Reuse, but keep the soul

London’s Tate Modern is an excellent example of recycling an old shell into a dazzling new art hub

REDUCE. Reuse. Recycle. 

City planners in Singapore seem to have taken the green mantra to heart. Especially when it comes to finding new uses for old buildings in this garden city.

The latest instance is the new National Art Gallery, which is to be housed in the old Supreme Court and City Hall buildings. The final design for the gallery was unveiled last week after a lengthy selection process that included a competition and a public exhibition of the shortlist. 

France’s Studio Milou Architecture, in collaboration with Singapore’s CPG Consultants, won the competition with a draped canopy that connected the two buildings. 

Discreet and elegant, it is perhaps not as strong a design statement as I had hoped for. After all, if a building is to be not just an art gallery but the National Art Gallery, I would expect it to make a bold statement. 

Given that the designers were constrained by the need to respect the exterior structures of the gazetted buildings, I suppose a compromise was inevitable. 

But I wonder if this is just the first in a series of concessions that will damage the integrity of the gallery space. 

At first glance, converting old buildings for arts purposes seems like a very practical thing to do. 

After all, it reduces the cost of having to build from scratch. The budget for the gallery is $320 million, practically half of what it cost to build the $600-million Esplanade. 

Reusing old buildings is a sensible way to maximise real estate in land-scarce Singapore. 

Recycling them means that Singapore’s architectural heritage gets a new lease of life instead of being demolished summarily to make way for some hideously anonymous new mall. 

Having seen the architectural landmarks of my childhood disappear faster than I can say bulldozer, I am always grateful for every little bit that is saved. 

But I have to confess to feeling seriously ambivalent about the plans for the gallery.

Singapore’s track record when it comes to repurposing old buildings is not exactly stellar. 

The beautiful Chijmes building, now a tourist-trap collection of eateries and nightspots, has strayed very far from its convent roots. Every time I pass by the complex, I feel a twinge at how crassly commercial the building has become and wonder if it was worth preserving at all if the result is this soulless shell.

The Old Parliament House, now home to the Arts House, is rather more dignified, housing a modest clutch of art spaces and eateries. But it is a living example of the many pitfalls of converting old spaces to new uses.

The Parliamentary Debating Chamber is now an incredibly awkward performance space. While perfectly serviceable for spoken-word events, the acoustics are a nightmare for music-related performances.

Elsewhere in the complex, spaces are shoehorned into tight boxes because the structure, built in 1826 as a personal residence, was obviously never intended to accommodate performers and audiences.

Even the Singapore Art Museum, one of my favourite gallery spaces, has to contend with curved walls, box-like galleries that sprout like unwieldy mushrooms from the main spaces and detached spaces converted from offices. 

Of course, successful conversions are possible. Look at the gorgeous Tate Modern in London. Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron proved naysayers wrong when they turned an old, disused power plant into a spankingly beautiful space for modern art.

In its first year alone, the Tate Modern attracted a staggering five million visitors and it has been credited with rejuvenating the formerly derelict South Bank area, which now also houses the Saatchi Art Gallery and the London Eye. 

The two architects won the coveted Pritzker Prize for their work, which combined a respect for the structural integrity and unusual aesthetics of the building with an understanding of how it could serve the practical needs of a gallery.

They regarded the building as a challenge and an inspiration rather than as an obstacle. As they have said in interviews: “Our strategy was to accept the physical power of Bankside’s massive mountain-like brick building and to even enhance it rather than breaking it or trying to diminish it.

“This is a kind of Aikido strategy where you use your enemy’s energy for your own purposes. Instead of fighting it, you take all the energy and shape it in unexpected and new ways.”

Let’s hope the architects building Singapore’s new National Art Gallery approach their project with the same verve that the Tate designers did. 

sorfern@sph.com.sg