Substation A Mainstay Of The Arts

Kuo Pao Kun, the late theatre maestro, called this home of the arts. The unassuming art deco Substation stands out effortlessly in a neighbourhood that contains conserved shophouses, museums, and national monuments. The park opened on September 16, 1990, to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. This Silver Jubilee is a shared journey for all those who have witnessed the growth of Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre.

The Substation used to be a power substation, which was under the management of the Public Utilities Board. The building is more than a century old, dating back to 1926. It is estimated that by 1978 the local substation had ceased operations and was left vacant.

Architecture and Memories of The Substation. Image Source(The Majestic Theatre in Singapore)
Remembering The Substation. Image Source(The Substation Ltd and National Library of Singapore)
The Substation Gallery. Image Source (The Substation Ltd and National Library of Singapore)

In 1986, the Urban Redevelopment Authority earmarked a number of buildings for conservation. These buildings included the former Tao Nan School building and the sub-station along with the adjacent Armenian Street shophouses. Then, Kuo Pao Kun and Practice Performing Arts group (today’s Theatre Practice Ltd) proposed converting the vacant sub-station to a contemporary arts centre.

The refurbishment process for the Substation happened quickly, and it was officially opened on 16 September 1990. Initiated under the National Arts Council’s Arts Housing Scheme, where old buildings are reused and converted to arts spaces, it was also the first building.

The New Substation Today. Image Source (The Straits Times)
A segment by the Singapore Pro Wrestlers, who entertained the Armenian Street crowd during the Singapore Night Festival 2014. Image Source(AsiaOne)
Singapore Night Festival opens to crowds in the Bras Basah-Bugis precinct, Singapore News & Top Storie. Image Source (The Straits Times)

The Substation building is made up of a 108-seater black box theatre, which doubles as a music venue, 113-sqm visual art space known as The Substation Gallery, a dance studio and several classrooms. The garden, which used to hold live concerts and events, is now being utilised by Timbre.

According to the National Gallery Singapore, The Substation has become a key site for the production of experimental and contemporary works across various genres such as literature, music, dance and theatre. The centre has also served as a platform for upcoming bands and musical acts, hosting Singapore’s first-ever 24-hour music festival on 31 December 1990. Although the hall was originally designed for contemporary music, they also held a concert series dedicated to classical music. Another marquee event of the festival is Moving Images, which screens independent and short films. Director Anthony Chen and filmmaker Royston Tan are some of the artists whose careers started with The Substation under its Associate Artist scheme.

Singapore Night Festival 2014 – Roving performance artists in front of Peranakan Museum, Armenian Street. Image Source(Overcome Life)
Peranakan Museum and The Substation join forces to present music by The Main Wayang Co being played alongside afrobeats by Afrobeat Orchestra, as well as Indonesian keronchong music alongside Jamaican ska beats. Image Source (AsiaOne)

As an independent art space in a converted power sub-station, the redevelopment perfectly fostered art projects that formed on their own—from alleyways during pedestrianized nights at Singapore Night Festival.

The late founder, Kuo Pao Kun envisioned the Substation to be a home for the arts and a contemporary art centre that facilitates the meeting of minds between those on the fringes and mainstream. This is what it has come to be – a home that welcomes everyone.

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