Singapore’s Victoria theatre is a cornerstone of the country’s colonial history – it served as a military hospital and a venue for war crimes trials but it is also a pivotal landmark in the young country’s self-image.
Its attenuated clocktower and dazzling white elevation faces the Padang, the city square that extends into a cricket pitch, its arches providing an arcade to shade against the fierce sun. But, despite its enduring image and its status as one of Singapore’s oldest and most familiar landmarks, the actual theatre it contained was lost to an unsuccessful 1950s rebuilding. Architect Mok Wei Wei of W Architects has rebuilt the theatre auditorium, restored the adjacent concert hall and also revived the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall as a multi-purpose public space for the city.
He has turned the building into a profoundly public space using memories of the architectural language and remnants of the physical history of the theatre. The lobby, an enclosed courtyard, now rises through the full height of the building and has been reanimated through replacing the dumb plastered walls which once formed one side by a simulacrum of the original elevations with the architectural details inscribed into the plaster. In reducing the Beaux Arts detailing to two dimensions, the memory of the language is retained but there is a clear distinction between what has been rebuilt and hat has been retained and restored. It is a magical and intelligent gesture of exquisite clarity.
The theatre itself is contained in a black box which lurks behind the white arcades and the auditorium interior is elegant but straightforward with a curving balcony. It is contained within a complex series of baffles which transpire to be based on shapes extruded from elements of the cast metal seating reused from the original auditorium. The chair backs and seats appear once more as a lining material defining the upstairs bar area, their original stencilled numbers and the scratches and dents of sixty years of use inscribed into their finish.
The new work has allowed the building to be pulled upwards, extending it by one further storey, a largely glazed level which brings light back down into the lobby/atrium. From the polished Venetian plaster of the stairs to the taut skin of terrazzo of the new surfaces, Mok Wei Wei has achieved a reconstruction of remarkable clarity and openness and made it a place in which history and familiarity are engrained in every element alongside a slick, cool modernity.