From the rooftop of Singapore’s National Gallery, looking out towards the towers of Marina Bay Sands, silhouetted by sullen, lowering skies, the cityscape looks like an eccentric architect’s vision for a futuristic utopia. Over there’s the Esplanade: the waterfront performing arts centre that’s affectionately known locally as ‘the durian’ for it’s prickly domed shell. Beyond, at the foot of the Marina Bay towers is the ArtScience Museum, which mimics the form of a lotus flower, it’s petals splayed upwards towards the sky; and behind that, the jagged roof of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which resemble the back of a vast dragon.
To the left are the ‘supertrees’ of Gardens by the Bay – gigantic metal frames sprouting vegetation like some sort of Avatar-inspired alternate universe – and the glass roofs of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, the world’s two largest greenhouses. On my right, a collection of magnificent white colonial buildings with terracotta tiled roofs comprising the Victoria Theatre, Singapore Cricket Club and the Fullerton Bay Hotel sit below the contemporary glass towers of modern Singapore. It’s wild and eclectic, but it somehow fits together, everything in its right place.
A low rumble interrupts my reverie and the cricketers on the lawn below quickly drag a tarpaulin over the pitch as the rain begins to pummel the earth. Framed by the overhanging roof, the heavy rain begins to blur the scene, rendering it not quite real. Life becomes art. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but art in all its forms has permeated life in Singapore: rich artistic traditions dating back to 19th century colonial times and innovative architecture where form and function find perfect harmony. It’s evident in the thoughtful way in which the city has grown up around its heritage buildings; leftovers from the colonial era when Singapore was under British rule, from 1819 to 1959.
The National Gallery itself, which opened in November 2015 after a major overhaul of two existing heritage buildings – the former City Hall and the former Supreme Court – is a case in point. Local design firm studioMilou has fused the two buildings by conjoining them with a metal and glass cloak, under which huge metal ‘roots’ trail down from the ceiling to the ground, creating an indoor plaza. It’s an organic and fantastical transformation; a wonderfully creative architectural evolution that serves to blur the lines between indoors and out; old and new.
The gallery’s remarkable collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art documents the social, political and artistic history of the region, with works from Singaporean artists such as Lim Hak Tai, Chua Mia Tee and Georgette Chen; and regional artists including Chuah Thean Teng (Malaysia), Raden Saleh (Indonesia) and Juan Luna (Philippines). Big issues like the disillusionment felt towards colonial rule in the 1950s and the blurring of traditional Peranakan (mainland Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia) and Western cultures in the 1970s, tell an often untold tale of life in Singapore, which sets the scene nicely for a few days in the city.
Singapore is full of artistic and architectural transformations. Before arriving at the gallery, I checked into Capella Singapore on Sentosa Island, formerly the quarters of British Royal Artillery officers posted to Singapore, which was lovingly converted into a luxury hotel by Foster + Partners. Two late nineteenth century colonial buildings were restored, then Lord Foster devised a new wing, contemporary and geometric, which swoops out from either side of the heritage buildings and arcs around to meet itself in the middle, forming a giant B-shape. That playful contrast of old and new seems to define Singapore’s image as a city.
The self-styled urban resort is peppered with art: on the lawn directly in front of the hotel, what looks at first like a collection of twisted steel bars is The Arcs, a sculpture by French sculptor and conceptual artist Bernar Venet, which seems to echo the topography of Sentosa Island, whose steep slopes, or knolls, roll down to the waters of the South China Sea. Some key pieces from the resort’s 900-piece art collection can be found in the corridor outside the ballroom and business centre, where works by Takeshi Kawashima, Markus Linnenbrink and Singapore-based Yeo Siak Goon make this feel at times more like a modern art gallery than a hotel.
Capella Singapore’s 112 villas and suites are decked out in dark woods, neutral tones and shades of green that complement the 30-acres of tropical grounds outside; the work of the late Indonesian designer Jaya Ibrahim, whose vernacular style can be seen all across Asia in resorts flying the flags of Aman, Alila, Four Seasons and Jumeirah, among others.
During breakfast at The Knolls, which overlooks three cascading swimming pools that spill down the hillside, peacocks strut by, showing off their colourful plumage and cooing to each other, adding the final brushstroke to an already perfect picture. One can’t help but wonder if their daily performance was observed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, who met at the hotel in mid-June for the historic Singapore Summit.
FUNCTION AND FORM
Back at the National Gallery, the rain’s coming down hard, and Marina Bay Sands disappears behind the clouds. At 55 storeys tall, the 12,400 sqm SkyPark is one of the highest spots in the city. The infinity pool on top is perhaps the most Instagrammed in the world, and it’s two restobars – Spago by Wolfgang Puck and LAVO – draw the city’s beautiful people like moths to a flame. But the SkyPark’s role is not just aesthetic.
More than 500 solar panels on the roof generate 150,000 kW of electricity per year, and a garden of 700 trees absorbs sunlight and heat, keeping the building cool. At ground level too, form has function. In the Shoppes mall, the Rain Oculus installation created by US artist Nad Kahn is a kinetic sculpture that’s fed in part by rainwater, which pours through the giant orb and into the Shoppes, where it is collected and used in the mall’s canals and bathrooms.
Form finds function and art comes to life, completing the cycle that artists and architects have set out to master in Singapore. Whether driven by the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, motivated by ideological struggles or empowered to breathe new life into old spaces, these creators have helped build a city that’s both inspiring and inspired.
1 The Knolls, Sentosa Island, Singapore
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