What's Indian about Singapore's Indian Heritage Centre?

Launched in May 2015 after exhausting seven years and $21M, the Indian Heritage Centre on Campbell Lane, Little India, often triggers this first question - what's Indian about it?

Photography courtesy of Greg Shand Architects

Photography courtesy of Greg Shand Architects

Cheekier critics would reply "it's Indian because it looks like the new wing of Mustafa Centre."

The person on the street is looking for obvious tributes to historical Indian architecture - perhaps elements that draw from Indian temples, palaces or the Taj Mahal. However, architects win design competitions based on bold forms and fresh ideas. These ideas could be grounded more in theory or academia. The result: layman interpretations that fall far from the architects' and building owners' official press releases. 

A famous example would be starchitect Rem Koolhaas having to state that his groundbreaking CCTV Headquarters design in Beijing "has no hidden meaning" when ridiculous speculations went viral that he meant it to look like female and male genitalia, after an earlier round of toilet-related comparisons.

Back to the question. "What's Indian about it" begs a deeper question - "what's Indian?" For the Indian Heritage Centre, the challenge faced by designers Greg Shand Architects and Urbnarc is to not be too direct, because being "Indian" holds a range of diverse meanings.

They found inspiration for the main facade in the stepwells, flights of descending steps that leads to the water table, a category of Indian architecture that evolved to balance water supply between the seasons with and without monsoon rain. 

Stepwell in Rajasthan

Stepwell in Rajasthan

Partly because stepwells are below the ground, even in India they are becoming forgotten and abandoned, in spite of their historical importance of enabling a steady water supply in drier areas.

The best designs for cultural institutions not only look back - they look forward. The curtain of glass used in the Indian Heritage Centre may invite the knee-jerk reaction to compare it with Mustafa, but it would be unfair and unwise to expect a 2015 building to look like it belongs to the 10th or 18th century.

And anyway, the Mustafa Centre extension is lovely and houses a gorgeous rooftop restaurant that may remind you of dining at Pollen in Gardens by the Bay - with a friendlier price tag.

And on the note of looking forward, the Indian Heritage Centre's logo looks like it is trying to belong to Google.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting that you can always "travel without leaving home." We are also featuring more archaeologically related information in the lead up to the opening of the National Gallery of Art in Singapore towards the end of the year. 

Further reading:
- India's Forgotten Stepwells
- Mustafa's rooftop restaurant