Singapore’s National Design Center is finally living up to its name. In the city-state’s cultural district of Bras Basah Bugis, SCDA Architects recently restored and converted a group of three prewar Art Deco buildings and one postwar modern building that now serves as the home of the center, which is a promoter and incubator of the region’s burgeoning design culture.
Once a convent school, the complex has been adapted to contain lecture rooms and galleries, offices, classrooms, and basic design and prototyping facilities. One of the most poetic displays of complexity spans the breadth of the formal, 46-foot-by-30-foot chapel, which SCDA founder Soo K. Chan, Intl. Assoc. AIA, turned into an auditorium. Above visitors’ heads, a creased aluminum-mesh skin envelops the chapel’s 29.5-foot-tall ceiling, providing visual interest that is simultaneously sculptural, industrial, and abstracted.
The pleated mesh panels fold together like an origami screen. The triangular surfaces dip and rise almost 2 feet, framing historical details such as the restored religious reliefs that ring the upper walls and former altar, and hiding the mechanical, electrical, and audiovisual services.
Chan and his team designed the ceiling using Trimble SketchUp, Autodesk 3ds Max, AutoCAD, and other programs. Extensive on-site discussions and adjustments were required to ensure the mesh would fit the existing building like a glove. The screens anchor into a steel portal frame, which is subsequently bolted to concrete ceiling beams. The connectors allow the screens, which are also pinned to each other, to move as the building settles irregularly on its foundation, as it has since its completion in 1929.
The most challenging aspect of building the auditorium, which took 18 months, was the need to accommodate the grid-based framework within walls that were not parallel. All steel framing had to be carefully assembled on-site to ensure that the support structure would not appear off-grid. So the team mounted the framework diagonally to create the illusion that both sides of the room run parallel—“an illusion that everything aligns,” says SCDA designer Darren Yio.
Local contractor Lai Yew Seng used off-the-shelf, 100-millimeter-by-100-millimeter and 200-millimeter-by-100-millimeter steel square hollow sections (SHS), wide-flanged beams, 50-millimeter-by-50-millimeter angles and powdercoated, expanded aluminum mesh screens with 40-millimeter-wide-by-10-millimeter-tall hexagonal openings. The screens were custom cut on-site into the trianglular pattern to fit the existing conditions of the historical building, and are between approximately 24 and 95 inches tall, and up to 24 inches wide.
LED strips affix to the standard steel channels within the framework. Though the designers specified the mesh to allow air to circulate from the mechanical infrastructure at the ceiling, Chan says, the finish also boosts the auditorium’s acoustics.