The Ekphrases of Eye/Feel/Write: Writing About Architecture

EFW II NGS Dome Opening Pix

The building is but material structure. Within its architecture is imbued its aesthetic character. What happens when a writer confronts such a created space, and what texts emerge, themselves rendered as works of art?

At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its third instalment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled Eye/Feel/Write: Building Architectonics, as well as curated reading tours at National Gallery Singapore. A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is an ekphrastic project that invites distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by art institutions here.

This year, editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé extended the invitation to twelve eminent writers — Aaron Lee, Aaron Maniam, Amanda Chong, Clara Chow, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Heng Siok Tian, Josephine Chia, Kirpal Singh, Nuraliah Norasid, O Thiam Chin, Toh Hsien Min, and Tse Hao Guang — each creating texts inspired by the history and architecture of the Gallery.

In the preface to the anthology, a series of questions are posed: “On its own, architecture already surfaces its own symbols and associations, its own poetry. How then may a writer gaze upon a building and take in its space, then render the experience in language? How is the language of architecture translated into the language of lyric or narrative? Across artifice and edifice. What of proportion, of range? What of scale and shape, body and motion? What is inhabited, what inhabits, through time and space? What is made manifest, what new memories in the poetry of fiction — and how momentous, how memorable?”

Towards understanding any emerging discourse borne of these ekphrastic experiments, Kitaab shares beautiful insights from several of the contributing authors, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.


“The former Supreme Court building holds special memories for me. In 1998 I was admitted to the Singapore bar to practice as a lawyer in a ceremony that took place in the grand hall of the building. As an apprentice litigator I often accompanied senior lawyers to hearings in the chambers of various judges in the same building, and visited the Court library to do research. The National Gallery Singapore that now stands in the place of the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, is a marvel of architecture and design. Since it opened I have spent many a contemplative hour in its various galleries enjoying the spectacular art and the grandeur of the building’s interior. For this ekphrasis project I thoroughly explored the NGS several times, always taking my time and stopping occasionally to make some notes when inspiration struck me. I paid particular attention to the exhibitions which told stories about the people who inhabited the Supreme Court building as it was then: judges, lawyers, court workers and victims of crime and those affected by conflict. I wanted to challenge myself to write three different poems for this anthology. The poem ‘Lady Justice Contemplates’ expressed the reverie of a person I imagined as a conflation of an actual judge and the figure of Justice in the tympanum pediment of the building. The poem ‘Then & There, Here & Now’ is a response to two books that I read about the NGS building project. I wrote it as a ‘twin cinema’ poem as a tribute to a newly-invented poetic form native to Singapore, and also because the NGS comprises two buildings, each with its unique history and purpose, now put together. ‘Poetic Justice’ is a tongue-in-cheek mash up of common idioms related to the law.”


“Working at the Treasury Building on High Street, I visit the National Gallery often — sometimes for lunch, sometimes during lunchtime in search of silence amidst the whirring routine of a day. I love the art, but I think I love the architecture more; particularly the clean lines and curves, and how light shines into the most unexpected corners. Desmond’s challenge to us — to write about the architecture — was therefore very welcome! Many of my usual poetic concerns play out here — silence, in-between-ness, space and how we find names for them when they defy easy articulation. I also decided to experiment a bit with myth-making; the Gallery has always struck me as a world unto itself, and it seemed like a fun experiment to see what the dwellers in, and travellers into, such a world might be like. I’ve long been fascinated with world creation, where knowledge of ‘True Names’ enables heroes and heroines to claim a special kind of power. Perhaps such Naming is all that poetry really is!”


EFW II Amanda Chong Pix

“As I read the history of the Old Supreme Court building, I was struck by how many men filled the corridors of power, as its architects, then as lawyers and judges. Although Lady Justice has pride of place on the building’s tympanum, for many decades the voices of real women were drowned out by that of men — speaking for them as advocates or passing judgment on them. I wanted to bring women’s voices back into the space, especially in instances when they may have been silenced despite the fact that their bodies were at stake. As a lawyer, I was particularly interested in women who were connected to famous legal cases in the history of Singapore which were heard at the Old Supreme Court. I researched three cases and wrote dramatic monologues in the persona of various women, trying as far as possible to be true to their lives.”


EFW II Clara Chow Pix

“As a young arts correspondent, I had covered the news about the old Supreme Court and City Hall buildings being transformed into a world-class art gallery when it first broke. A year later, I remembered exploring the buildings in their threadbare glory when they served as a venue for the first Singapore Biennale in 2006. I’d just had my first child, and had returned to work from maternity leave in time to cover the vernissage of the ambitious contemporary art showcase. Ducking in and out of the court rooms and chambers of the former Supreme Court, I wanted to hold on to the shabby skin of its history, so much of it tamped down and embedded in the mouldering carpets, peeling paint and dusty air vents. It was hard saying goodbye to an old existence. Yet, there was also hope in the metamorphosis of two grand dames. So, when Desmond Kon roped me in for this project, I was very excited. To refresh my memory and soak up inspiration, I visited the National Gallery on May 17, 2017, a Wednesday. My friend C and I joined the 11am building tour. We followed a gaggle of friendly retirees as a docent guided us past architectural highlights. C and I were the naughty kids at the back of the class, whispering and giggling while the other tourists paid attention. A former litigation lawyer, and a docent at the gallery as well, C fed me tidbits of information about the old courthouse. How there was a bar room where the senior lawyers hung out, where the bar uncle knew everyone’s drink orders. How there was no air-conditioning back in her day, and people stank under their black robes. I had known C most of my life — we’d met, aged six, in pre-primary at a convent school — but had grown close only in the past few years. That afternoon, trading stories under Corinthian columns and in the courtyard, I appreciated how history — or rather, histories or herstories — separated and dove-tailed.”


“I found the task, especially deliberately not writing about the artworks in the National Gallery, to be quite a challenge. In the end, I relied most of all on the instincts that went into the writing of my first collection, A Book of Changes: that is, the sense of the historical and the presentness of the past. I found myself thinking about notable historical events that unfolded in the Supreme Court: the Maria Hertogh case came readily to mind, and the immense, intense and unhappy drama of Maria Hertogh’s life came out very strongly in my research. That really struck a chord. For another piece, I thought about the allegory of justice that is featured in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court, and I wondered what Lady Justice would say, if she could speak. For my last piece, I ruminated at length about the process of viewing and consuming art, which happens in a particular space and frame of mind.”


“Three locations were assigned to me and my task was to draw inspiration from those spaces. Moreover, since the essence of the project is to integrate the architectural features of the buildings, I was very conscious of referencing them. Consequently, I conceptualised my pieces around the three principles, namely Restoration, Retention and Repair. They fitted so well for my drafts, I can only attribute it to God’s blessing! I used the sonnet and villanelle forms of the first two pieces to emphasize the neo-classical origins of the buildings, tying in with the principles of Restoration and Retention. For Restoration, I could link with Gallery 3, its exhibition theme being ‘Imagining Self and Country’. The sonnet becomes my tribute to the new use of the buildings. I could work on the idea of Retention for the Chief Justice Office/Chamber since much of the original space was retained. Finally, for Gallery 11, which is a small space displaying posters and projecting a black-while documentary movie, I adopted the microfiction form to explore the idea of Repair. The word ‘Repair’ can also be perceived as ‘Re-pair’, so I imagined a young couple who had parted who might meet again decades later. In a similar way, we too have parted with the past of the two buildings, and now are open to a re-visioning of them.”


EFW II Josephine Chia Rotunda Pix

“The story, ‘Mother’s Day at the National Gallery’, takes place on this year’s Mother’s Day. I worked the fictional story around the performance that actually took place on 14th May at the Padang Atrium. It is one mother’s story about how she coped with spending Mother’s Day alone. Her sadness is reflected in her posture and tearfulness. Yet the beauty of the place jolted her to the fact that her life need not be all dark. The inspiration came from the beautiful steel canopy, which linked the two buildings which seemed like leaves to me. With ‘One Day in Maria Hertogh’s Life’, I took the historical situation of Maria Hertogh — her case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1950 — but I created a fictional account of it. I imagined her in the holding cell downstairs at Level 1 at first. Then she was taken towards the courtroom which gives me the opportunity to talk about the suspended steel corridor which is no longer there and the trapdoor that used to open underneath the floor of the courtroom, and of course the design of the courtroom itself. I kept the story in a third-person viewpoint so that I could give the reader the historical background to the case. ‘Spirit of the Knight’ is the only story of the three which is told in first person. Though this story takes place in the present, it is told from the viewpoint of a spirit that was a historical person from the past, the real-life architect, Rodolfo Nolli who designed many features in our heritage buildings. He is seen talking to a writer admiring the Rotunda Library. This was the former law library in the Supreme Court, with its beautiful dome and windows that had inspired me.”


“I always like the idea of people making connections wherever they are, whenever they could, and with whoever they want. Whether it’s an intimate encounter, or a quick glance, some sort of connection is always occurring, between strangers, between lovers, some fleeting, some perhaps lasting longer than others. Sometimes, I imagine the ripples of a connection touching those who happen to be around when the connection is being made — a silly, romantic notion, in my head, of course, but I can’t help myself. People connect, want to connect — a desire and a hunger, deep and ageless and unassailable — and so they reach out, with love and curiosity and a tiny shred of hope. In these three interlinked stories, everyone is fumbling and making their way into and through one another’s life, touching and dreaming and hoping and listening. Do they find what they are looking for? I don’t know. Perhaps.”


“I’ve been thinking about the shape of a poem, that is to say, its architecture, for awhile now, so this prompt is elliptically about my concerns. ‘Justice between Englishman & Chinese, Bugguese & Hindoo’ is an erasure of the original promulgations of Stamford Raffles, which laid down the first colonial laws of the Straits Settlement of Singapore. Besides tying into the original purpose of the Chief Justice Chamber, I thought it would be interesting to explore how laws and words provide a kind of scaffolding to hang right actions or morals upon. The other two poems are slightly less concrete. ‘Try to pose for yourself this task — not to think of a polar bear’ is a real saying of Dostoevsky’s, about the difficulty of not writing about the art in the museum. The poem, ‘and considering what is more much more grave that in the light’, is titled after a snatch of nonsense speech from the character Lucky in Waiting for Godot, and is about imagining the human being as a house, thinking about what we wish to let in and drive out. Both these poems are not about the building per se, but more about a certain kind of thinking that arises out of being forced to confront the form of something rather than its contents — and whether you can really divorce the two.”

EFW II Cover Front RGB

The anthology is on sale at Kinokuniya, as well as the Festival Bookstore at The Arts House during the Singapore Writers Festival. For more information on the Singapore Writers Festival, please visit the SWF website here:

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