To house the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art in Singapore, studioMilou restored and reconceptualized two historic buildings in the Lion City, infusing the neo-Classical exemplars with local flourishes.
Photos by National Gallery Singapore, studioMilou and Fernando Javier Urquijo/studioMilou
Boasting a combined floor area of 64,000 square metres, the National Gallery Singapore is home to a collection of around 8,000 pieces of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art. The gallery comprises two heritage buildings with lovingly restored neo- Classical architecture: Singapore’s former Supreme Court, which opened in 1939, and its former City Hall, opened in 1929.
Behind the National Gallery Singapore are the talented creators at studioMilou, whose designs were selected from 111 entries submitted by architects from 29 nations around the world. “The brief was simple—to return the monuments to the people of Singapore” according to Jean-Francois Milou, the lead architect and principal designer of studioMilou Singapore.
Milou’s portfolio is steeped in heritage, including consultations for UNESCO on the heritage status of the Taj Mahal, devising the masterplan for the National Museum of Georgia and developing the Imperial Citadel of the Thang long Archaeological Park and Site Museum in Hanoi. Closer to home, Milou was also part of a team advising the Indonesian government on which sites from Bali should be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The challenge for studioMilou was how to create the infrastructure for an international-standard gallery that could handle diverse functions such as art handling and storage, climate control and security while minimising the architectural interventions on two of Singapore’s most famous buildings.
“This meant walking a fine line between the radical transformation of the monuments’ identities and functions, and the exacting conservation of their heritage,” Milou said. “The design adds layers rather than alters essential aspects of the monuments in order to create a single institution.” Milou devised two signature elements: An elegant roof linking the buildings from above and a basement concourse underneath.
Drawing on local influences, studio Milou devised three large tree-like structures, about 30 metres tall, to support the new roof system. Smaller versions, about 12 metres tall, support the veil in the main atrium space. All have a minimal footprint while giving maximum support for the new roof. Meanwhile, the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery has two reflection pools, which also help cool the gallery, display and studio space and a public viewing deck.
However, the most distinctive change to City Hall and the Supreme Court is an immense filigree veil comprising 15,150 panels of perforated aluminium and fritted glass that connects the buildings. Milou intended for the veil to resemble finely woven rattan or silken ikat, taking inspiration from a finely cut dress on a beautiful older woman.
“The meticulously designed 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,” Milou said. Internal skybridges offer views of the atrium, the roof structure and a close look at the Corinthian columns of the former City Hall facade, while a new rooftop layer frames the Rotunda Dome of the former Supreme Court–an existing architectural element previously hidden from public view, creating a terrace space bathed in daylight.
Another challenge for studioMilou was how to turn the courtrooms, chambers and ceremonial rooms of buildings originally devised as government offices into spaces for art. Many of the rooms have been repurposed as galleries of varied scale and character, so visitors take a journey through the varied collections. Conservation constraints meant studioMilou hid much of the technical infrastructure within meticulously widened walls.
However, rooms of historic value, such as the City Hall Chamber, where Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as prime minister, were restored but not repurposed. Ensuring that the gallery complied with regulations covering acoustics, fire safety, environmental performance and solar power required thousands of hours of design work in what Milou calls a technical tour de force.
For example, fixtures and fittings such as lighting, emergency lights and sprinklers, were independently hung from the ceilings and placed on at surfaces and decorative timber details and were finished in a matching colour to the original teak ceilings.
The National Gallery Singapore is an elegant space that honours heritage through restoration and contemporary architectural flourishes to create a delightful home for Singaporean and Southeast Asian art.
National Gallery Singapore
1 St. Andrew’s Road #01- 01 Singapore 178957
City Hall and Former Supreme Court buildings, Singapore
38,000 square metres
Gross Floor Area
64,000 square metres
National Gallery Singapore
studioMilou architecture/ studioMilou Singapore in collaboration with CPG Consultants Pte Ltd (architecture group)
Takenaka-Singapore Piling Joint Venture (TCSP JV)
Structural Consultant CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, Leong Meng Sun
Architectural Restoration Consultants Pte Lts (ARC), Garth Sheldon
ICN Design International Pte. Ltd
Lighting Planning Associates (lPA)
AV/IT and Acoustics Consultant
Shen Milsom & Wilke (SMW)
Signage and Graphic Design
The Press Room
Initial Structural Studies
Initial Glass Facade Studies
Société Européenne de Mécanique (SECM)