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New artistic delights in Singapore


There is a new art scene emerging in Singapore which promises to engage, excite and inspire. Matilda Hickson went to investigate two new galleries that have opened this year


The new National Gallery in the shadow of Singapore city (right)

As part of the celebrations to mark 50 years of independence in Singapore, the Arts Council decided that they wanted this tiny island in Southeast Asia to be a focal point for art and artists in the region. To that end, they embarked on a number of ambitious projects which culminated in the opening of the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris in May 2015 and their new National Gallery which opened on the 24 November 2015.

The aim of the National Gallery is to be the leading arts institution in the region which engages, excites and inspires visitors with the art of Singapore and Southeast Asia. But before the collections are even seen, it could be said that their vision has already come true - by producing a building that is so beautiful it completes the brief of engagement, excitement and inspiration.

Unusually for Singapore, which excels in building new institutions, the National Gallery occupies the former Supreme Court and City Hall which stand side by side in the Civic District area of the city. The buildings are two of Singapore’s most significant monuments which have both witnessed key events in the history of Singapore, including the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied Forces in World War II and the declaration of Singapore’s independence in 1965.

A competition was initiated in 2005 to source the design needed to transform these two buildings into the new National Gallery. There were 111 entries, and the competition was won in 2007 by French architect Jean-Francois Milou, the lead designer and founder of Studio Milou. An architectural company recognised for its skills in re-purposing heritage buildings for contemporary users, their design has both united and transformed the former historical buildings into an amazing space to showcase the national collection of art.

This has been achieved by using a spectacular filigree metal and glass roofing structure which drapes itself over the buildings (‘like an old lady covered in lace’, commented Wenmin Ho, one of the architectural team) and this is supported by stunning steel tree-like structures unifying the buildings with one simple rooftop line, and which also preserves the integrity of the original buildings. A new basement has been added that runs the length of both buildings, which in the future will link to the MRT (subway) network and also to the Victoria Concert Hall nearby.

Throughout the gallery there is a sense of space and light which is enhanced by a beautiful teak finish, all of which produces a sense of calm and unity. The entrance is housed in the space between the two buildings, where the visitor is first directed to the lower level to buy tickets, and then given the choice to visit either the old Supreme Court or City Hall gallery spaces. On entering this part of the building the visitor is immediately wowed by this sense of space and light and the steel tree structures - in fact it could be said that the building itself is as much a work of art as the collections it houses.

Built in just four years (construction started in 2011), there were problems to overcome such as the fact that the City Hall was sinking, the buildings were of different heights and there was a need to conserve the monuments. The latter meant that all the requirements of a sophisticated gallery infrastructure had to be integrated into the building. Technical requirements such as loading, security, temperature controls, lighting and acoustics had to be hidden from view at all times in order to preserve the historical fabric of both buildings and to enhance the simplicity of the feel and flow of the gallery. The City Hall is also ten years older than the Supreme Court and suffered from unstable foundations. This meant that while building the basement, key walls and parts of the building had to be literally suspended and supported while the foundations were stabilised using sophisticated piling techniques.



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