Built in 1879, Freemasons’ Hall on Coleman Street has been the meeting place for Freemasons in Singapore for over 120 years. Outgrowing its facilities, the headquarters had undergone several expansions in the past. By tracing the chronological development of Freemasons’ Hall, the design team’s aim was to develop a proposal that preserved the layers of history. The existing two-storey building comprises a restaurant and a bar on the ground storey, and two assembly halls and a museum on the second storey. The refurbishment incorporates the existing structure as well as expanding it to further include offices, a kitchen, and function and meeting rooms in a three-storey rear extension.
The design team believed that the aim of restoration was not just for aesthetic conservation, but also to preserve and reframe the rich heritage of the different historical periods in today’s contemporary context. Importantly, the history had to be maintained and respected while the building was revitalised to meet current needs. Thus, an important part of the scheme was the preservation of the side verandas. Even though they were not part of the original building in 1879, the verandas have been a recognisable feature in the memory of the Freemasons for over 90 years. The concept design envisioned two transparent wings physically connected but seemingly detached from the original structure. Hence, new wings with pronounced recessions at the intersection were created.
The new extension, similar in height to the existing structure, connects to the old building via a link bridge on the second storey and through a new extended basement. The rear extension is sympathetic to the scale of the existing buildings.
To ensure the preserved building becomes the focus, the new structure was designed as a secondary backdrop and wrapped in tinted glass. A radical departure from the heavy shell of the original structure, it is light and transparent. An open-air void between the old and the new structure continues from the courtyard to the top of the building, bringing daylight into the courtyard. The transitional space creates an exceptional moment in the complex, celebrating the imprints of different periods, and at the same time draws attention to the juxtaposition of the new and old structures.
The reconstruction of the conserved building took cues from the original fabric. The important historical elements on the façade, such as concealed mouldings, columns and capitols, circular and semi-circular windows, were retained to display the building’s rich and varied history. Thus, the final façade of Freemasons’ Hall is composed of elements dating from different periods, serving as a juxtaposition of styles combined with the continuity of usage for more than a century.
Uniting the old and new into a coherent landmark, the design team fully utilised the existing spatial quality with as little change as possible to the built form while revitalising the building for modern use. The aesthetic intention was not to impose a modern architectural intervention, but rather, to recreate and reveal imprints of the pasts by using contemporary architecture as a contrast to heighten the historical elements. In this way, the new building envelope remains highly contextual.
The architectural synthesis gives people a sense of continuity and permanence in built form, while being programmatically refreshed to ensure that it remains relevant for many more years to come.