Adapting monuments with simple gestures
studioMilou’s design for the National Gallery Singapore transformed two of Singapore’s most significant monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, into the Southeast Asia’s largest art visual arts institution. The client brief asked that the monuments be united into a world class gallery with minimal interventions, and respect for the historical integrity of the buildings. Enormous emotional and symbolic importance is attached to the monuments; the site of the Japanese surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, and the site of Singapore’s Declaration of Independence in 1965.
Jean-Francois Milou, the founder and principal architect of studioMilou and principal architect, responded with simple design gestures: a filigree metal veil drapes over each building, a roofing structure linking the buildings from above as one institution. A design inspired, the architect’s words, by finely woven rattan, or an ikat. Beneath the buildings, a sweeping concourse basement links them from below. Created around the historic buildings, these layers offer visual and functional simplicity. From the street level, the monuments appear untouched but for a line of pale gold revealing the new roof, and the filigree awning that sweeps at the entrance.
A veil of light
The filigree bathes the interiors in filtered natural light, softening the interface between the historic and new and unifying the public spaces with a shared ambiance. This simple gesture, supported by tree-like structures meant that interventions into each building are minimal so as to respect the buildings’ architectural authenticity and character. An extensive garden rooftop provides peaceful respite with views of the former Supreme Court’s main dome and Singapore’s skyline.
A sweeping basement
Beneath the buildings, the concourse, like the roof, unifies the structures, and minimizes interventions above ground. Accessed by four monumental flights of stairways from key street level entry points, the concourse facilitates visitor flow and houses key operational facilities, and ensures accessibility for visitors, and frees the exhibition spaces of functional obligations.
Harmony and continuity Precedence is given to harmonious relations between the past and the present, to a seamless flow from the historic to the contemporary.
The conservation work rigorously balanced the challenges of maintaining the original structures while accommodating the new functions of the gallery and offering radically new experiences of these monuments. The interiors share a limited colour and material palette, creating a sense of cohesion between the architecturally diverse historic spaces, the old and the new. Significant spaces within the former municipal and Supreme Court buildings have been restored – Justice Chambers, a rotunda reading room, former prison cells – beside new galleries. Complex technical facilities have been located in widened walls, within roofs and floors, with exacting care and stringent conservation requirements respected.
Local contexts and social life
The design responds as much to the habits of local Asian cultures as to international visitors. Comfort for family outings of three, even four generations, from the oldest to the youngest, were thought through. Warm teak wood is used throughout, and deep, beautifully crafted window recesses throughout the gallery are designed for people of all ages to pause, to rest, together, with views of the sea and cityscapes.
Sustainability is integrated throughout the Gallery. A system of softening and filtering the natural light through the roof-top veil and the screens used on the windows means natural light enters throughout the building, including in most of the exhibition spaces. Double-glazed façade design between the existing and new walls minimizes heat gain and encourages daylight penetration. Reflective pools placed within the rooftop garden provide a cooling environment for the roof-top, and serve functionally as fire-safety smoke vents, while allowing filtered natural light into the courtyard spaces below.
Vertical green-walls create a continuous natural green canvas along the length of the roof-top garden, serving as a green-screen to the technical areas and mechanical cooling towers of the buildings. The landscape, vertical greenery and water features are designed to minimize solar heat gain into the building while enhancing acoustic design.
The curved veil signing the entrance of the Gallery between the two monuments. ©Fernando Javier Urquijo / studioMilou