Chinese Heritage Centre

Text by Eugene Tan

When first built in 1955, the Chinese Heritage Centre (as it is known today) was used as the Nanyang University Library, a centre of intellectualism. It was in 1966 that the building was converted into an administration building, before taking on its present use in 1995. Aptly, it is today a centre of erudition regarding the Overseas Chinese, many of whom helped start Nanyang University.

The Chinese Heritage Centre facade (Photo credit: Eugene Tan)

The building was designed by one of the first Singaporean architects, Mr Ng Keng Siang. A returning graduate from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, he brought with him a familiarity with the modern architectural principles widely espoused in Europe at that time. However, in the context of this opportunity, he displayed an unexpected adroitness in handling a brief which called for a distinctively Chinese building, and therefore a traditionally oriental syntax.

Central lobby of the Chinese Heritage Centre

When first built, the Old Library was a symbolic marker, developing a strong axial relationship with the campus park to its front, forming a line of symmetry when viewed together with the Colleges of Arts, Science and Commerce to their left and right. This spatial diagram was not dissimilar to precedents such as Xiamen University, also founded by the Overseas Chinese.

Octagonal atrium of the Chinese Heritage Centre

Also of note is the octagonal void in the building’s centre; the vertical layering of this volume, from first to fourth floor, allow for this space to be read like a pagoda. This is evidenced by the sinuous staircase placements which lead one to circumambulate the void, constantly offered scenic views of the verdure and hills that Nanyang University had to offer before reaching a plenum with views in all directions.

Student library at the Chinese Heritage Centre

Chinese ornament at the Chinese Heritage Centre

Ng had successfully adapted the Chinese architectural idiom. Column treatment, articulation of structural frames as stated in the Ying Zao Fa Shi, even the pair of lions, common in fengshui , were worked seamlessly into the design. For these reasons, the Old Library is not a mere product of the architect’s ego, but a reminder of his accommodation and application, giving the University the type of cultural symbol it desired.

The Chinese Heritage Centre within a garden