Urban renewal

Blaise Hopkinson
Blaise Hopkinson

For years it seems the imposing old facades of Singapore’s former City Hall and Supreme Court were stopped in time, their purpose arrested, their point missing. But all that changed when the two old grand dames of the Padang joined hands and the doors of the National Gallery Singapore were opened to the justified gasps of local and foreign visitors.

The imposing façade of the newly-connected old Supreme Court and the City Hall. Spotless and purposeful.
The imposing façade of the newly-connected old Supreme Court and the City Hall. Spotless and purposeful.

It is urban renewal at its finest. With the foresight of the city fathers, not to mention a cheque for S$532 million (US$378 million), Southeast Asia’s most spacious and comprehensive art gallery has been created. On a global scale it is in the league of the Tate Modern in the old Bankside power station in London, or the Reichstag in Berlin. The ambition of the National Gallery Singapore is impressive.

With 64,000 square metres of floor space, some 8,000 artworks on initial display, snazzy restaurants and a rooftop bar terrace, the new National Gallery Singapore is one of the most popular venues on the island.

You don’t even have to be interested in art to make a day at the gallery. The architectural brilliance and the sensitive restoration make for a pleasurable spatial experience. Finding your way around takes time but eventually, you work out the flow.

Both original buildings are from the same colonial era and have witnessed the highs and lows of the now 50-year-old city-state. The City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns, was built between 1926 and 1929, while the Supreme Court opened in 1939.

Their difference in architectural style posed a unique challenge for French architect Jean-Francois Milou and his team of experts.

The beautifully-restored Rotunda Dome above the library in the old Supreme Court Building.
The beautifully-restored Rotunda Dome above the library in the old Supreme Court Building.

Linking the building is a spectacular atrium that features Milou’s solution, a so-called “linear draped canopy” supported by bold, tree-like columns. The effect is stunning; the transition, seamless and soaring.

The project has also created a green environment, complete with solar energy, a striking water-cooled transparent ceiling, state of the art lighting, acoustic controls and maximum use of natural light on all levels.

The National Gallery Singapore takes its rightful place alongside such worthy conversions as The Fullerton Hotel, which was the old post office, historic buildings now home to galleries, museums, entertainment facilities, and stand-alone districts such as Chinatown and Little India.

The National Gallery Singapore’s free Gallery Explorer application can be downloaded to smartphones. While it looks as if many of the young visitors are glued to WhatsApp, they are studiously following the explorer instructions!

On the top floor of the City Hall wing can be found a very stylish bar and terrace called Smoke & Mirrors and an elegant restaurant called Aura. The views are worth the premium you pay for food and drink and night time reveals a son et lumiere show all of its own. The lights of Marina Bay are mesmerising and the sounds of the seasonal rain splashing on the Padang and street below are a perfect accompaniment.

The City Hall building is steeped in history, being the location Lord Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces on September 12, 1945. The building also once housed the offices of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the island state. Next door the Supreme Court was witness to every serious civil and criminal case until its demise in 2005.

  • Admission is free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents (PR).