Architecture Art Interiors Public Institution

Brewin Design Office reimagines National Gallery Singapore’s historic Rotunda Library to house priceless archival collection

July 16, 2020

Singapore-based Brewin Design Office, led by design principal Robert Cheng, has designed the newly-converted Rotunda Library & Archive at the National Gallery Singapore, which houses a significant collection of historical archives that was originally housed in their Resource Centre.

When the collection began to reach the Resource Centre’s maximum capacity, a new location had to be identified to relocate the archives. The Gallery decided to renovate the Rotunda, which at the time was being used as an information gallery and viewing space for Gallery visitors, and repurpose it into a Library & Archive.

The Rotunda, a gazetted heritage space, is the ideal location for the new Library & Archive given its long history of being the iconic law library of the former Supreme Court for more than 50 years. The former Supreme Court building was the last classical building to be built in Singapore and its offices and courtrooms surrounded the library – the heart of the building, the historically significant central rotunda.

The brief for the conversion of the Rotunda into a Library & Archive was to design and build a state-of-the-art venue to a quality that is commensurate with its function as an art library that serves to inspire. It was to be timeless, refined, sensitive to existing site conditions while being respectful to the architecturally revered structure and adhering to National Heritage Board restrictions. It had to accommodate at least 10,000 titles for future development and expansion of the collection.

While the decision to move the research library collection to the Rotunda was made in early 2017, it was only after an extensive two-year search and rigorous selection process for the right design partner that Brewin Design Office was selected.

This is a significant project for the National Gallery Singapore as it is one of the most important arts institutions in Southeast Asia, overseeing the world’s largest public collection of modern art in Singapore and Southeast Asia, with a significant collection of artists’ archives, rare books, and publications on Southeast Asian art and cultural history, highly sought after by local and international art scholars for research. Art enthusiasts and other members of the public are now able to access what used to be a private resource library, being able to visit a space of historical importance, and being able to reference such an important collection of books.

The Rotunda Library & Archive comprises 20,000 physical and digital items, including rare publications, exhibition catalogues, ephemera and digital archives – one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of archival and reference resources on the 19th- and 20th-century Southeast Asian art.

The design and build process took nine months to complete and was a challenge due to the necessary preparations for safeguarding historical architecture, protecting the significance of the collection, yet allowing for greater visibility and accessibility to the public.  

The challenge for Brewin Design Office was to revive the Rotunda’s historical function, and create a space that is simultaneously contemporary and historical, harmonising new with old in a timeless and refined manner, with the gravitas and integrity befitting its status as the world’s largest and most important library for Southeast Asian art.

While the project had a strict brief on the areas of the Rotunda to conserve under the National Heritage Building guidelines, the design process leading up to the finalisation of concept design was heavily influenced by a deep level of historical research, comparing the existing space to other historical precedents with similar typologies such as the Pantheon and the Tempietto, and in understanding the existing interior architecture of the Rotunda when it was designed originally. The inherent spatial hierarchy of the Rotunda influenced the new programme layout of the Library & Archive, and kept the priority to retain and even highlight the impressive view towards the inner dome of the library from all usable interior angles as best as possible.  

Brewin Design Office worked with a combination of local and traditional international cabinet makers to fabricate joinery work with the best craftsmanship for the radial bookshelves placed in what originally was a circulatory zone. It was of paramount importance to work with a top international millworker to ensure we fabricated joinery pieces that were built to last, with the use of as much solid timber as possible. Original furniture such as quadrant reading tables, and display cabinets were retained and carefully restored, while new furniture such as shelving, study tables and chairs were designed and added.

See the full image gallery here:

Photos courtesy: Brewin Design Office

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