See grand dames Supreme Court and City Hall in new light

The National Gallery Singapore is opening its doors this weekend and next for a series of Naked Museum tours.

The National Gallery Singapore is opening its doors this weekend and next for a series of Naked Museum tours.

It will be the last time the two historic buildings - the refurnished Supreme Court and City Hall - go au naturel before they are filled with art. The gallery's grand opening is in October.

There are only 360 places available for the 90-minute sneak peek, from 10am to 7pm, run by docents. For a free ticket, enter the contest on the gallery's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/nationalgallerysg?fref=ts). There are only a few tickets left for May 2. The contest ends on Sunday.

On the tour, visitors can learn about some of the momentous historical events that occurred within these walls, check out the new features of the spruced-up buildings and gaze upon the careful restoration work done to make the gallery a leading arts institution in the region.

When it opens, the $530-million museum will house the largest collection of South-east Asian art in the world. There are more than 10,000 artworks in Singapore's national collection and the gallery will display about 1,000 of them at a time.

At about 64,000 sq m, the museum is comparable in size to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

But ahead of that, on the Naked Museum tour, visitors get to appreciate the buildings' new design features.

One of the most notable additions is the futuristic-looking statement roof, made of glass, steel and aluminium, that links the two buildings. It starts at the Supreme Court wing, extends over the former alleyway between the buildings and runs atop the length of City Hall.

Attached to the roof are more than 15,000 perforated aluminium panels of varying patterns and perforations in shades of gold. From the outside, the viewer sees a stunning play of light on a bright day. Inside, the metal filigree tames the harsh tropical sun and allows sunlight to filter into the space in a calming and meditative manner.

The design and restoration work was carried out by studioMilou Architecture, a Paris-based firm which specialises in museum design and the adaptive re-use of historical and heritage buildings. It partnered Singapore company CPG Consultants for this project.

Speaking to Life!Weekend during a sneak peek of the building, studioMilou's founder and principal architect, Mr Jean- Francois Milou, 61, says the idea of a unifying, perforated roof came to him on a "very hot day" when he was sitting on a plastic chair at the Padang, staring at the two buildings.

He says: "Any museum is a place for modern meditation and I kept thinking of a way to let light filter into the space. I had an envelope in my hand and I drew a veil.

"I was thinking of something that would be understated and elegant but at the same time would maximise the use of space in these buildings. I wanted the roof to be a nod to fibres of natural weaves and designs."

While the roof is bold and eye-catching in design, many other features in the restoration are more subtle.

Vintage wooden benches have been restored to their former glory with the exact rattan colour they had in their heyday, for example, by cleaning the wood and then sourcing the exact shade of rattan to match the original.

New wooden windows have been introduced to filter out the sun's glare, to provide a soft, warm ambience for visitors while protecting artworks from damage.

There are new touches such as shiny marble and granite flooring. Extensive care has been taken to maintain the buildings' historic interiors when adding fixtures such as new lighting and fans to meet modern building codes.

Another "invisible" yet major design gesture is the inclusion of a concourse basement. Unseen from ground level yet monumental in scale, it runs beneath the buildings. A 220-lot carpark has been added together with a loading and unloading bay for artworks. Building these required delicate calculation so as not to affect the foundation of the existing buildings.

Many original historical features have been retained as a nod to the past, such as arched windows, neo-classical columns, wooden plaques bearing the names of past Chief Justices and even the cracks on pillars.

Mr Milou says the idea driving the project has been to "minimise interventions" to the buildings.

He adds: "We have placed a lot of importance on creating a certain simplicity in the architecture's appearance. That is always the hardest thing to do."

He compares his interventions to the work of a dancer: "The best dancers work relentlessly to make their performances look natural, easy and seamless."

And of course, having been exposed to the elements for decades, the conserved facade needed major care too.

Mrs Sushma Goh, 52, director of the gallery's projects and facilities management group, says an extensive clean-up was needed to remove stains, deposits and contaminants from the buildings' exterior.

Extra attention had to be paid to the five sculptural friezes and more than 50 Corinthian columns which adorn the buildings, so as not to damage the Shanghai plaster.

Instead of using harsh chemicals, jet- cleaning techniques with rotating nozzles of air and sand were employed. Different teams worked on this. The main contractor, Japanese firm Takenaka, was responsible for cleaning the facade, while American conservation and cleaning specialist Gustavo Vasquez oversaw the cleaning of the frieze, pediment and other special details.

Visitors are looking forward to seeing the revamped site. Among those who will be visiting the buildings this weekend is part-time English lecturer Agnes Chen.

The 40-year-old says: "I am excited about how these historical buildings will be given a new lease of life by housing art, which is very close to my heart. I have memories of visiting the area when I first came to work in Singapore 18 years ago and took several photographs of the majestic columns."

Ms Nadia Almenoar, 40, a partner at law practice Rodyk & Davidson, says: "Soon after I turned 40 last month, I stood on the Padang in the rain facing those steps as the cortege of our first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew went past. So much history and tradition, public and personal, ring through the halls of these buildings.

"It would be an honour and a privilege to watch them as they transition into their new role as custodians of Singapore's national artistic treasures."

deepikas@sph.com.sg