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IT is 10 more months to the opening of the National Gallery Singapore, and refurbishment works are going on non-stop inside the City Hall and the former Supreme Court. There are hundreds of workers around, constructing staircases, lifting structures in the atrium - the buzz is not slowing down.
"Construction is on track to be completed on time. Today, the focus for me is to deliver the best quality in all details," says Jean Francois Milou, founder and principal architect of studioMilou architecture.
In 2008, his firm won an international competition and partnered the local architecture and engineering firm, CPG Consultants, to convert two of Singapore's most significant heritage buildings into the largest visual arts venue in Singapore, and one of the largest in the region.
The National Gallery is dedicated to modern visual art, with a focus on South-east Asian art, including Singapore art, from the 19th century onward.
Work on the former Supreme Court started first, and is almost complete, with galleries in the midst of being fitted out for the exhibition display. Major works are still ongoing at City Hall. "Less work was needed for the former Supreme Court, hence we started work on it first," says Mr Milou, who moved his family to Singapore and opened a local office managed by Singaporean talent to focus on the project.
Located in the heart of the Civic District, the City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings were focal points for many important events in Singapore's history.
The City Hall building was built between 1926 and 1929, and it housed the Municipal Council. It was also the office of Lee Kuan Yew, when he became the first prime minister of Singapore. The then-prime minister and members of his Cabinet took their oaths in the City Hall Chamber.
City Hall continued to house various government departments until it was eventually vacated in 2005.
The adjacent former Supreme Court building was built between 1930 and 1939 to serve the judiciary system of Singapore. Its facade was designed to match City Hall, with classical architecture and corresponding Corinthian columns.
Both buildings were gazetted as national monuments in 1992. Under guidelines set by the Preservation of Sites & Monuments, the two buildings have to be preserved. Together, CPG, studioMilou, Architectural Restoration Consultant and Takenaka-Singapore Piling Joint Venture all worked closely with the client on the complex tasks of renovation while preserving the historic elements of the monuments.
"The goal is to offer an elegant and welcoming art gallery that deeply respects the historical importance of the existing buildings while creating new architectural layers, each placed upon the monuments with little intervention," says Mr Milou. "We want to create a space where museum goers will feel they are in historical buildings, but yet at the same time, by looking out through the buildings' many windows, they can still see the city."
The former Supreme Court's facade with its Corinthian and Ionic columns, and relief panels have been lovingly restored. Inside, floor tiles, wooden pillars and panels on the ceilings were cleaned up and given new life by local artisans and carpenters.
"The restoration works in this building were not the most complex in my experience," says Mr Milou, who has restored and readapted other historic buildings before. "The biggest challenge for this building was in the details."
They include details such as ensuring that the building is now handicap-friendly, by creating a slightly sloping floor, so that the wheelchair-bound can easily head out onto the balconies. "This was non-existent before," he says.
Other "modern" features that had to be put in to suit the art museum included special lighting, fire protection, air-conditioning and the installation of security cameras, while respecting the historical character of the buildings.
The next stop is the fifth floor of the former Supreme Court which resembles the set of a sci-fi movie. Smack in the centre is the roof of a rotunda, which housed the former library, and there are tree-like structures that hold up the roof made of perforated aluminium panels. On a sunny day, sunlight streams in, bathing the entire floor in natural light.
Design wise, the more exciting part of the Gallery is in the space between the two buildings. Back in the old days, the two buildings were separated by a lane. The space is now covered by a roof and veil, with two sky bridges connecting the two buildings.
The roof and veil are also made of the same perforated aluminium panels, which give the impression of a filigree structure marking the main entrance into the Gallery, and also creating a visual continuity from the main atrium to the Padang. Glass panels are fitted under the aluminium panels, so that the whole area can be air-conditioned.
"The perforated panels help filter out the sunlight, so you still get light coming into the Gallery, but it is very soft," says Mr Milou.
The atrium roof is held up by another large tree-like structure, so that the roof has no direct impact on the existing buildings.
Access to the roof top of the City Hall building is currently restricted, but Mr Milou and his team have developed the design to include a garden there, surrounded by restaurants and cafes. There will also be reflective pools set in the garden. "They appear as pools on the roof top, but if you were to look up from the basement, the pools appear as skylights," he says.
It is not just the two buildings that have been adapted. A new basement had to be constructed to house technical facilities, ticketing and reception areas, so that the ground floor level can be used for the gallery's core activities. The underground concourse can be accessed by four monumental flights of stairs, each leading from one of the gallery's facades, allowing access from every side of the institution.
Having worked closely on the project for some years, Mr Milou cannot help but admit: "There's definitely a very endearing quality to the buildings and the new design."