Old meets new in design centre

SINGAPORE - The former home of the Chinese Opera Institute has gained a new lease of life - and a new look - as the National Design Centre.

At first glance, the new centre looks unchanged. Its three pre-war Art Deco blocks and one post-war modern block have been conserved, leaving the facade largely as it was.

Closer inspection, however, reveals that this is not the case. On the ground floor, some of the solid white walls give way to clear glass panels, allowing passers-by to look into a design gallery.

The new entrance, too, has a decidedly modern touch, featuring a black wall adorned with only the block letters, "National Design Centre 111 Middle Road".

Mr Chan Soo Khian, 52, principal architect of SCDA Architects, which won the tender to design the centre after an open call in 2011, says: "The industrial look was intended to provide a contrast from the conserved Art Deco buildings, illustrating clarity of old versus new."

Inside the 7,900 sq m building, the contrast between old and new continues.

Upon entering the atrium, visitors are greeted by the old walls of the building, complete with religious iconography from the time the building was used as St Anthony's Convent from 1894 to 1995. It housed the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1995 to 2004, and the opera institute till 2009.

Standing out in the space, which otherwise looks like an office building, are four overlapping translucent boxes. The boxes, made of a structural framework for concrete slabs with glass enclosures and finished with expanded aluminium mesh screens, are of different sizes. They create an asymmetrical effect unlike that of the blocks flanking it.

"The idea is that the insertions are pulled away from the existing facade, further separating the new and the old," says Mr Chan. "It's an intuitive form of response to have a design that is enough to activate the space yet subtle enough not to overpower it."

In the auditorium, triangular folding structures on the ceiling do not obscure the existing murals of religious figures on the walls, another carryover from the building's days as St Anthony's Convent.

Mr Chan says the folding structures, made of steel with an expanded aluminium mesh screen, "create interest... yet reveal the existing texture of the building".

Even in the courtyard, the industrial-looking fire escape coexists with the building's original windows.

Mr Chan says he and his team of architects faced challenges balancing conservation with innovation.

Initially, they wanted the stacking boxes to be seen from outside the building as well, so that the boxes could be an icon for the design centre.

To do this, they would have had to replace the external walls with glass panels. But conservation regulations mandated that the existing windows be kept, so the plan was shelved.

Mr Jeffrey Ho, 47, executive director of DesignSingapore Council, emphasises that the National Design Centre is a design centre rather than a gallery.

"The centre will be the nexus for all things design. It is a one-stop resource hub for designers, clients of design, enterprises as well as the public."

There will be a Design Thinking and Innovation Academy that provides training on design thinking methods to enterprises and designers, as well as a programme for children. There will also be a prototyping lab run by a private vendor, a design resource centre and the IDA Labs.

The labs will open in the second quarter of this year to designers, enterprises and members of the public. The equipment there can be used to build prototypes and test new ideas.

A design advisory will give businesses details on the assistance programmes and schemes provided by the council. Spaces on the second, third and fifth levels will be rented out to design businesses.

For the public, there are design galleries on the first and second floors - one with rotating exhibitions and another permanent one featuring works by Singaporean designers. There are also plans to hold public talks, seminars and film screenings on design at the auditorium on the second floor.

A soon-to-be-opened design concept store Kapok will also operate a cafe on the ground floor.

With its new design and facilities, the centre looks set to be "a key node in the design eco- system", as Mr Ho says.

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