogilvy Centre; present-day Hotel So Sofitel Singapore), constructed in the 1920s, is currently one of the oldest buildings along Robinson Road.

Published: 17 December 2017

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