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School of the Arts by WOHA, Singapore

Three elevated teaching blocks give identity to the school on Singapore skyline

Hotel and resort design is generally looked down upon by an architectural fraternity that regards its tropes as superficial and its purpose as frivolous. But Singapore-based practice WOHA pursues an honourable tradition of climatically appropriate, tropical resort architecture. And in part, its approach amplifies the low-rise, low-density work of architects such as Sri Lankan Geoffrey Bawa or Australian Peter Muller in the 1970s.

The co-founding directors of WOHA, Richard Hassell (himself Australian) and Wong Mun Summ met while working on hotels in Kerry Hill’s Singapore office. Their skill has been to successfully adapt these antecedents into high-density urban projects.

In their most recently completed work, a $100 million (£60 million) School of the Arts (SOTA), the practice explores such themes in a public building for the visual and performing arts in the heart of Singapore.

The idea of Singaporean parents pushing their children to be hoofers and singers instead of doctors and businessmen would have been unthinkable until recently, but the aggressively capitalist city state has been reinventing itself in a bid to generate an indigenous creative class.

Among the fruits of this changing attitude are Michael Wilford’s durian-shaped Esplanade arts centre and Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands casino-hotel complex. Now the government has introduced its very own Fame Academy as part of its national arts strategy. SOTA lies in a gateway location between Orchard Road and the city’s arts and entertainment precinct.

School of the Arts by WOHA, Singapore

The building stands almost like a tripod, with the school itself hovering high in the air above ground-level theatres, and rises from a podium of stratified steps that act as an amphitheatre and a shaded meeting place beneath retained trees.

The lower, public elements concern communication and porosity, and are conceptualised as the ‘Backdrop’. The podium houses a concert hall, drama theatre, studio theatre and a number of small informal performance paces.

The secure, controlled environment of the classroom floors forms the ‘Blank Canvas’. Together, these elements cover a gross floor area of 53,000m2 on a 10,600m2 plot of land. ‘SOTA is not a conventional building with a solid mass, a curtain wall and an insipid entrance,’ says Wong.

‘It is an articulated mass full of voids and texture. It draws the urban environment and landscape into the building and is an exploration into creating a naturally ventilated building in a dense, tropical urban environment.’

The drama theatre auditorium is nested like a white egg within the school’s structural supports. Students travel up escalators to a six-storey void in order to reach their classrooms and the rooftop playground, with its 400m running track.

Sculptural spiral staircases made of steel blades by local shipbuilders give the impression of tap dancing between floors. At one point, the school cantilevers out, 15m into the tree canopy.
WOHA describes the ‘Backdrop’ as ‘a faceted sculptural space’, which frames the surrounding city views in fresh ways, as a metaphor for the school cultivating a creative way of looking at the world.

Internal spaces are dramatic angled volumes, recalling the expressionist interiors of the 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. They are treated in rough coloured concrete cast from recycled formwork for angled surfaces, contrasted against smooth-painted, vertical surfaces.

Designed for purposes of display, the smooth surfaces play off more chiselled finishes, which are inspired by Michelangelo’s famously rough-hewn Captives sculptures.

These public areas, which double as external pre-performance foyers, are designed around an urban short-cut, maintaining a busy informal pedestrian route that used to cut across an empty site leading from the underground railway station at Dhoby Ghaut.

Now along this route sit display areas and informal performance and gallery spaces, allowing the public to learn about the activities and productions of the school. In a grittier city, this kind of open building, with its Neo-Brutalist concrete canyons, would be ripe for an instant graffiti-fest and ideal for lurking muggers, but in orderly Singapore it is a legitimate strategy.

SOTA has three main performance venues: the black-box studio theatre with 200 retractable seats has a box-in-box construction to minimise vibration and airborne noise. Interiors are matt black off-form concrete walls with blackened steel balustrades.

School of the Arts by WOHA, Singapore

Source: Patrick Bingham Hall

School of the Arts by WOHA, Singapore

The drama theatre, with a capacity for 423 people, fronts a traditional proscenium stage. A pair of spiral staircases connect the stage with the fly tower, lighting bridges and all levels of seating. Layered curved walls in Venetian red and steel mesh panels are further animated by the randomly pixelated shades of the fabric seats.

Seating 560 people, the music auditorium is similarly a box-in-box construction. Upper walls are formed out of rows of mustard-coloured precast concrete pillows, with solid white oak on the splayed inner lower walls. A motorised choir stall moves up and down stage, and provides an additional 148 audience seats for concerts-in-the-round.

The ‘Blank Canvas’ is, says WOHA, a metaphor to suggest ‘the open possibilities and focus on the educational content rather than the architectural frame’. These school levels are controlled through a single point of access (lift core and escalator), yet visually connected from all the circulation spaces, to the public areas below.

Classrooms and studios are naturally ventilated and each space has openings to the external wall and to the voids, which splits the main building. The planted facades, situated on a grid inspired by a musical score, provide environmental filters, cut out glare and dust, keep the rooms cool and, along with the acoustic ceilings, absorb traffic noise.

WOHA spends a lot of time ensuring that its buildings catch breezes and offer shelter from the sometimes merciless heat. The practice’s dictums eschew high-tech environmental solutions. ‘The most elegant solution is the simplest and what can go wrong will go wrong,’ says Hassell.

‘People are interested in their own comfort and would rather pull a blind down in their own house than have little motors whirring away.’

WOHA’s recurring motifs, such as the layered meshes, screens and multi-storey slots scooped out of their buildings, are less of an aesthetic signature than finding forms that prove their environmental value.

‘We are happy to re-use an idea if it works, but if you have a house style your innovation is over and you are trapped,’ says Hassell.

Influences that extend beyond the tropical zone are as wide as Paul Rudolph, who also built towers in South East Asia; and Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, whose ecclesiastical architecture hovered in the wings of WOHA’s almost Nordic Church of St Mary of the Angels at a Singaporean monastery.

The textile tradition of the region is an additional source of inspiration: geometric, abstract and, like WOHA’s architecture, constructed of layers. The current fad for biomimetic architecture is, believes Hassell, just the latest version of a long-proven approach, exemplified by the vernacular architecture of the tropical zones and adopted by a critical regionalist mode of modernism that soon followed.

‘Every architect in history has said they are influenced by nature. My worry is over-complication; our buildings are essentially dumb,’ concludes Hassell. Dumb maybe, but SOTA still sings.

Architect WOHA, Singapore
Structural and Civil Engineer WorleyParsons
Landscape Architect Cicada Private
Mechanical and Electrical Engineer Lincolne Scott
Main Contractor Tiong Aik Construction

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