The National Gallery Singapore Opens
Two of Singapore's grandest heritage buildings reopened in November 2015 as a showcase for the world's largest public collection of Southeast Asian art. MELANIE LEE gets a sneak peek of the architectural masterpiece. Photographed by DARREN SOH.
Published on Feb 4, 2016
THE BARE WALLS AND QUIET CORRIDORS SET MY MIND RACING.
What will this space look like when it is alive with art and teeming with tourists? There is a visceral sense of urgency as curators, videographers, construction workers and cleaners stride purposefully about the National Gallery Singapore the day I'm taken for a "naked" museum tour (seeing the museum without its exhibits). Its official opening was on November 24, 2015, and as the largest visual arts venue in Singapore, at 64,000 square meters (a little larger than Musée d'Orsay in Paris), it has expectations to live up to.
Judging by first impressions, this gallery doesn't have much to worry about. Housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, two national monuments with towering Corinthian and Ionic columns, the National Gallery is a palatial wonderland where art, design and history merge.
The unaltered façade of the National Gallery Singapore.
The adaptive reuse and conservation of these two iconic buildings from the 1920s and 1930s has been a five-year, S$530-million mammoth task undertaken by French architectural firm Studio Milou and CPG Consultants from Singapore. The key design concept is to add layers to the existing buildings rather than altering them too drastically. One of the most striking features is a canopy made of glass and 15,000 aluminum panels draped over both structures. This unique, veil-like roof gives a dappled sunlit effect during the day and is supported by steel structures that look like chrome tree trunks. A basement concourse and two sky bridges have also been constructed to connect the two buildings.
These contemporary additions are breathtaking, but it is the historical integrity seen in the restoration that truly gives the National Art Gallery its soul. Here are a few of the architectural showstoppers that are worth checking out on your visit.
The Rotunda Dome
The classical Rotunda Dome that was previously hidden from the public can be viewed from the Supreme Court terrace. From there, you can also peek through the rooftop to see a close-up of the former Supreme Court's copper main dome, which has turned bluish-green after years of oxidation. In its previous life, it was a law library, and if you make your way inside the Rotunda, you'll find restored curved columns and cabinets that will hold volumes of browsable archival materials.
City Hall Chamber
The 1945 signing of the Japanese surrender documents, and the 1959 swearing in of Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew: City Hall's most stately room was also the site of its most significant national events. Its original wood panels and marble columns, with brass capitals set atop the pillars, remain and have been restored. There are no immediate plans to have any exhibitions or displays in this room—history speaks for itself.
Former Supreme Court Balcony
Flip around and face the building façade, because besides offering a panoramic view of Singapore's Civic District, this balcony also holds a fascinating historical footnote. Below the Allegory of Justice sculpture is a space where it looks like some kind of emblem has been scraped off. It is widely believed to have been the British coat of arms, and was probably removed by the Japanese during World War II. It's just one example of why you need to keep your eyes peeled on a tour; buildings with this much history are layered with hidden details and secret stories.
Former Supreme Court Foyer
Underneath the floor is a time capsule from 1937—containing currency from the Straits Settlement, and newspapers—that can only be opened in the year 3000. Luckily, no one's in a rush to bust through the beautiful original Art Deco terrazzo flooring. Together with the staircases and airy, high ceiling with retro wooden panels, this space evokes F. Scott Fitzgeraldera affairs complete with martinis and shrimp cocktail. Interestingly though, since there had been a tight post-Depression construction budget, this was considered an "austere" building back in the day. 01-01, 1 St. Andrew's Rd.; nationalgallery.sg.