The Indian and South Asian community has a multiple, diverse, and complex culture and history, so when an institution such as an Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) was proposed to be built in Singapore, it was clear that even if the building had to be emblematic as a cultural and community institution, its architectural expression could not easily appropriate any one formal specificity, and nor should it. Through a design competition organized jointly with the Singapore Institute of Architects, the National Heritage Board therefore made a call for ideas for a modern building– ‘an innovative and contemporary architectural design that is representative and respectful of Indian heritage’,
IHC would feature small-scale museum facilities as well as community and educational spaces and would be located on a tight triangular shaped site, nestled amongst the shop houses of the colourful, bustling Little India conservation district. The space requirement was for two large galleries housing the centre’s permanent collection, a special exhibition gallery for changing exhibitions, and an activity space for smaller groups that could be closed off when in use or opened up to complement the special exhibition gallery. The challenge was to maximise gallery and activity space, while keeping ancillary and back-of house areas to a functionally minimum size. The building also required Greenmark Gold rating, while meeting environmental control requirements in terms of gallery temperatures and relative humidity.
In Gaurang Khemka’s (URBNarc) and Robert Greg Shand’s winning design proposal, the form of the building is a direct response to the site and pays homage to Indian culture and heritage with a creative and contemporary solution.
The overall building form and architectural finishes form a backdrop of rational utilitarianism against which the centre’s programme, and other design detailing provide counterbalance. The palette is mainly concrete, granite, glass, steel, with teak and travertine. The galleries are conceptualized as repositories of calm and reflection, a respite that is juxtaposed with the intensity of the surrounding Little India. These internal spaces have the sense of being the dark, the deep, and the enclosed, which generated opposing opportunities for openness and externality. One is the externalisation of the vertical circulation by way of ‘façade staircases’, on the side facing Campbell Lane. The centre is designed as a living museum where visitors start at the 4th level and after viewing the interior gallery step out into this double skin volume where they can see the rich tapestry and urban environment of Little India before stepping back into the galleries at Level 3. This process repeats itself and the sequence of taking the visitor inside and outside makes this a truly urban building solution.
A key design reference for the facade is the Indian stepped well – specifically, the famous Chand Baori in India. The baori was a water catchment for the Abhaneri village in eastern Rajasthan. That it was also a community hub for the Abhaneri locals sets up the baori as an apt reference for the heritage centre. The cavernous well narrows towards its bottom, with steps built into the sides leading down to the water. The criss-crossing patterning of the double flights of steps is the main inspiration for the museum’s façade. The steel structure of the curtain wall glazing echoes the staircases behind, creating a unique and recognizable motif for the building. The composition of the curtain wall glazing and staircases form a three dimensional ‘jali’, the traditional Indian lattice screen, to modulate light, air, and views between the streetscape
and the galleries. The baori motif is further seen in other design details, such as the counter and columns, and the patterning on the pedestrian street in Campbell Lane.
Also central to the design is the mural concept, which turns the external side of the gallery wall into a large canvas. Together with the movement of people on the facade staircases, the mural energizes the building by way of creating a ‘living wall’. Integrated, the mural and facade create an immediate dialogue with the street and community. It may also be interesting to note how mural art (as opposed to artefacts in the galleries) further builds on the idea of private and public, and enclosure and externalization. It is such layering and integration that keeps the design effective, as the hard functionalism required of the building and site, the softer socio-cultural aspirations of the community, as well as the beauty of decoration come together to push the building towards a kind of Vitruvian ideal.
The experience of the Indian Heritage Centre is a stimulating and evocative journey, referencing the richly layered and multifaceted nature of Indian culture, from the colourful murals and dancing lights on the periphery to the peaceful inner sanctum of the galleries.
URBNarc was founded by Gaurang Khemka with a vision to design sustainable and complete environments – exceptional communities, places, spaces and buildings. Our expertise is designing for special situations where a unique historic, natural or urban environment requires a thoughtful and innovative solution using an integrated approach to Master Planning, Architecture, Landscape Design and Interior Design by bringing the best professionals and a global pool of talent together.
We won the global competition for designing The Singapore Indian Heritage Centre in collaboration with RGSA, completed in May 2015 and won the Singapore Institute of Architects 2015 award in the institutional category. We are also the architect and interior designer for Alila Seminyak, Indonesia. The 240 room, 5-star beach resort has won 3 International property awards for Design and Construction, is a finalist for the AHDA and WAF awards and also been accredited as a Green Hotel by Earth Check.