“When creating something new, the architect should avoid jeopardising or disturbing the fragile arrangement and balances of the existing site.”
The architectural symbiosis of the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings into the new National Gallery Singapore required its architects, Studio Milou Singapore Pte Ltd and CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, to walk a very fine line between the radical transformation of the monuments’ identities and the exacting conservation of the buildings’ heritage.
The brief was simple: to return the monuments to the people of Singapore in the form of a welcoming, world-class art gallery that displays the world’s largest collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art.
How the architects met that brief, however, was not so simple.
The National Gallery’s grandest statement is, paradoxically, its most subtle – a filigreed metallic veil that drapes over each building at the roof level to create a gentle but unbreakable union. From some angles, and depending on the skies, the veil resembles finely woven rattan or silken ikat. “This simple and sweeping gesture meant that interventions into each building are minimal so as to respect their architectural authenticity and character,” says Jean-François Milou, the project’s lead architect.
Controlling the way natural light plays on the architecture and is filtered into the exhibition spaces was also a challenge, as was creating a basement concourse that links the building from below so that the façades are untouched. Less obvious but no less critical interventions required the insertion of a sophisticated infrastructure, including climate control, acoustics, storage facilities, computer and security systems. Together, Studio Milou and CPG worked with exacting
measures to integrate them into the walls, roofs and floors so that they stayed out of sight. “We wanted visitors to focus on the architecture and the artwork with minimal technical distractions,” says Jean-François.
The architects add that given the historical importance of the original buildings and, indeed, the extant memories of them among the older generation, it was important that the design returned the buildings to Singaporeans in a way that was immediately recognisable, without losing the appreciation of their transformation. Jean-François notes, “I wanted the design to be legible to visitors and, at the same time, to create a state-of-the-art international gallery that was entirely at ease with the historic buildings from which it had emerged.”
The achievements of Studio Milou and CPG cannot be overstated. From the limited palette of materials to the muted, but warm, colour scheme, the calm flows and the cohesion of the modern gallery spaces are overlaid with a sense of the past. And within this unified ensemble, neither detail nor concern for visitor comfort has been spared. Together, the architects have created a place that is at once spectacular and yet welcoming for people of all ages.
Jean-François says the design is also a deliberate reaction against the increasingly fragmented nature of contemporary life which he finds unfortunate because “it often leads to an atomisation of our feelings, our relations, our decisions. I feel architects have a role to play in providing unified and calm spaces where people can think and feel a sense of self”.