What’s that in the cover photo? No, it is probably not a UFO parked on an office building. The official story, if you believe it, is that the dome is the symbolic crescendo for the new Supreme Court and the focus of today's post. For today, you can expect me to go into the research behind the building’s history and symbolic intent.
Building the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of Singapore was commissioned in 2000 and completed in 2005. The nine-story structure contains 77,609 square meters split among a large diversity of uses at a cost of nearly S$200 million. The building’s exterior is distinctive enough. The walls are made of glazed stone panels, a laminate of stone and glass, set in aluminum cassettes. These panels allow for daylight to diffuse into the interior, while glowing orange at night.
As early as the drafting of the building, there was an understanding that the footprint of the building may require expansion. So, if you’re the next door neighbor of the courts, the Adelphi shopping mall, you may want to keep this in mind.
Along with a variety of amenities, the building contains fourteen civil courts, eight criminal courts, and three courts of appeal (source). They are distributed across the building by level of significance to the legal system. The civil courts, being the lowest and most common, are closer to the base. The highest court in the land, the court of appeals, is appropriately placed at the pinnacle of the dome. Below this court is a public-access observation deck.
Foster + Partners designed the building with PWD Consultants Pte Ltd collaborating as the local architects. The firm’s pedigree, a pioneer in neo-futurism, might be described as melding mid-century visionaries with 21st-century engineering, creating sensational designs with otherwise-ubiquitous materials. Suzanne Labarre writing for Fast Company described their own impression of the firm’s products, writing, “a Foster building suggests aspiration and a masculine kind of glamour, one that projects an image of power no wildly artistic Frank Gehry or excruciatingly thoughtful Renzo Piano building can match” (source).
“Located in Singapore’s Colonial District, the Supreme Court takes cues from the scale of the neighbouring civic buildings, reinterpreting their colonial vernacular to convey an image of dignity, transparency, and openness” (Vol. 1, pg 264).
According to Foster + Partners, the design’s goal was to prepare the court system to prepare for the future. “The new state-of-the-art facilities will equip Singapore's legal system for the demands of the twenty-first century, providing flexibility for future advances and expansion” (source).
The interior of the building is defined by escalators as well, a fact I can’t demonstrate with my own photographs, but I bring this up because I found the explanation superbly interesting. For Foster, the escalator is a matter of social infrastructure, as they are significantly better a facilitating social engagement than an elevator. “On an escalator they look around and talk to their companions--it is a social rather than a solitary experience, escalators in a building can create a sense of openness and community” (Vol. 2, pg 78).
The Meaning of the Floating Dome
Foster’s book ascribes great influence from his mentor Buckminster Fuller when discussing the design of the court. The significance of Fuller is here is as a contrarian whose design flipped the understanding of what a dome could be in architecture. While the dome has been historically defined as a symbol of heavy strength and support, Foster states, “...it was [Buckminster] Fuller who showed us how instead the dome could be a thing of lightness” (Vol. 2, pg 68). Rather than having the dome support the courts from the top-down, one gets the sense that the base is responsible for keeping the Court of Appeals tethered to the ground.
The new Supreme Court’s dome is a direct response to the dome of the old Supreme Court. It flipped the idea of what a dome needs to be, and it challenged what is necessary to command authority. The new design is an anticolonialist masterpiece designed by an architect who came from the very nation that had once imposed the colonial tyranny.
If those steel trusses dare break, off might fly one of Singapore’s best public observation decks!
Regarding the Court of Appeals, I hope to impress upon you just how intertwined the legacy of Singapore’s courts are with their colonial past with just one anecdote. The court of appeals is the highest court in Singapore’s legal system, but it was not actually in Singapore until 1994. This was because the court of appeals throughout the 19th century and up until 1994 was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a statutory committee established in 1833 by the British Empire to rule over their colonies. This new building was commissioned just six years after Singapore shook that colonial vestige. That dome is the first courtroom purpose-built for the nation’s court of appeals.
“The courts of appeal the highest courts in the land occupy the highest part of the building, and are symbolically raised above the legal and civil courts in a dramatic metal disc” (source).
An unintentional interpretation of the building’s design is that of a building which looks outwards with ease, but betrays little about its interiors. While the observation deck provides sound views, it is a difficult building to look into in a meaningful way, and especially into the top floor. It was not until I was literally at the front door of the building that I could glimpse a section of the interior.
The building personified the tenants at the core of the panopticon. The panopticon started as a rotunda concept for the design of a prison that centralizes in the role of surveillance by obfuscating the guard from the prisoners. The belief is that since the imprisoned can not determine if he is being watched, he will be cautious and assume that he is. For this reason, Foster’s design for the dome can be interpreted as a symbol for Singapore’s surveillance state.
Final Thoughts, Its Non-Commanding Presence
As a final personal observation about the building, I want to share my feelings about its lack of grandeur. While the disc-like dome makes an impression, it is hardly as commanding as the Neoclassical Supreme Court it replaced. The new court is an appropriate turning point for Singapore's government architecture, respecting its colonial neighbors but not emulating their imposing stature. The building implies its authority through materiality. For a Supreme Court, it blends in nicely with the urban fabric.
Yeah, You Can Go Inside!
The building is indeed open to the public, including schools, children, and tourists. While a dress code is actively enforced, there is no fee to enter the building and go to the suspended dome’s observation deck (info). One major stipulation is that photography is not permitted, and if caught it will result in phone confiscation. So, unfortunately, I do not have not interior photographs to share with you today.
Conclusion for the Week
Now you may have noticed that this week’s unintentional theme has been colonialism in architecture. I did not mean for this to happen, but it just keeps on coming back up! My hope is that the perspective of colonialism in architecture from a country which had been a colony not long ago is a refreshing perspective for the scale of the consequences of the reckless and immoral policy of economic domination.