Wayang Kulit: Shadow Puppet Theatre | National University of Singapore
The project’s aim was to design a theatre complex to host traditional live performing arts, situated in the Fort Canning area of Singapore - an area of high historical and cultural relevance to the city.
The chosen scheme is a Wayang Kulit theatre, a traditional and most prominent Malay theatrical expression, where flat cut-out figures are silhouetted against a translucent, white screen, with a coconut-husk lamp as its source of light. It is mostly expressions or enactments of religious mythology blended into one along with historical facts that will keep an audience entertained all night long.
‘The evening of the Wayang performance has at last arrived. In the darkness the insects have already begun to fly around unsteady flame of the oil lamp, which casts its dazzling light on the large white screen of the stage. at the lower part of the cloth-screen, the beautiful leather puppets are neatly arranged, their body-sticks firmly planted in banana-stems, placed beneath the screen itself. On the right hand side are the good characters, on the left hand side the bad. The open space between them, about two meters wide, represents the stage. Here the puppets will come to life and, like human beings, will each in his own way pursue the endless path to human happiness…’
— Sunardjo Haditjaroko ‘RAMAYANA’ (1961)
The proposal was developed on the Armenian Street site, bordered by the colonial Peranakan Museum building and a contemporary Laud Architects development. Previously used as a parking area to the surrounding edifices, this historic edge of the city was calling for a new boundary that would delineate the transition between the modern-vibrant and the historic-placid. The scheme involves creating a new historic path through the site and building, connecting the city’s prominent monuments as well as simultaneously preserving the site’s natural landscape and topography.
‘I believe that architecture today needs to reflect on the tasks and possibilities which are inherently its own. Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence. In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language.’
— Peter Zumthor ‘THINKING ARCHITECTURE’ (2006)
The Lion City displays a range of different styles and influences from all around the world: traditional vernacular, colonial period’s hybrid forms and contemporary, modern architecture in the majority, owing the arrival of concrete in Singapore’s urban renovation and wide building boom periods. Therefore the form of the proposal is derived from the observation of the city’s most common, domestic architecture and the ubiquitous Brutalist style.
The characteristic feature of the wayang performance is that it is to be observed from both sides of the screen. In the past, the space in front of the screen was customarily for women and children whilst only men were privileged enough to observe the theatricals directly from the side of the animator and the accompanying musicians.
Nowadays every spectator gets the choice of selecting the favoured side regardless of sex and age, for the casted shadows are as intriguing as the puppets themselves. The central figure, and the master of ceremony in a shadow performance, is the puppeteer or ‘dalang’ - Javanese for story-teller. In this capacity, as well as a narrator and orchestra conductor, the solo actor plays the role of the puppet animator bringing the marionettes to life by providing voices to all his characters and developing their individual personalities while simultaneously relating the story through dialogue and song.
Most unusual about these shows is the audience’s behaviour during the performance. The audience is not expected to sit silently; people often meet friends and socialise or look around and buy a snack from a stall; those who need to rest are allowed to take a nap. From experience, everyone more or less knows how a wayang play will proceedand enthusiastically participate in parts which are most exciting to watch such as the fight scenes and in particular the moment when the hero appears with his servants at midnight. According to tradition, everyone at wayang is safe from the evil influences that plague people, even if they are far from the screen and scarcely hear the voice of the dalang.
Both internally and externally the Wayang Kulit theatre explores light’s shadow and shade, its different sources, opacity, transparency, translucency and conditions of reflection and refraction, relationships with the matter and tactility of the construction materials, to stimulate the perceiver’s senses and achieve a spiritual connection with this mystical performance.
(Year 3 Student Exchange work: Michal Scieszka)