studioMilou | National Gallery Singapore

This interview was originally published in April 2015 on buyMeDesign, an online boutique that focuses on design, fashion and home products, and is reprinted in full with permission.  Florence Coirier Giraudon is the founder of buyMeDesign.com.  Photos were taken by Meniscus Magazine in January 2016.

A conversation with Jean-François Milou

In November this year, Singapore will be enriched with a brand new visual arts institution: The National Gallery Singapore. The National Gallery will be born out of a unison between the former City Hall and the former Supreme Court of Singapore, two buildings in neoclassical style that are reminiscent of Singapore’s colonial times.

In order to find people with the right expertise for this ambitious project, Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) organized an architectural design competition in association with the Singapore Institute of Architects in 2007. The competition drew no less than 111 entries from 29 countries worldwide, but it was French architectural firm StudioMilou that submitted the winning design.

buyMedesign had the honour of interviewing Jean-François Milou, principal architect and lead partner of studioMilou, about his studio’s design concepts, what inspires him and the challenges they faced when adapting the two monumental buildings.

BMD:  What is the biggest challenge you and your team are facing when working with these two heritage buildings?

SMS: The buildings are late British colonial administrative structures, and the task of converting them into one institution with a very different vocation from their former ones was a challenge. The design had to retain the buildings’ original character and treat all of their heritage aspects with respect. We want to minimize interventions, and at the same time, create a world-class art gallery with all of the required infrastructure and flair.

In many ways, this requirement sat well with studioMilou’s design approach. We strive to combine elegant architectural gestures of great simplicity with a deep respect for conservation and the context of a site. Part of the reason why studioMilou’s design was chosen by the Singaporean jury is our design discretion. That said, simplicity should not be confused with ease. I feel that the greatest challenge has been to balance the extremely complex requirements of ‘keeping things simple’ with the design, and ensuring the two monuments remain entirely recognizable and true to their historic character, despite the transformation of their functions. We strive for a sense of unity and cohesion, hiding the work behind the scenes. But first and foremost, we want to create a familiar and welcoming environment for Singaporeans.

Behind the apparently simple basement design, and the design as a whole, is a far more complex technical reality, which presented tremendous challenges relating to the foundations of each monument. While both buildings were built at almost the same time and form a homogeneous ensemble in architectural terms, structurally they differ greatly. The City Hall was built in the late 1920s, using a concrete-frame with facades made of a mix of prefabricated concrete sections and masonry produced on site. With only shallow foundations supporting the building above the marine clay, any movement in the ground has implications for the building itself, notably as a result of compaction. The Supreme Court was built a few years later, in 1937. Unlike the City Hall, this building uses a mix of reinforced concrete and metal frame, and its facades are entirely made of prefabricated concrete cladding. It is supported by deep foundations going down to the boulder clay bed twenty meters below ground level. As a result, it was a complex process to create the basement concourse, and ensure a stable foundation for the City Hall.

The buildings will be linked together with an elegant metallic veil. Could you tell us a bit more about the veil’s design?

The design links these two buildings with a filigree metallic veil draping over each at roof level, uniting them as one institution. This sweeping gesture – the signature element of the design – allows us to develop the design around the original structures of both buildings.

Controlling the way natural light plays upon the architecture of the buildings was both one of the central aspects and greatest challenges of the design work. At the initial phase of the project, innumerable and intensive studies were carried out by studioMilou and our French engineering consultant, Batiserf. This permitted us and our client, CPG Corporation, to finalize the work. These studies enabled us to come up with a reliable way of softening and filtering natural light shining through the roof-top veil and the screens we have secured onto the windows. This design illuminates the building itself and most of the exhibition spaces. The roofing also hosts an extensive rooftop garden resembling an open clearing. Reflective pools placed within this garden area are surrounded by restaurants and cafés, providing visitors with peaceful and refreshing pauses.

When working on this defining element of the National Gallery, where did you and your team draw inspiration from?

The initial inspiration for the design came to us when we were in Singapore during the competition phase. I was struck by the buildings’ grandeur and history. To unify the buildings, I wanted to create a respectful, defining design that wouldn’t interfere with their essential character. I wanted something that would bring more light into the interiors. The image of a finely woven cloth or drape over a beautiful, grand and ageing woman came to my mind. My desire was to complement and embrace the building’s existing structures with some discretion, and to defer to the surrounding cityscape. I also wanted a certain transparency, allowing the buildings to ‘breathe’ and open up to the sky.

Then, at the commencement of the project, much of our inspiration and enthusiasm for working relentlessly to make this structure work came from our Singaporean architects. They backed the design entirely, which was key, given it has taken a great deal of collaboration. CPG assisted us in fine-tuning the project; their extensive engineering experience and support was of great help. We shared the understanding that the roof was meant to protect the monuments from harsh light, while creating a beautiful interior atmosphere with natural light beneath an elegant rooftop looking over the city. Elegance and beauty are always inspiring.

For the basement structure, we drew inspiration from the structure as used in many major historic buildings adapted to house distinguished art institutions worldwide, for example the National Gallery in Washington, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and the Prado in Madrid.

You have pointed out that you are a Singaporean company – the senior architects, managers and staff you are working with are Singaporean. To which extent have you done research on Singaporean history, identity, arts and (contemporary) culture during the designing process?

Before we won the project, I have spent quite some time in Singapore and always admired the architecture and urban planning there. My wife is French-Australian, and for many years, we’ve spent time here on our way to visiting family in Melbourne. Our admiration of Singapore’s history and urban development well pre-dates the project. Our bookshelves are filled with Singaporean and Southeast Asian history.

When StudioMilou won the project, we set up an in-house team of researchers and writers with a background in heritage. The studio, here and in Paris, has always had a deep interest in research and documentation, so these skills are permanently part of our team. When adapting existing buildings, it’s imperative to be thoroughly informed about a building’s history, its relationship to the surrounding environment and its significance to local populations. It’s second nature for architects to take an interest in the human and built landscapes of a project. This interest nourishes good and respectful design.

I would like to add that our very talented local team leading our projects, the collaboration with our local partner CPG Consultants, and the day-to-day interactions with our client team has given me the privilege of getting insight into many facets of the Singaporean culture.

Your intention is making National Gallery the “living room of Singapore, dedicated to the arts”. How do you intend to achieve this informal and relaxed vibe through your design?

Until recently, the monuments were only used for official purposes, and entry to both buildings was strictly controlled. For most Singaporeans, the City Hall and Supreme Court have always been intimidating buildings, especially the latter, with its courtrooms, cells and high level of decorum. In order to give people a sense of belonging and comfort, we wanted the entrance and ambiance to be inviting. We hope this encourages everyone, and local residents in particular, to cross the threshold.

With this in mind, studioMilou’s we designed peaceful yet spectacular architectural landscape, bathing in natural light and open to the surrounding cityscape.

As I have mentioned before, the light and materials we used aim to give the interior spaces a unified yet varied character of a set of grand public rooms. We want the gallery to be an open landscape for visitors to wander through as they wish, stopping off to learn more about regional history, the exhibited works of art, the many in-set narratives and documents that accompany the presentation of the collection. We have designed deep window recesses serving as places of rest and repose for visitors. We have also tried to avoid creating intimidating or jarring atmospheres and ditto colour schemes. Of course, the Gallery’s exhibition spaces, which studioMilou is not responsible for, remain a surprise! Only when the Gallery opens, we’ll know just what kind of atmosphere they will create in relation to the architecture.

What specific element are you most proud of?

I’d rather not use the word proud, I prefer to say that I am truly pleased with the subtlety and outward simplicity of the design. I am pleased with how all of the teams involved have managed to adapt the monuments while respecting their integrity. Re-purposing existing buildings is the studio’s area of expertise, and it is always such a privilege to be granted the opportunity to work with monuments, notably those such as the former Supreme Court and City Hall, which embody so much cultural and historic importance.

It is often far more complex to maintain simplicity and sense of unity than it is to radically modify an existing building. We’ve tried to respect the brief’s request to minimize interventions while creating a world-class gallery. This was no small order, given the multiple and very specific needs of a gallery’s infrastructure and interiors if it is to function to the highest international standards. Keeping in mind that the former Supreme Court and City Hall were colonial administrative buildings, great care needed to be taken with every detail to ensure a the successful ‘layering’ of the new gallery onto their existing fabric.

Behind the interiors is the cutting-edge and technically efficient infrastructure that will be required to present the exhibitions and programs of an institution of the Gallery’s size, scale and ambitions. studioMilou has spared no detail or effort in ensuring the quality of this infrastructure. Nor have the client, CPG consultants, and the contractor, Takenaka – JV Singapore Piling. It has been a truly collaborative effort, with the client’s close collaboration throughout the entire process.

I am also pleased that we managed to create an underground gallery. Creating an additional public-circulation system built beneath them in the form of a large underground concourse enabled us to further preserve the buildings’ original architecture. This has left the ground-floor level and public spaces void of ticketing, reception and circulation areas, freeing them for the gallery’s core activities. The concourse extends longitudinally across the entire site and is, like the roof structure, one of the design’s signature elements. It 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. In this way, the design also facilitates any future changes or new access needs and creates a closer relationship with the immediate surroundings.