An architectural critique | Cooled Conservatories, Gardens by the Bay

Edwin Heathcote

As more and more cities attempt the difficult transition to world-city status, each is having to work harder to define itself, to find within it something which distinguishes itself from all the other metropolises bustling and jockeying for position. And the harder they try, the more they tend to look the same. Those busy skylines crammed with glassy towers, the mega-malls populated by the ubiquitous luxury brands, the chain hotels and the pedestrianised shopping streets and the waterfront walks with chilled al fresco seating. These are settings often constructed from seemingly nothing, from an unlikely desert, reclaimed land or the once bleak landscape of a post-industrial dockside. Singapore is a place that lacks the topographical drama of Hong Kong or the industrial solidity of Bilbao. Its equatorial weather is stickily humid and its new swathes of land are being clawed back at great expense from beneath the sea. But Singapore’s solution to distinctiveness has been striking—it is the effort to use its particular climatic conditions to make itself a city of green. This idea has been officially termed by the government the transformation to a ‘City in a Garden’. From the bougainvillea-lined roads to the planters and trees which punctuate its streets, Singapore’s plan has been sprouting in the way in which only a place with this level of control and central planning can. 

And at the very heart of that plan is Gardens by the Bay. An extraordinary effort which aims to emulate the success of Manhattan’s Central Park or central London’s Royal Parks by creating a 54 hectare green heart, a landscape from nothing, reclaimed from the sea and hugely extending the island’s stock of city centre prime property in the process. 

The context is odd, perhaps even a little overwhelming. The adjacent Marina Bay Sands complex is a monster, a strange, sci-fi echo of a futuristic Stonehenge, a 55 storey complex topped by a ‘skypark’ looming in the background. There is no competing with it. Moshe Safdie’s huge ‘Integrated Resort’ (Singapore is still, despite the scale of a complex which out-earns Las Vegas, a little squeamish about the word ‘casino’) stamps its authority on the newly reclaimed land but also stomps out any possible competition. How can a park possibly compete with an architectural object on that scale? How can the new gardens assert themselves on the skyline? The flat reclaimed land offered few possibilities for the kind of dramatic landscaping that would have allowed the gardens to become a feature able to compete with the city’s burgeoning architectural profile. So this would need to be an eccentric kind of landscape, a garden with a verticality to echo Singapore’s spiky skyline and an intervention with a theatricality to be able to create a place from seemingly nothing. 

Perhaps gardens in the centre of Singapore were never going to be serene. In fact, just as nature itself goes into a kind of tropical overdrive in the permanent summer of an equatorial climate, so the gardens accommodate a kind of hypernature, a pumped up vision of nature as theatre. 

The result is the pair of vast glass conservatories which embed the gardens in the cityscape alongside the vertical mushrooming of the supertrees, the complex webs of futuristic armature which create green-clad skyscrapers within the gardens. 

This is an essay by Edwin Heathcote which was published in the book Supernature: How Wilkinson Eyre Made a Hothouse Cool (Oro Editions, 2014).