Mok Wei Wei of W Architects talks to Ross Logie about the challenges of upgrading the oldest performing arts venue in Singapore to meet 21st Century expectations.
On initial reading, the brief for the refurbishment of Singapore’s oldest performing arts venue seems straightforward. Firstly, the architects were to properly restore the existing building, a designated National Monument. Secondly, they were to design performance spaces suitable for the 21st Century. Yet, as Mok Wei Wei, Director of W Architects found, there were “inherent conflicts between the objectives – space constraint being one.”
The award-winning local firm has completed several conservation projects, most notably the National Museum of Singapore. However, unlike that museum, where the new spaces were designed as an extension to the existing heritage building, at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the existing neo-classical envelope was to be retained and all new development to be contained within its footprint.
The existing venue consisted of twin auditoria, for theatrical and concert performances. They were poorly connected to each other and needed significant upgrading. The concert hall was to be renovated and the theatre to be demolished and reconstructed. In collaboration with theatre consultant, Arup, a strategy was established for the layout, with an early decision made that the capacity of both halls would be reduced. The theatre now has 614 seats compared to 900 and the concert hall capacity is reduced from 883 to 673 seats.
The key planning concept is the reconstruction of the passage between the halls as a generous, central atrium, flooded with natural light from above. “We wanted to restore the flow of movement,” Mok explains. However, the passage was used as the loading bays and open service yard for both venues. Whilst this yard separated the two parts of the building, impeding flow, there were obvious functional advantages to having the yard serve both sides. To open up the space as a public thoroughfare, the loading bays were relocated to a dedicated zone adjacent to the stage. Back-of-house connections to the concert hall are made via a wide, hidden passage connecting the freight lift to the concert hall at second floor level.
Incorporating additional accommodation needed for state-of-the-art performance spaces whilst respecting the existing architectural fabric proved challenging. Constructing a basement under the restored concert hall would have been unfeasible but the theatre, which had been somewhat carelessly rebuilt in the 1950s was to be demolished and replaced, allowing two full basement levels below. Some of the artist’s rooms and public washrooms are located there. Mok admits it is not ideal for performers to negotiate changes in levels but the integrity of the historic building is nonetheless maintained.
The opportunity to reconstruct the theatre also allowed the designers to raise the roof level, matching the roof level of the concert hall. The additional volume under the roof houses the new dance studio.
Integrating old and new, public and non-public, within the constraints of a much-loved monument provoked and challenged W Architects. “We were inspired by the dialogue between different parts of the building from different times and within close proximity,” Mok confirms. It takes ingenuity, constraint and a good deal of collaboration with expert consultants to satisfy all the requirements and still manage to design an architecture that is as composed and harmonious as the Haydn Sinfonia performed on opening night. Thankfully, W Architects have achieved this.
Cubes Indesign will be covering a more extensive feature on the Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall in its upcoming Oct/Nov issue. Watch for it.