Many words have been used to describe Singapore’s skyline, but ‘stagnant’ is not one of them. In just the last five to six years, the young nation has seen the addition of various iconic landmarks, such as Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay, to its already stunning cityscape. Meanwhile, around the island projects such as Safdie Architects’ Sky Habitat – a multi-residential project consisting of two towers linked by aerial walkways – continue to spring up, seemingly by the year.
This active building of iconic landmarks, however, comes with an attachment to Singapore’s historical buildings. As with any developed state, striking the right balance between preservation and modernisation is fodder for serious discussion and debate. So when the task is to combine two important Singapore monuments – the former Supreme Court building and City Hall – into a world-class art gallery that would house the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art, how far we should go becomes the question.
For the Singaporean government, minimal intervention to the colonial-era buildings was critical, but this is an easier task asked than done, especially when the project would have to go beyond the realms of restoration to transformation.
“One of the key challenges related to transforming the monuments in such a way as to respect the brief’s request for minimal intervention, while creating entirely new functions required of a world class art gallery,” French practice Studio Milou, whose designs were chosen out of 110 other submissions in 2007, notes.
Working closely with local firm CPG Consultants, the architects began the design process as they do with all their other projects – by rigorously studying the site’s history, the project’s complexities and its relationships with the surrounding urban, human and natural environment. As a result, understanding Studio Milou’s design response requires some knowledge of the monuments’ history.
Opening their doors in 1939 while the country was still under British rule, the classical old Supreme Court and municipal building were occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, and saw their surrender in 1945. War crime trials of members of the Japanese army were held in the former Supreme Court building in 1946. Three years later, Singapore’s first head of state was formally installed in a short ceremony at City Hall.
Old Supreme Court Building. Image: Wikipedia
With such a strong narrative and significance attached to the buildings, Studio Milou did not want to juxtapose the old and new. Instead, unity was ushered priority, with the new gallery expected to be deeply respectful towards the history and integrity of the original structures from the outset.
The signature elements of the new National Gallery Singapore – a new roofing structure and monumental basement concourse – work toward this theory of union. The roofing structure, a simple but striking filigree metallic and glass veil that drapes over both monuments, bathes the interiors with natural filtered light. For Jean-Francois Milou, this natural light is key to softening and melding the interface between the historic and new. A controlled palette of colours and materials within the Gallery was also employed to perform the same function: blend with historical features rather than create stark contrasts, so that a unified atmosphere with subtle variations between new and architecturally diverse historic spaces is produced. Windowsills designed as seating lining the walls in turn create strong visual relationships with today’s surrounding cityscape.
Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
Supported by steel tree-like structures, the aluminium and glass roof creates one rooftop line, leaving the buildings’ architectural integrity in place. Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
The concourse beneath the national gallery is also a cursor for unity. Accessed by four flights of stairways from key street level entry points, the concourse basement runs the length of the buildings and minimises intervention to the historical structures above ground. Practically, it facilitates visitor flow and houses key operational facilities.
The rooftop, tree structures and the basement concourse allow the design to develop around the existing buildings, and offer a very legible understanding of how the design is layered upon and beneath the monuments. Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
The design, from the interior as much as from the exterior, privileges elegance, consistency and cohesion over stark architectural or design statements. In Jean-François Milou’s own words, it is ‘a space for modern meditational for reflection which is unlike the too often atomised spaces and ways of contemporary life today’. Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
However, as the team points out, the process was not quite as simple as using different elements to generate cohesion:
“Behind the design characterised by great visual simplicity, lies a far more complex technical reality. [We] spared no efforts in providing modern day, efficient infrastructures required to support exhibitions and programmes of the Gallery’s scale; protecting the character of the monuments and the elegance of the interiors; and creating an accessible environment for all to enjoy and explore the Gallery’s layers of history and art, old and new.”
This meant much of the sophisticated technical infrastructure, which are vital to the creation of spaces suited to gallery exhibiting, had to be meticulously hidden within the walls and ceilings. Load, security, temperature controls, lighting and acoustic requirements and facilities were visibly vanquished to preserve the historic fabric and feel of the interiors. The basement design also presented its own set of challenges: unstable foundations. In the end, the sediments had to be stabilised through piling techniques which required the literal suspension of key walls and parts of the façade had to take place – an occurrence which cannot be seen by the gallery visitor today.
Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
It’s wasn’t all about the visuals too. Awarded the BCA Green Mark GoldPlus Award in 2012, the National Gallery Singapore takes pride in incorporating sustainability features into its design. The abundance of day-lit spaces, for instance, minimise the dependence on artificial lighting, while the double-glazed façade design between the new and existing walls reduces heat gain, encourages daylight penetration, and helps achieve a better Envelope Thermal Transfer Value.
The extensive garden of City Hall, set above the buildings, offers open air respite, looking towards the sky and main dome of the former Supreme Court. Here, reflective pools not only provide visitors with peaceful pauses, but also sit over the skylights to cool the roof-top without obstructing the filter of natural light into spaces below. Functionally they serve as fire-safety smoke vents.
Vertical green walls adorning the two buildings furthermore provide a continuous natural green canvas along the length of the rooftop garden that serve as a green screen to the technical areas and mechanical cooling towers. The landscape, vertical greenery provision and water features all combine to minimise solar heat gain while enhancing acoustic design.
Other important ESD elements include energy efficient space planning with compartmentalisation of gallery spaces with climate control requirements, use of siphonic roof drainage system, use of high performance glazing, water-efficient fixture, green building materials and sustainable products, and the incorporation solar photo-voltaic system within the architecture.
Photography by Fernando Javier Urquijo
The project took home the 2016 Australian International Chapter Award for Public Architecture and is in the running for the AIA’s Jørn Utzon Award for International Architecture at the National Architecture Awards. It was also awarded the Singapore President’s Design Prize.
ALUMINIUM SUNSCREENS, ROOF AND TREE STEEL STRUCTURE
JANGHO GROUP CO. LTD. SINGAPORE BRANCH, SKYLIGHT
WOOD & WOOD SINGAPORE, TIMBER (BURMESE TEAK) FLOORING
TAN CHIANG AND ARMOURFLEX COATINGS PTE LTD, LIMESTONE FLOORING WITH FLOOR COATING
LWC ALLIANCE PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF SHANGHAI PLASTER
BAUTEC PACIFIC PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF FACADE
ASIA MORTAR PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF TERRAZZO
FOO WOODMAKING PTE LTD , RESTORATION OF TIMBER PANEL
ACOLITE CONSTRUCTION (S) PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF TIMBER PANEL (STAIN & VARNISH)
GLOBAL BUILDERS SUPPLIES PTE LTD AND MONJU PARTNERS PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF METAL ELEMENTS
STRUTS BUILDING TECHNOLOGY PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF CLAY ROOF TILES
SHIELDINTON INDUSTRIES PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF LIGHT FITTINGS
CHENG CARPENTERS & DESIGN PTE LTD, RESTORATION OF CONSERVED FURNITURE
KRISLITE PTE. LTD., SUPPLIER AND INSTALLER
MODULEX USHIOSPAX, DOWNLIGHTS
TOKISTAR LIGHTING, IGUZZINI, FAÇADE LIGHTINGS
EUTRAC AND ERCO LIGHTING, GALLERY LIGHTING
LUTRON DALI DIMMING SYSTEM, DIMMING SYSTEM AND OTHER LIGHTING CONTROLS
ELEVATORS & LIFTS
KONE ELEVATORS, ELEVATORS/ESCALATORS
SIONG ANN ENGINEERING PTE LTD, VERTICAL TRUCK LIFT