Travel in the age of COVID-19: Singapore’s National Gallery

I’m feeling that travel options are closing in now that the new age of COVID-19 has arrived. It’s quite formidable when you consider the implications of travelling to a place where medical costs are really high: a fortnight of isolation in the US or Japan could cost your life savings. At the time of writing this, overseas travel looks like it will be very restricted or impossible for the next few months, so here’s the tale of a last hurrah in Singapore.

Singapore night skyline: ArtScience building in the foreground.

Latest trip was to Singapore, booked last year, before Coronavirus was on the horizon. Travelling by plane is a task filled with stress these days, given that hygiene and cleanliness should be a high priority to all passengers and airport authorities. It seems that not many Australians have got the message, as the toilets & facilities in Melbourne International Airport were a disgrace: tables in the fast food outlets were filled with rubbish with greasy stains from previous customers. The airport toilets had run out of soap dispenser. It was good to be going to Singapore, where cleanliness is a national sport.

The 8 hour flight from Melbourne to Singapore on Emirates EK405 was really enjoyable, as the flight was only 25% full. Economy class recliners for every passenger. When arriving in Singapore, we were greeted by uniformed personnel who manned serious looking thermo imaging devices as we meekly walked pass. Phew!! Not sure what I’d do if I got pulled aside. It was great to have the perception of safety and security through technology fighting the coronavirus. The adults are in charge in Singapore and taking things quite seriously.

View of famous landmarks in Singapore from the National Gallery rooftop garden: Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Place skyline.

As a major hub for travellers, Singapore is going through a very rough patch with COVID-19 – lucrative incoming tourist trade from China has dried up as Chinese nationals are no longer permitted into the country. Steps are being taken to boost travel experiences in the city, for those who can go there. The National Gallery of Singapore waived entrance fees, presumably in an effort to get people out of isolation. We took advantage of this, and were quite surprised that the gallery was still relatively quiet.

Interior atrium in one of the entrance halls to the National Gallery of Singapore

In terms of architectural experiences, the National Gallery of Singapore is really impressive. The gallery is large and immaculate. It occupies two British colonial buildings, being the Supreme Court and City Call. These buildings were constructed in classical Greek/Roman style in 1939 and 1929 respectively on a prominent site next to a lush grass square. When these civic functions were moved in 2005 to new sites, a large project commenced for the construction of a national gallery over 10 years, designed by the French firm, Studio Milou Architects.

Old City Hall facades go indoors at the National Gallery.

The result is a very open, light filled complex that retains the austere beauty of the original buildings, but with fresh new walkways and covered atriums linking the buildings and creating new spaces underground and overhead. The total area is 64,000 square metres, across a wide range of interior spaces.

The classical old buildings have been beautifully restored with open access to the public. Highlights include checkered floors in the former Supreme Court foyer, grand staircases with windows looking over the green square and long corridors with huge ionic columns. Facades of the buildings now look over a large internal atrium with modern steel bridges and glass walls. There is a labyrinth of airy tunnels underneath the site, with cool gallery spaces, including old jail cells that were used to house accused criminals prior to the their court appearance.

As you ascend further through the gallery spaces, new modern structures and open spaces rise above the old British colonial buildings. There’s an expansive interior space above the dome of the Supreme Court: this dome includes an impressive classical sculpture of the personification of Justice, by Florentine sculptor Augusto Martelli. Finally, new rooftop spaces are now open to the public, with a couple of restaurants, rectagular courtyards and a lush tropical garden, where you get great views over the skyline of central Singapore. It’s also quite a dramatic place to be when tropical storms roll into Singapore – as happened on our late afternoon visit.

As I was moving through these old buildings, it was interesting to reflect on how significant historical events in Singapore happened in these grand buildings. Shortly after the Supreme Court was completed used by the British administration from 1939, both buildings were used by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945 during World War II. In September 1945, Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese in the City Hall building. Additionally, Singapore’s most famous leader and prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew was first sworn into office in 1959 within these walls.

This is a place I probably would not have visited if it wasn’t for COVID-19, as I’m way too tight to pay over $20 to visit an art gallery. It’s worth reflecting that we all may have new experiences and opportunities that arise during our COVID-19 journey. There may be more movies and book reading at home, but hopefully we’ll still be able to do some local travel.

View of Peninsula Plaza from the rooftop of the National Gallery of Singapore as an afternoon tropical storm rolls through the city.

Getting there and away: National Gallery of Singapore is within a 5 minute walk of City Hall MRT station in Singapore. It’s also really close to the Funan Digitalife Mall, which is highly recommended for computer & technology shops and great food options.

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