National Gallery Singapore: Getting the big picture

The new National Gallery showcases the world's biggest collection of Singapore and South-east Asian art.
The new National Gallery showcases the world's biggest collection of Singapore and South-east Asian art.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Insight looks beyond the arts buzz surrounding the National Gallery to the overall aim of showcasing our national identity. B2-4

It was a decision that countered the stereotype of ultra-pragmatic Singapore: putting "software" such as heritage and the arts ahead of the bottom line, to create the National Gallery Singapore that opened last week after 10 years in the making.

The state-of-the-art gallery brings new life to the colonial-era former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings housing it, and showcases the world's biggest collection of Singapore and South-east Asian art.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed in a speech at the gallery's opening celebrations last Monday that it might have been cheaper and easier to build a new museum on a greenfield site.

But he declared: "These old buildings in front of the Padang are a treasure."

 

He hoped that through the gallery, "we will all appreciate better where we come from, and discover new perspectives of who we are".

 

The $532 million National Gallery itself came from an announcement in his National Day Rally speech in 2005 - a year more dominated by the decision to go ahead with two integrated resorts.

 

The resulting triple-towered Marina Bay Sands - one of the world's most expensive buildings- may dominate the nearby skyline.

 

But the new National Gallery puts the spotlight on Singapore's arts scene.

The art powerhouse's arrival comes after considerable challenges faced by architects to transform the buildings. They had to incorporate - but hide - climate, lighting and security controls.

Also, while the old City Hall and Supreme Court look similar, one was built on shallow foundations of surface marine clay, while the other was on piling anchored deep in the claybed 20m below.

It meant a new set of foundations for the City Hall to support the additional load - and nothing short of an engineering feat to build a basement level across both buildings. Quite something, in terms of creating a new perspective on housing home-grown art, and its new place on the landscape.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Getting the big picture'. Print Edition | Subscribe