Singapore: re-imagining and re-inventing the city treescape?

An overwhelming sense of change is how I can best describe my first good look around Singapore since my last meaningful trip. I visited as part of a Botanical tour group in 1997 en route to SW China from NZ. 

Greening the city

In 1997 South Beach Road offered a view of the sea, but not any more. I was lucky enough to make it to the 18th floor of the recently completed South Beach Towers,  as a guest of Foster + Partners for the Arup party as part of the World Architecture Festival events - what a view and what a building.

Exterior Architecture_View over singapore

South Beach Towers are a wonderful addition to the Singapore skylie. The views are breathtaking in every respect. It is well worth a visit to the 18th floor sky garden by ICN Landscape Designers, where ‘no balustrade’ effect topped by a sofa in a swimming pool view over the City it is not only technically ground-breaking in it’s ‘green credentials’ but also in its creation as a building to enjoy. Go even if just to see the lighting effects within the lifts: interiors by Philippe Starck. Astonishing

The reason for the trip was as a guest of the National Parks Singapore to speak at their bi-annual Skyrise Greenery conference where i spoke about SkyCycle and the emergence and evolution of a potential Divergent City in London. It was similar to a talk i gave let year at the inaugural Architecture Io event.

At the conference we saw many examples of green roof, green wall and living building designs from all around the world. The most impressive examples of all of these typologies were without doubt from Singapore and SE Asia. The climate is perfect and their ambition for improving the urban environment is unparalleled. What perhaps began as an aesthetic movement is now rapidly evolving into very real, integrated environmental design.

Now, the overriding sensation when driving into Singapore from Changi is of an incredibly green and densely vegetated city.  This is obviously in part to do with the incredible tree planting programmes that the country's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew instigated. This has been successfully continued but the 'greenness' of the city is also to do with the buildings city's supporting 5 ha. of green wall and nearly 75 ha. of green roofs.  The built form of the city is indeed much harder to see now thanks to this recent green revolution.  The most obvious change to me was a street level: as a pedestrian the cooling and shading effects of this new green has added a human scale effect to the comfort of the city. Not only are buildings performing better in energy terms but residents are now able to live in a more comfortable environment.

Park Royal on Pickering by Woha Architects is both breathtaking and also incredibly satisfying to behold. Combining the eroded and stratified built form with some wonderful planting on the building by Tierra Design this is a building that is likely to age gracefully and is already willing me back to visit in the future.

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, by Mok Wei Wei architect is, from 3 viewpoints, a simple (not quite brutalist) concrete box using rough sawn timber formwork. However, from a 4th viewpoint, on the campus driveway it appears that nature has moved in and exposed the box to the elements where a succession of layers of trees, plants and ground covers reach for light and tumble out of the subterranean built form.

I had set aside some time to visit the Gardens by the Bay which I had first seen back in 2006 when Andrew Grant presented at an LI event in London.  It was something I had very much wanted to see.  The ambition of the Singapore Government to invert the “Garden in a City” concept to create the “City in the Garden” began in 2006 when the competition for this 101 hectares of land was won by Grant Associates.  The iconic 'trees' are what you see from the motorway, from the CBD and from any vantage point that allows a view of this part of the Island. This is an ambitious project that will mature into a wonderful sequence of spaces and experiences. However, it still needs time to mature and unlike the ambitious private ventures, the greenery is vast and purple.

For $18.00 (it did include a complimentary drink) you can get to the top of the tallest of these trees for a 360 degree view of the City, except that all you see is the faded purple painted steel which is expectantly waiting for the arrival of some foliage from below. Once the plants manage to scale these heights (which some seem to be struggling with) then there will be no view whatsoever from this vantage point and maybe the $18.00 will get you 4 drinks and no view.  The human scale landscape at ground level is dominated still very much by the hard landscape. Until there is a natural tree canopy cover across the site this will very much feel like a Garden in a City. But what a place it is likely to become and it is something I very much look forward to returning to again.

Sites visited & photographed:

South Beach Tower, by Foster + Partners, Singapore and landscape by ICN, Singapore

Park Royal on Pickering, by Woha Architects, Singapore & landscape by Tierra Design, Singapore

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, by Mok Wei Wei, Singapore & landscape by Tierra Design, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, by WEA, London & landscape by Grant Associates, UK