Heritage Spotlight

Modern courthouse

The airy atrium (above).
The airy atrium (above).ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
One of the courtrooms (above).
One of the courtrooms (above).ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Design of the State Courts reflects civic- mindedness and philosophical ideals

When people think of courthouse architecture in Singapore, the Supreme Court would come to mind.

It could be the stately colonial old Supreme Court building opposite the Padang, with its Corinthian and Ionian columns, that now houses the National Gallery Singapore. Or they would think of the current Supreme Court building nearby, a futuristic-looking stone-and-glass structure with a large disc at the top.

They are less likely to picture the State Courts in Havelock Square, although it is by far the busier building. These courts hear more cases than the Supreme Court, handling about 90 per cent of all judicial cases in Singapore.

The Supreme Court comprises the Court of Appeal and the High Court, while the State Courts is made up of district and magistrates' courts as well as specialised courts such as the coroner's courts. The State Courts was known as the Subordinate Courts until March 2014.

The floating staircase (above).
The floating staircase (above). ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

  • HIGHLIGHTS

  • 1. THE FLOATING STAIRCASE

    Although the staircase looks basic, it is a feature that is difficult to do well, says Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

    "Floating staircases are quite an engineering feat - everything is concealed and there are no ugly reinforcements showing.

    "As you climb the stairs, you end up surveying the atrium space because your point of view changes."

    2. CENTRAL ATRIUM

    The atrium, which has marble flooring and is eight storeys high, offers a clear view of the surrounding corridors and staircases. Aluminium louvres and windows at the top provide ventilation.

    Only the courtrooms and offices are air-conditioned. Fans were added to the atrium in 2011.

  • 3. COURTROOMS

    They boast walls made of meranti wood. The dark interiors add gravitas to the court proceedings.

Architectually, the State Courts, which was completed in 1975, departs radically from the neo-classical aesthetic of the old Supreme Court building, which is associated with British influence during the colonial period.

Commissioned by Singapore's then Minister of National Development and Minister of Law, Mr Edmund William Barker, the black- and-white building is done in the modernist style, which stresses clean lines and geometric forms.

The nine-storey building, designed by the then Public Works Department and architectural firm Kumpulan Akitek, initially housed 26 courtrooms. There are now 37 courtrooms and 40 hearing chambers. 

Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says it is a "symbol of the Government's investment in civic structure to build a strong country".

"When Singapore became independent in the 1960s, we had to find a new identity that was modern and forward-looking, so a lot of our buildings during that period explored the use of modern architecture."

The design of the State Courts also reflects philosophical ideals of the law. Circled by roads, the building looks the same at the front and back.

Mr Ang says: "As a public institution, you have to address the public realm and not show your 'behind'. This is a dignified court building. For me, it is a metaphor for looking all round - public servants and judges must look at cases from all angles."

Inside, the space is open with ample light. Courtrooms and offices are located along the sides in an octagonal formation, with the open corridors looking into the atrium that is in the middle of the building.

The openness, where people can be seen easily in public areas, is a metaphor for equality and transparency, says Mr Ang. "An idea that was important in modern architecture from the 1950s - as exemplified by London's Royal Festival Hall - was that public spaces represent a democratic space. So, for public institutions, one should aim to create spaces where citizens, no matter their background, have equal access."

Recesses in the building and tinted windows cut out tropical heat and glare, and natural air movement keeps the public spaces cool, minimising the use of air-conditioning.

The use of hardy materials such as concrete ensures minimal maintenance and is an excellent example of thoughtful civic construction.

Mr Ang says: "For public buildings, every designer faces this challenge: How do you make it express a certain civic character and welcoming with the judicious use of materials? It's not always easy to achieve, but in some cases, such as this building, a high standard has been reached."

•This is a monthly column on conservation buildings.

Correction note: This story has been edited to correct the number of  courtrooms and hearing chambers in the nine-storey building. We are sorry for the error. The year in which fans were added to the atrium was in 2011, and not in 2012 as previously reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'Modern courthouse'. Print Edition | Subscribe