Edition ICFF New York, 2016
National Gallery Singapore
Singapore is a bustling metropolis whose urban scenery changes year by year. Mainly new skyscrapers and commercial buildings all glistening glass and steel, it is hard to find within this shiny fabric something with history and depth and is yet current. In this context, the newly opened National Gallery Singapore is all the more majestic.
Completed in 2015, the year of Singapore’s jubilee since becoming an independent nation, the National Gallery Singapore is the world’s first and largest visual arts institution focusing on the modern art of Singapore and Southeast Asia. Comprising 64,000-square-metres of square footage in all, the realised design was borne of a competition in 2007 won by France’s studioMilou Architecture in collaboration with local partner CPG Consultants Pte Ltd.
The National Gallery Singapore comprises two heritage buildings – the City Hall constructed in 1929 and the former Supreme Court building in 1939 – that sit at the heart of the nation’s Civic District. The backdrop to the Padang field, these monumental structures have witnessed manifold historical events. The design brief required a sensitive approach that would preserve the buildings’ original architecture and also transform them into a welcoming cultural destination for both international and local visitors.
To this, studioMilou’s approach is impeccable. The key parti is that of a light roof that floats delicately over the former Supreme Court building and then drapes down in between the two buildings, its base peeling open in a gesture that invites the passer-by in while opening up toward the Padang. Visitors standing under this sublime skin, made up of 15,150 aluminium and glass panels, are caught up in the magical effect of its gold-silver filigree patterns that filter the harsh, tropical sunlight in the most elegant manner and whose colour tones alter subtly throughout the day, connoting nature’s patterns. “I wanted the roof to give rise to accessible analogies for the public, such as the fibres of natural weaves and designs; rattan for example, or perhaps ikat – beautiful things conjured through a stunning design gesture,” says Jean François Milou, studioMilou’s founder and lead designer, of his inspirations. The many tropical allusions, abstracted into these elements, are artful links to the project’s island locale.
“The key, or ‘signature’ of the design reflects our desire to add layers rather than to alter essential aspects of the monuments in the name of creating one institution,” says Held up by tree-like columns designed for minimal structural intervention while supporting the new roofing, this ‘skin’ shelters and provides ample illumination to the central atrium. New link bridges criss-cross the voluminous space, connecting the two buildings on the upper levels while introducing new sightlines.
The new roof offers both a panoramic view of the iconic cityscape as well as respite from gallery viewing with gardens, a refreshing water feature and restaurants – spaces that, once intimidating and inaccessible to the general public, is now open and democratic. Throughout, the architect has also designed for a fluid gallery experience, with rooms that flow from one space to another: from the old to the new, the monumental to the intimate and vice versa. “The National Gallery is designed like an architectural promenade made of spaces with different characters and scales. This diversity of spaces will be a constant surprise for the visitor and cater for forms of art, in ways that reflect the great diversity of this region’s art,” describes Jean François Milou on the spatial programming. Restored internal windows, fitted with timber portals that subtly conceal necessary service components and which visitors can rest upon, add to the leitmotif of visual openness.
A key feature that allows this aspect of ambling is the carving out of a new basement concourse under the two buildings – no easy feat considering their differential foundation situations – running longitudinally under the two buildings. Accessed through four dramatic steps from the first storey, they facilitate visitor flow and house key operational facilities in a manner that minimally impacts the two historic structures.
A neutral material palette of timber and limestone for the new elements complement the existing façade of Shanghai Plaster, and terrazzo and teak surfaces of the conserved interior finishing While the controlled use of colours and materials serve to create a unified atmosphere with subtle variations between the new and architecturally diverse historic spaces, there are also pockets of zestful surprises that create an authentic museum experience. An example is Gallery & Co. – a progressive museum shop that eschews the banality of typical museum shops filled with uninspiring museum trinkets. Designed by one of Singapore’s top branding agencies, Foreign Policy Design, who also curated the merchandise, it is a treasure trove of artful lifestyle and art products set within a breezy mint-green environment and accompanied by a modern-vintage cafeteria. A language of geometric shapes applied to the floor tiles and display elements allude to the ‘building blocks’ children play and are in themselves artistic features within the art gallery.
Aside from inspiration, contemplation is a key spirit that the National Gallery Singapore has managed to evoke – be it while perusing the art works or the striking architecture. Atelier Vierkant’s sculptural seating aids in this journey. A selection of K pebble series are scattered artfully outside the Coleman Entrance, along the City Hall steps, and within the internal Padang Atrium, their tactile surfaces and smoky charcoal, cream and tawny colours blending perfectly with the tones and tranquillity of its charming edifice host. Says the museum’s director, Dr. Eugene Tan, “The pebbles work very well with the art and the architecture in our museum to create interesting and memorable experiences that we want for our visitors.”
It takes special skill to breathe new life to old buildings. studioMilou Architecture has that Midas touch. It is founded by Jean-Francois Milou, a graduate of the famed École des Beaux-Arts who leads offices in Paris and Singapore, working on the conservation of monuments, creation of museums and delicate projects that include refurbishment of collections and archaeological sites. Simple, graceful, yet inspiring – that is the signature of the architecture firm, whose respect toward the existing fabric and culture of the projects is well noted.
CPG Consultants has a history dating back to 1833 as the former Public Works Department of Singapore (PWD), which gave Singapore many of its important roads, bridges and public buildings including the City Hall and the former Supreme Court building. The corporatised entity of PWD is the local architecture firm for the National Gallery Singapore, assisting studioMilou Architecture to ensure their design was accurately executed, overseeing the complex conservation and infrastructural work, as well as liaising with the many consultants involved.