Before Changi was the best airport in the world, even before Paya Lebar, we already had an airport which won that accolade (or rather, ‘The Finest Airport in the British Empire’). I have read about The Kallang Airport and visited here more than 10 years ago and thought it was a good time to visit again since we were in the area. Unfortunately the grounds are no longer accessible so we flanked the perimetre and exterior, soaking in what’s left of the standing abandoned structures gazetted on 5 Dec 2008 for conservation.
The Kallang Airport, also known as the Kallang Aerodrome, Kallang Airfield and RAF Kallang, opened in 1937 as Singapore’s first purpose-built civil airport, together with an anchorage for seaplanes. Land was reclaimed in the Kallang Basin to turn the swampy area into a circular-shaped airfield and to build a slipway for the seaplanes. The airport was closed in 1955 when the new Singapore International Airport at Paya Lebar was built. Although most of the airport was demolished and put to other use, the distinctive terminal building was used as the headquarters of the People’s Association until April 2009. It is currently unoccupied.
The gate posts with old Straits Settlements crest of the Colony of Singapore / lions crest marks the entrance to the grounds. The sign used to read “SINGAPORE AIRPORT”, but the lettering has since been removed. The original lamp posts that date back to 1937 line the street.
Above: 1945 – Entrance to Kallang airport. Photo courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Kallang Airport’s role during WWII – When the Japanese launched their invasion of Malaya and Singapore on 8 December 1941, Kallang was the principal fighter airfield. By January 1942, it was the only operational fighter airfield in Singapore, as the other airfields (Tengah, Seletar and Sembawang) were within range of Japanese artillery at Johore Bahru. Brewster Buffalo fighters of 243 Squadron RAF, 488 Squadron RNZAF and a detachment of 2-VLG-V of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force operated from the airfield, defending Singapore from repeated Japanese air raids. They were joined later by Hawker Hurricanes of 232 Squadron RAF, but attrition took a steady toll on men and machines, and by the last days of January 1942, the airfield had been badly damaged by the bombing and only a small number of aircraft were serviceable. The last of the fighters left in early February, escaping to carry on the fight just before Singapore was surrendered to the advancing Japanese.
Above: 1942 – Japanese Soilders at Kallang airport. Photo courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Above: 1945 – Released British POWs leaving from Kallang Airport.
The former Terminal Building of Kallang Airport is an iconic and visually stunning building. The Modernist language of the former Terminal Building can be interpreted as a metaphor of a contemporary airplane, with its elevated cylindrical glass control tower centrally placed as the cockpit. This made reference to the concepts of progress, speed and machinery. The main terminal building had a control tower and two side blocks with attached hangers. Reflecting early-modernist British architecture, its interiors were detailed with Art Deco ornamentation like its intricate railings and columns.
The design of the building is accredited to Frank Dorrington Ward, the Chief Architect of the former Public Works Department. The building clearly displayed the new Modern architectural language of functionalism, with exposed concrete, horizontal lines, transparent glazed walls, and streamlined curves. The common characteristics of the International Style are easy to identify in the building: a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornament, adoption of glass, steel and concrete as preferred materials, the transparency and ‘lightness’ of the building, and a clear reading of the function of the different spaces.
Above: 1950 – Malayan Airways plane at kallang airport. Photo courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Its grassy landing zone, slipway for seaplanes, as well as a handsome terminal building, gave Kallang a reputation as the “finest airport in the British Empire”. During a 1938 stopover, Amelia Earhart called the airport “an aviation miracle of the East”. Its magnificent grass landing was made into a concrete runway by the Japanese who built a concrete runway in World War II , extending to 5,500 ft. It was further extended after the war, but it was not until 1949 that all civil traffic operated again in Kallang.
Above: 1945 photo of the runway courtesy of wikipedia.
Above: Aerial photo of Runway 06/24 taken in 1955. The terminal building is at the bottom left, and at the basin end of the runway you can see the slipway (where Oasis now stands) originally built to allow flying boats like the Imperial Airways Short S.23 Empire to be served at the same terminal as land planes.
The East and West Blocks, originally built to house the airline offices, are designed simply and built in reinforced concrete. They are similar in appearance to other military buildings found within British military camps, with the regular repetitive columns and windows. Their contrasting heaviness balances the lightness of the former Terminal Building, and can be seen as anchors on either side of the site.
The hangar adjacent to the West Block is a lofty and simple column-free structure where planes used to park. The building is a functional piece with large expense of windows to bring light into the space. The hangar is also conserved to complete the aviation history for the site.
Above: 1945 photo of the hanger courtesy of wikipedia.
Kallang Airport has left several reminders of its existence. The old runway, parallel to Mountbatten Road, is now called Old Airport Road. The surrounding public flats there are named the Old Airport or Kallang Airport Estate. The slipway for seaplanes is now occupied by the Oasis Building, a structure built into the sea and, until recently, housing several restaurants. The terminal building itself was used as the headquarters of the People’s Association until 9 April 2009, when it moved to its new headquarters at King George Avenue.
Above: 1973 – National Stadium built at old Kallang Airport site. Photo courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.