Saturday, October 9, 2010

National Art Gallery Launch

Two of Singapore's most historic buildings, City Hall and the former Supreme Court Building, are slated to be transformed into the exciting new National Art Gallery.  This ambitious project is expected to be completed by 2013, and the launch of the project's open house took place this Friday, October 8th.  As part of a blogging club, I was invited to go to the launch, take photos, and attend a guided tour of the former Supreme Court Building before it's forever changed by this new restructuring.  I've never attended anything like this, but I readily agreed- I've long admired the big, majestic building, but have never been inside.
City Hall in the foreground & the dome of the former Supreme Court on a rainy day
The launch was quite an affair.  Singaporean artists, bloggers, the media, and officials from the government and the art gallery all attended.  The CEO of the gallery, Michael Koh, made some remarks and then introduced guest of honor Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communication, and the Arts.  Mr. Lui handed out prizes for a photo competition that had been held in anticipation of the launch of the gallery- photographers were previously allowed access to the two buildings to take photos, with some stunning results.  After the conferring of the prizes, Lui joined together with Koh and several other key figures for the official launch of the gallery open house- and confetti exploded everywhere!  It was an exciting moment. 
Mr. Lui awards Yap Kim Hock with the Grand Prize in the Open Category of the photo contest.
Ong Yi Chao, Grand Prize winner of the Youth Category
Official launch of the National Art Gallery Open House!
Neat shadow
 I was enjoying my time poking around the main hall of the Supreme Court building, but I quickly noticed that I looked a bit out of place.  There were only a few other Caucasian faces in the crowd and they seemed well-connected, chatting with their colleagues.  I was a bit adrift, not knowing anyone, and I felt eyes on me a few times, perhaps wondering if I was a wayward tourist that had wandered in off the street.  Or maybe they were staring because I'd unknowingly commandeered the VIP table for my own use.  It's hard to say.

After the official launch, a gaggle of Singaporean artists tromped out to the City Hall steps, where a smart red carpet had been laid out, for a photo op with Mr. Lui.  Lots of arranging and rearranging later, the shot was achieved (you can see the more high-quality Straits Times photo here, along with the accompanying news story), and everyone filed back inside for tea.  A small part of City Hall has already been turned into finished gallery space, with all of the winning photos from the photo competition on display, in addition to some historical information about the buildings, and a nifty, high-tech animation of what the buildings will look like once the project has been completed.
Singaporean artists outside City Hall
 After some delicious, vegetarian-friendly snacks, I began looking around for my group.  I was supposed to complete my tour with a group of bloggers, who were all wearing green stickers, but suddenly my green sticker seemed very lonely.  I couldn't find anyone who matched me.  I approached one of the organizers who told me to try to join up with the next English-speaking group.  A little awkward confusion later, I was off with a group of older Singaporean artists, who were very friendly and seemed delighted to have me along.
Yummy veggie snacks, catered by Rasel
The tour was spectacular.  Our guide was knowledgeable and genuinely excited to show us all around.  She told us that her grandfather had worked in the court building as a younger man, and she felt personally connected to this bit of Singaporean history.  Our tour began in the main hall of the Supreme Court Building, where the launch had been held.  The guide pointed out a large floor tile that I'd noticed earlier, and explained that there's a time capsule buried under the tile, and the capsule includes copies of the Straits Times and old coins, among other things, from when the tile was placed back in 1937.  It's not supposed to be unearthed until the year 3000!  So if you're reading this 990 years from now, grab some tools and a couple of buddies and head on over to the Supreme Court building- those coins are bound to be worth something by now!
Stairs leading out of the main hall
Our guide shared lots of interesting information with us, but what I found most fascinating was how the building was built economically.  When the Supreme Court Building was originally constructed in the late 1930's, Singapore wasn't the prosperous place that it is today, but officials still wanted a respectable building.  They accomplished the grandeur of the building by creatively cutting corners.  For instance, large columns outside the building appear to be made from granite, but are actually made of a cheaper gypsum composite.  Many of the floors inside also have the appearance of marble, but are actually made of rubber!  Once the guide told us, I could see that she was right, but I never would have guessed it otherwise.  She said this was a big moneysaver, and it also served a soundproofing function- if you've ever been in a big marble hallway with a bunch of other people, you know how sound can carry down those things.  Not so with a rubber one!  Maybe this is what we should do with all of our old tires!
Rubber floor
 We stopped in a couple of regal, intimidating courtrooms.  I was impressed by how well-preserved they were.  My absolute favorite part was heavy door in the floor, which opened onto a flight of stairs coming out of an area of holding cells down below.  Prisoners would be escorted up out of the floor and into a special holding area for their trial.  The dirty stairs and the dim lighting were in such strange contrast to the beautiful, polished courtroom.  As Bryan later pointed out, it must be pretty hard to look innocent when appearing out of the floor, as though rising out of hell itself!
Intimidating lock on the door in the floor.  I also dig the dusty bootprints.
 The chief justice had some pretty impressive chambers, but I was too busy ogling his bookshelves to notice much else.  I loved the old shields on the glass doors.
Pretty, huh?
The most unique room we saw was definitely the rotunda library.  When the National Art Gallery is completed, this space will be conserved and used as an area where visitors can learn more about the exhibitions and artwork housed in the gallery.  For now, it's pretty empty, but manages to maintain its grandeur.  Apparently the place served as a police post for some time, so there's still some old surveillance equipment lying around., and we all know how much I love old, abandoned stuff, so it provided me with some entertainment.
Super retro surveillance equipment
After the tour, I checked out the gallery in a little more depth before leaving.  I loved this tiny model of the two buildings.  I think there's something about women that makes us love miniature things.

If you're interested in seeing these two buildings or the photos on exhibit in the gallery, the Open House will be running for the next two weekends.  There will be loads of activities, including a light show in the evenings, a portrait artist, guided tours, a flea market, and goodie bags.  You can get more information here.  It will certainly be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next few years!

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