The second iteration of the Singapore Art Museum

19 01 2020

A set of buildings in Singapore close to my heart are those that belong to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) on Bras Basah Road. I spent four memorable years at them at the end of the 1970s, when the structures that have been protected as a National Monument, belong to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI). With the school vacating the site it had occupied since 1852 in 1987 and urban redevelopment having already then arrived at Bras Basah Road’s doorstep, the former campus and the world around it has changed almost beyond recognition. I am grateful for at least the familiar sight of the school’s protected façade, which with its curved wings appearing like the arms of a mother to embrace her children with a warmest of welcomes. Another thing that I am grateful for, is the dignified manner in which the school’s old buildings have been repurposed.

Singapore Art Museum, which is undergoing redevelopment, will only reopen in 2023.

We should soon seen a second iteration of SAM in the former SJI, since the first that came in its 1996 conversion.  Several structures of the old school were torn down in the 1996 iteration, which included the much loved Brothers’ Quarters on Queen Street. The quarters’ building, the bottom of which contained the school’s tuck shop, was replaced with a service block which has been demolished to accommodate the set of changes that will come next. The proposed interventions, which will perhaps take a bit of taking to, will include an entrance plaza at Queen Street, the addition of a floating box over the two courtyards known as the Sky Gallery, and a gallery bridge that will link the set of structures on the SJI side of the SAM to the SAM @ 8Q section on site of the former Catholic High School (CHS).

Mr Chan Soo Kian of SCDA Architects presenting the proposed new entrance plaza at Queen Street.

In isolation and on first impressions, the new additions will seem almost monstrous in proportions, and the gallery bridge does seem to give the impression of an archway into Queen Street — where several other structures that I refer to as “monsters in our midst”, now seem to dominate. Having had the opportunity to hear from the creators of the proposed new additions and a chance to look at the artist impressions of the structures together with the parts that make the National Monument up  – the conserved main façade, the former Anderson Building on Waterloo Street, and the chapel block, it does seem that as a whole the additions are for the better.

An artist impression of the proposed Queen Street entrance plaza with the Sky Gallery also seen (©Singapore Art Museum).

The Sky Gallery was the addition that grated most on the senses — at first glance and seemingly something that would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb that will overwhelm the monument’s landmark façade. On closer inspection, the feature does however serve to provide a backdrop that could help in neutralising the effect of clutter currently behind the SAM. This could have the effect of drawing greater focus on the façade. The gallery will also series of reflective glass panels running its length, with each angled towards the dome — which does seem a brilliant touch. The effect to the observer is the shifting of reflections as one moves past, reflecting both the old but with the dynamism of the continuously changing and multi-faceted new — something that the museum hopes to do to enhance its position as a showcase of present and future contemporary Southeast Asian art.

An artist impression of SAM’s façade with the proposed Sky Gallery (©Singapore Art Museum).

The façade seen in May 2019.

The additions will not only create space as the SAM seeks to enhance its position as a show case of Southeast Asian contemporary art, but also make the old and new spaces much more usable. The additions will help to increase gallery space, which will grow some 30% area-wise. The more significant impact is to also have space created that will have greater height and volume – as will be seen in the two courtyards. Once spaces for assembly and play and now covered by the “floating” Sky Gallery, they will see large volume and column-free gallery space being created. Although not ideal for the old boy that I am looking to reminisce about things such as the aerial threat that was carried by the pigeons with seemingly overactive digestive systems who inhabited the rafters above, the change will make the space a lot more usable, more comfortable and perhaps much better appreciated.

An artist impression of the view from Queen Street of the former buildings of CHS with the gallery bridge and the proposed interventions at CHS (©Singapore Art Museum).

The gallery bridge — along which more gallery space will be created — will help integrate the isolated former CHS section fo the museum. To be erected over Queen Street, it will seem very much like a gateway into street from Bras Basah Road and place a focus on the street at street-level.

An artist impression of the gallery bridge (©Singapore Art Museum).

Another change that I thought will be positive, is the removal of glass panels along the previously open verandahs of the main building. It will give me a chance to walk the corridors as I once did and gaze at the statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle – the founder of the religious order behind the school. The statue, a feature that was used as a navigation landmark, is a replica of a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that was donated to the school on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee.

An artist impression of the Queen Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

 

An artist impression of the Waterloo Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

The reopening of SAM, has been moved to 2023 due to the restoration effort that is required on the old buildings. On the evidence of what is in store, it would be well worth the added wait. The redeveloped museum will see learning studios and a library, public art spaces and promises “exciting” retail and café spaces. SAM will however continue to remain active during the extended period of closure through partnerships with both Singapore and overseas art spaces and museums. More information on SAM related events in 2020 can be found at the calendar of events on the SAM website.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director, SAM and an old boy of SJI.

 


 


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