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Singapore’s new National Design Centre by SCDA Architects is a handsome edifice set in the arts district of Bras Basah writes Iliyas Ong.


National Design Centre

In the arts district of Singapore sits an all-white cluster of low-rises whose preserved architecture and long history belies its current use: as the city’s National Design Centre (NDC).

Found along Middle Road, the 2,920sqm centre is spread across four blocks—three are pre-war Art Deco and one is post-war modern—that used to house the Saint Anthony’s Convent and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. It’s a slice of history that stands in contrast to the centre’s future-minded mission: to be a design hub that assists businesses in driving innovation and productivity.

National Design Centre

But SCDA Architects, the firm that worked on the project, sees its design as complementing the original site. “The execution is a sensitive introduction of the new without imposing on the old,” says Chan Soo Khian, Principal of SCDA. “The old and new are clearly expressed so that the language and play of conservation are obvious to all.”

As conservation guidelines prevented the architects from significantly changing the facade, they gutted the interiors instead. The floorplan was kept straightforward: the five-storey Block D hosts the offices of the DesignSingapore Council, gallery spaces, libraries, training rooms, studios, and a design shop. The remaining three blocks (A, B and C) will be leased out to tenants or have yet-unplanned uses.


Chan and his team made do with a few small tweaks to the facade. Two outer walls of the first floor swap concrete for glass, and an angled entrance at the corner of Block D lends the structure a contemporary personality. According to the architect, the entrance also functions as a public thoroughfare through which passers-by can step into the world of Singapore design. “The intention was to be very porous,” explains Chan.

Inside, visitors will first notice the NDC’s sober colour palette: wide expanses of grey, white and silver from the glass and aluminium. The first floor atrium, previously open, is now covered by a glass ceiling that acts as a sculptural skylight to illuminate what will soon be a gallery space for travelling exhibitions.

National Design Centre

The most striking feature in Block D are four cantilevering and overlapping ‘boxes’, caged in perforated aluminium, that hang above the first floor and extend to the ceiling. The boxes create a three-storey-high internal void whose sheer volume contradicts the crisp sections of the facade. But Chan reveals that his original concept was to position them externally: “We would have liked to allow these four boxes to be seen from the inside and the outside.”

The boxes also perform the NDC’s role of fostering collaboration between tenants and visitors. A staircase in one box links the atrium to the upper floors to encourage visitors to explore the meeting rooms and staff lounges located upstairs. Large, purpose-built furniture are situated in other open areas in the NDC—so a businessman poring through his notes from a design thinking course can interact with an industrial designer taking a break from studio work.

The biggest gulf between old and new within the NDC is in the former chapel in Block D. SCDA had to preserve the Catholic reliefs that deck the walls, but those angels now watch over the terraced seats in what is earmarked to be an auditorium. The high ceiling also remains, albeit with something of a modern-day fresco: an aluminium installation whose faceted form echoes that of the skylight.

The auditorium is a succinct metaphor for SCDA’s philosophy on adapting heritage buildings. Says Chan, “We have done projects where we have left walls in a state of decay so that the language and perfection comes from what we are trying to do ourselves rather than trying to change what exists.”

SCDA Architects

Catch Cubes Indesign’s coverage, including an interview with Chan Soo Khian and DesignSingapore Council Executive Director Jeffrey Ho, in issue 66, out soon at newsstands.

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