When branding studio Somewhere Else was commissioned to transform Singapore’s oldest architecture journal into “the architect’s magazine,” there was one major rule: photographs were barred from the journal’s cover and kept small inside.
This principle was set out by The Singapore Architect’s new editor Hoo Cheong Fong, who believes that only fools think about architecture through photographs.
Under different editors and designers over the last five decades, this publication put out by the Singapore Institute of Architects had become too “commercial” instead of “craft-based” for the newly-appointed Fong, an architect by training, and his editorial team. “The way they presented architecture unfortunately was not through the eyes of how an architect presents architecture,” he explains.
Much attention has been given to The National Gallery’s architecture and collection, but less so are the equally beautiful exhibition catalogues and publications coming out from Singapore’s latest arts destination. While printed books may seem archaic in today’s digital world, they remain the best medium—for now—to allow visitors to take home the vivid artworks they encounter during their visits to the museum.
This was struck me after encountering Somewhere Else’s design for Seeing the Kites Again, a publication showcasing the expressive calligraphic strokes of artist Wu Guanzhong. The different paper types, the custom typography, and considered layout all come together to produce a handsome publication worthy of this artist.
The studio led by Yong has also produced an equally evocative pair of books for Wu’s Beauty Beyond Form and artist Chua Ek Kay’s After the Rain.
Holding up the National Gallery’s two inaugural exhibitions on Singapore and Southeast Asian art respectively, both covering the 19th century to present, is a modern frame designed by H55 Studio. In creative director Hanson Ho’s typical restrained and minimal approach, Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th century(Malay for “What is your name?”) is reduced to a single line to be filled in, while Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th centuryhas its title visualised with Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar’s statement on the gap between the desire for national independence and its achievement in political terms debossed onto the cover.
Besides the catalogues, the National Gallery has also made an effort to produce research titles and children’s publications. The former is best represented by a collection of essays on arts and culture by pioneering Nanyang artist Liu Kang, elegantly packaged by The Press Room in a gold, black and white reader.
Of the many titles that have given Singapore illustrators the chance to introduce art to children, Warm Nights, Deathless Days,Sonny Liew’s take on artist Georgette Chen that comes in a thoughtful design of ampulets is a standout.
Chye Seng Huat Hardware used to be a neighborhood hardware store in Jalan Besar. Today it serves Third Wave coffee. This conversion is symbolic of how rapidly this industrial area has changed. Together with the design-store-cum-craft- workshop space The General Co above the café, the building has become a landmark of Jalan Besar’s retooling by Singapore’s emerging creative economy.
Just two metro stops east of Singapore’s historic center, City Hall, or a 15-minute drive from the picturesque Marina Bay waterfront, Jalan Besar was swampland that developed as the former colonial town expanded in the late nineteenth century. First home to mills, abattoirs, and brick kilns, the area evolved in the twentieth century with an industrial community that built rows of Art Deco shop houses still standing today. Many have now been creatively repurposed.
Since Chye Seng Huat (which means “to flourish”) opened two summers ago, the neighborhood has percolated with a slew of cafés and creative outfits. Affordable rents at the city’s edge are the draw, but so is the history, culture, and grit. New establishments are nestled amid traditional kopitiams (coffee shops) and workshops left over from Singapore’s yesteryear. At night, the neighborhood features a lively mix of supper spots and dodgy karaoke bars—Little India’s 24-hour Mustafa Centre shopping mall is just a short walk away.
Flanked by the four-lane Jalan Besar (Malay for “big road”) and Rochor River, this neighborhood is a kind of drip-coffee cone, filtering a creative brew into Singapore’s commercial and cultural center. Will it last? By the end of the year, Lavender Food Square Centre, Jalan Besar’s iconic late-night food emporium since the 1980s, will make way for a commercial development that real estate agents are already promoting as “hip.”