With the opening of the National Gallery, Singapore finally corrects a glaring anomaly in its otherwise impressive cultural CV: a comprehensive visual arts institution.
Designed by the French architecture firm Studio Milou in partnership with local outfit CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, the new gallery - which houses the largest public collection of modern and contemporary art in southeast Asia - actually comprises two adjoining early 20th-century piles, the former City Hall and the Supreme Court.
Costing around S$530m, the National Gallery is a triumph of pragmatic restoration and repurposing of historic architecture. Thankfully, the grand neo-classical Palladian exteriors have been preserved, with the two buildings now visually linked by a dramatic filigreed metallic veil that partially drapes over both from the roof to street level. From some angles, the veil resembles finely woven rattan and, from others, silky ikat. 'This simple and sweeping gesture,' says lead architect Jean-François Milou, 'means that interventions into each building are minimal so as to respect their architectural authenticity and character.'
Which is not to say that project was a walk in the park. As it turns out, the most significant interventions are not immediately obvious. Poor soil conditions meant that the foundations had to be reinforced with new basements (City Hall was listing at six degrees), floor loadings were reinforced to take the weight of sculptural exhibits, while thermal, electrical, security, acoustics and museum technology all had to be hidden behind walls and beneath floors.
The bones of the original interior spaces - the old courtrooms, light-filled marbled public corridors, timber paneled judges' chambers and the like - have been carefully preserved and integrated into a sequence of generously proportioned gallery spaces. Clocking in at around 64,000 sq m, the National Gallery now matches, in terms of size, the Musée d'Orsay and Tate Modern.
The National Gallery's collection may not not match the celebrity of those European landmarks just yet; but what's important is that here, finally, is the missing piece in Singapore's drive to be a fully rounded global capital. For the first time, masterpieces by the likes of Georgette Chen, Hendra Gunawan, Liu Kang and Lim Yew Kuan are being viewed as an organic, cohesive collection - and with a home to match.