There have been very few buildings I’ve visited in Singapore so far that are still being used for their original purpose. Singapore is both old and new, with buildings being repurposed to fit into current requirements. I feel that this is probably better then knocking down lovely heritage buildings, but in the case of places like Haji Lane can be jarring or cause cultural clashes. Today we went to see the National Gallery, and I was pretty blown away by the changes to the two heritage buildings.
The National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015, which makes it a surprisingly young institution. It’s focus is on Singaporean art and culture, and works that explore Singapores global connections. The Gallery consists of two main buildings, which are connected via a glass atrium (which reminded me of other museums such as the British Museum and the National Museum of Singapore). The two main buildings are the original City Hall and Supreme Court. The two buildings are connected via the covered atrium and two link bridges at different levels.
I thought that the way the two buildings were treated was quite interesting. The City Hall side felt like a brand new building. Without having been told that it was a converted office area, I would not have guessed it’s origin at all. The area has been made into large long galleries, with an open air space plunging down the middle. At the lower level, there is a completely kick arse children's area, which I will hopefully get a chance to rave about a little later. It has a level of gallery noise, which is to be expected in a busy space. The art works within this space were in capsules, and cut off from a narrative linking them to each other.
The Supreme Court side is quite different, as there is an attempt to preserve some of the nature of the original building. The first thing that struck me, as I walked through the heavy doors, was the complete quiet of the space. The building had been designed to suppress noise inside, which when cut off from the noisy galleries, gave the space a somber quality. The galleries include hints of it’s previous life: a pulpit still in place, viewing areas in dark wood, spaces where judges would have sat. The art in the Supreme Court side had a very specific nation building narrative, with rooms leafing logically to each other. Significantly, the Chief Justices office is filled with nation effecting documents on display, such as the divorce papers from Malaysia.
I wondered why these two buildings felt so different. I wonder whether it is because the role of the Supreme Court is more relatable to visitors - what happened here? Law stuff happened here. It was probably important. Where as the city hall section is filled with the faceless people that help to make a government and country to run. Government workers rarely get wigs or robes to work in. I felt like I had a clearer connection to the heritage in the Supreme Court, where as City Hall honestly felt a little hidden.
Or it could just be that too much of the City Hall section was closed, awaiting the new exhibition that is opening on Saturday and taking up a substantial amount of the City Hall space.
I do really love that they have two (and a bit) exhibition spaces open that describe the history and transition of the buildings. Large panels describe the original purpose and designs, the archeology of what had been found on the site during digs and explanations on why choices had been made. Many of the panels included a small pin mark that explained where you could find the feature that was being discussed. I have seen a growing tend in embracing displaying works done within museums, and I think it is really fabulous.
I really liked what they have done to the space - it’s felt connected while still feeling modern and a bit slick. I don’t think that the heritage of the building it specifically lost, but it is more muted. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gallery to visit.
Some articles that I read while writing this blog post:
The Architecture of National Gallery Singapore
Design of the Year 2015
National Gallery Singapore
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.