The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.


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The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





The National Gallery Singapore: a sneak peek

23 11 2015

After five long years, the transformation of two of Singapore most recognisable National Monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore, is finally complete. The new cultural institution, which oversees the largest collection of modern art in Southeast Asia, will open its doors to the public tomorrow – an event that is being accompanied with a big bash.

Visitors to the gallery can expect to see a display of Singapore and Southeast Asian art drawn from Singapore’s huge National Collection in the permanent exhibitions, Siapa Nama Kamu? – featuring close to 400 works of Singapore art since the 19th Century, and Between Declarations and Dreams, which features close to 400 works of Southeast Asian art from the same period.   There will also be two special exhibitions that can be caught from 26 Nov 2015 to 3 May 2016. One, Beauty Beyond Form, features the donated works of traditional Chinese painter, Wu Guanzhong. The other After the Rain, will see 38 works of one of Singapore’s leading ink painters, Chua Ek Kay on display. Also on display will be the beautifully restored interiors of the two buildings, and the stunning impact the architectural interventions have had on them (see also : The National Gallery, Naked).

More information on the National Museum’s opening celebrations and visitor information can be found on the celebrations brochure (pdf) and also at the National Gallery Singapore’s website. Admission to the National Gallery Singapore will be free for all visitors from 24 November to 6 December 2015.


A Sneak Peek at the National Gallery Singapore

The former Supreme Court, which houses the galleries of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery

Art in a former courtroom.

Art in a former courtroom.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shocking Pink Collection.

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Reflections on the Rotunda Dome.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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The spiral staircase to the main Supreme Court dome.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

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Inside the resource centre.

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City Hall, which houses the DBS Singapore Gallery, the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the Wu Guanzhong Gallery and several education centres

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

Chua Mia Te's Epic Poem of Malaya.

Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya.

Liu Kang's Life by the River.

Liu Kang’s Life by the River.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

Lots to think about ...

Lots to think about …

City Hall Chamber.

City Hall Chamber.

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The red SG50 Steinway.

The red SG50 Steinway.

Not quite a permanent display.

Not quite a permanent display.


Miscellaneous Views (see also: The National Gallery, naked)

The columns of City Hall.

The columns of City Hall.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court - the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court – the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Another view.

Another view.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

Roof terrace bars at City Hall.

The roof terrace bars at City Hall …

... provides stunning views of the cityscape.

… provide stunning views of the cityscape.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

 

 





The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.





A Saturday morning’s stroll through Old Singapore

15 12 2010

Starting at the centre of the Padang where Raffles had once proudly stood, a leisurely morning’s stroll around the Padang with Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan and the National Library Board on Saturday through familiar territory did throw up a few surprises. Moving to the Esplanade towards where the Tan Kim Seng Fountain stands, the sight of a snake charmer with his python on the grass probably caught not just me, but the others on the walk by surprise. For me snake charmers were something that I had somehow always associated the Esplanade with, along with the Satay Club, Chendol at the semi-circular hawker centre, and the colourful balloon and windmill sellers who would support their air filled balloons not with sticks as we do these days but with long skinny balloons. Over at the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that among the participants was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng, who is herself the author of a book “Seven Generations and Counting”.

Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan, guide for the Stroll through Old Singapore.

A snake charmer with his python on the grass.

The Tan Kim Seng Fountain - among the participants on the walk was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng.

Moving back towards where the Cenotaph stands, we were to discover one that maybe shouldn’t have surprised me: that the Cenotaph had actually once been right by the sea, with the shoreline just by the bottom of its seaward steps, knowing that quite a lot of reclamation work had gone on int the area around the Esplanade way before the much of the shoreline in the area moved much further south in the extensive land reclamation project that provided the land for the Marina Square complex. We were also to learn that the leader of the Indian National Army, Subhas Chandra Bose, had stood on the very steps of the Cenotaph to rally support for the Indian Independence movement during the Japanese Occupation in World War II.

The Cenotaph had once been right by the shoreline.

Photograph in the National Archives Collection showing the Esplanade in 1926 (note the position of the Cenotaph relative to the sea (source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The other parts we passed on the walk included the site of the Indian Army Memorial which was erected at the Esplanade by Bose and destroyed by the British upon their return at the end of the war. Down the pedestrian tunnel to Empress Place, where we encountered the Dalhousie Obelisk and the grass cutters of the modern day (in contrast to the grass cutters of the days gone by which Pugalentii had highlighted through the use of a photograph in the National Archives that had once been commonly seen in the Padang).

At the bottom of the Obelisk in Empress Place.

The grass cutters of old seen on the Padang in 1946 (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

By contrast the modern grass cutters ...

From Empress Place, it was past the old Supreme Court and City Hall (both soon to be transformed to the National Art Gallery) where we had the opportunity to chat on its famous steps, before moving on to our final stop – St. Andrew’s Cathedral which I had finally stepped into for the very first time in my life.

St. Andrew's Cathedral.

Cathedral window.

Inside the Cathedral for the very first time ...

More views inside the Cathedral.

The Cathedral has some wonderful stained glass.

Stained glass panels at the main entrance.

Close-ups of the Stained Glass.

Books of Prayer.

Pews.





Windows 1.0

7 11 2010

One of the simple things that I love is how light streams through the frosted or textured panes of an old window, casting a soft and somewhat surreal glow on the space it is meant to provide light to. For me, being bathed in that soft glow, often tinged with a green coloured tint the glass is given somehow brings with it a sense of calm, a calm that exudes a surprising coolness that allows one to take refuge from the warm and oppressive heat that lies beyond the translucent panes. It is for me a light so beautiful that it always draws me to the space that it illuminates – a light that somehow we have in our quest to erect the new edifices of glass and steel, we have long forgotten about.

Soft light streaming into a room of a building that was designed in the mid 1900s.

I guess many of these windows came from a time when necessity dictated that windows would provide light necessary to illuminate a space in the day, serving as a means to ventilate as well as keep out the heat and glare of the tropical sun. Most would have been frosted or textured to provide for the latter consideration as well as for privacy – something that perhaps is achieved for practical reasons with adornments to windows such as the blinds that are commonplace with the windows of today.

Soft light streaming from textured windows of a shophouse from the 1930s in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.

The frosted or textured panes of glass, sometimes coloured, sometimes not, always succeeds in evoking a sense of nostalgia in me, a nostalgia for a time when I sat in the warm glow of the green frosted and textured windows of the primary school that I attended. It was a time for me when there was much to discover through the eyes of a child with the wonderment of world at his feet, and when many of the friendships made have lasted through the half a lifetime that has since passed. I guess those were the formative years that made me the person I am today, and gave me the eyes with which I now look at the world through.

Green coloured frosted glass adds a cool and calm to the light that filters through them.

The green coloured versions somehow casts a tranquility that envelops the space, something that is very much in evidence in the grand old Supreme Court building. It is in providing Singapore with a masterpiece of his architectural genius, that Frank Dorrigton Ward, makes wonderful use of frosted as well as clear glass windows and skylights, that makes it unnecessary to use artificial lighting during the day. What is simply brilliant about the work is that the soft light that filters through, bathes the internal spaces such as the Rotunda Library, the Courtrooms, Judges’ Chambers and passageways with a glow that speaks of a calm that only seeing can describe. This was something that I was fortunate enough to savour on a few visits to the grand old building before work begins to transform it into the National Gallery of Art. It is certainly comforting to know that once the transformation is complete, we will still see much of the magnificent light that it is now bathed in, comforting in the sense that there is still a place to which I can go to feel the glow that only those wonderful windows of old can bring.

Soft light on the main staircase of the old Supreme Court.

Another view of the staircase of the old Supreme Court.

Soft light entering the former Chief Justice's Office in the old Supreme Court.

The soft light of the Rotunda Library.

The old Supreme Court features strategically placed skylights and windows that allow filtered natural light to illuminate its corridors and chambers.

Even the lobby of the prisoner holding area is bathed in a wonderful soft light that streams in through the windows.

A coloured frosted window in the old Supreme Court.

Coloured frosted windows of the old Supreme Court.

A window to a light well in the old Supreme Court.

Soft light of a room illuminated by light filtered through the frosted glass panes of a window.

Textured and frosted glass is commonly used in older buildings of the pre-glass and steel days.

A close up of textured and frosted glass panes.

Timeless old world illumination reflected off the instrument of illumination of the new world.





A gathering of artists on the steps of their future gallery

8 10 2010

The National Art Gallery (NAG) Open House was officially launched today by Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. The simple but symbolic launch also saw the gathering of a hundred or so local artists – a representation of Singapore artists, on the steps of City Hall for a photograph session that serves as a symbolic gesture of the transformation of the former Supreme Court and the City Hall into the NAG, which will be a home to the works of our local artists.

In a symbolic gesture - 100 representatives of Singapore artists gathered on the steps of City Hall for a photo.

It is probably fitting that the buildings, long seen as icons of Singapore, both having played a significant role in shaping Singapore’s history are being converted for use as a gallery that will be a home to Singapore artists. As Mr Michael Koh, CEO of the NAG put it in his welcome remarks, the two neo-Palladian style buildings had served as crucial settings to many important moments in Singapore. Mr Koh also spoke of how many Singaporeans young and old would have identified with the buildings at some point in their lives, some with personal memories from events such as National Day and F1, some may have worked there or had relatives or friends working there, or had graduation or wedding photographs taken in thier shadows … which to most have become national icons etched in their memories. I for one have one particular memory that I will always treasure – that of visiting a friend of my mother’s who worked at the Supreme Court as a verbatim reporter regularly via a caged lift from my early childhood.

The Open House was officially launched by Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts.

Mr Lui was presented with a framed photo - the winning entry in a photo competition organised for the two historic buildings.

The Open House will certainly provide many of us with a rare opportunity to see the inside of the magnificent works of architecture – and also to photograph them – something we were not allowed to do when they were in use. It would also provide the opportunity to find out some interesting facts about the buildings – one being that the floor tiles used in the Supreme Court are made of rubber – something due to the fact that construction materials were in short supply at the time of the construction as Europe was preparing for war (rubber being abundant in Malaya). It would in fact also be the last chance to see them as they would be replaced during the makeover due to their asbestos content. Another interesting thing that may interest visitors are that the building was designed without air-conditioning and to retrofit air-conditioning at a later date, ducts and vents were built into the furniture.

The Open House will provide a rare opportunity to photograph the inside of the two magnificent works of architecture before their transformation into the National Art Gallery.

The rubber floor tiles of the former Supreme Court.

Vents built into the furniture - a means to retrofit an air-conditioning system to the Supreme Court.

While due to overwhelming response, guided tours which will provided access to the former Supreme Court are fully booked, those interested in seeing the City Hall and the historic City Hall Chamber can still do so – that will be opened to all – and the opportunity to visit the historic room should not be missed.








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