Gardens by the BayProject Future
We were met by the thunderous sight of a 35 metre waterfall that crashed in front of us in an iridescent cascade. From the top of the dome, a wave of mist drifted languidly through the rain trees into the surrounding ravine.
On our first morning in Singapore, we walked from our hotel in the Bugis district to the Southern tip of the island, a little east of the downtown core. Our destination was the Gardens by the Bay project, the city-state’s 1 billion SGD complex of interwoven ecosystems and conservatories that spreads over the Marina Bay. Still in that bleary, befuddled state invoked by long, sleepless flights, we had risen as early rays of auburn sunlight leaked over the city. Stepping out onto the street, we received our first dose of Singaporean humidity. It was not long after seven, but still, the damp air hung with a torpid density that quickly reduced our leisurely stroll to a somnolent trudge. As we made our way down the broad, tree lined boulevard of Beach Road, we passed the grand staircases and elegant arcades of Raffles Hotel. While the building itself has retained the snowy white opulence of the days when Hemingway and Kipling frequented its Long Bar, it stands very much as a relic of the colonial past, particularly when set against the image of the ‘new Singapore’ projected by the developments around the Marina Bay. This area has all the sheen and architectural innovation of a city of the future. From the coiled tendrils of the Helix Bridge, to the lotus shaped curves of Moshe Safdie’s Art Science Museum, everything about the harbourside trumpets the government’s titanic investment in resculpting the city centre’s aesthetic. If Raffles represents the preserved antiquity of the 1920s, then the Marina Bay Sands Hotel epitomises the recent period of lavish profligacy. Costing 7.16 billion SGD, a figure that makes it the world’s most expensive building, this looming, three-towered monolith boasts a three acre tropical sky roof where visitors can take in a panorama of the city, the watercolour blue of the Singapore Strait.
Sauntering along the banks of the Singapore River, the bay was notably quiet. Lone joggers padding quietly passed us were the only indicator that this great hub of commerce was beginning to stir from its nightly slumber. Gazing across the water which glittered with scattered reflections from the windows of the financial district, we caught our first glimpse of Gardens by the Bay. From our view out under the Benjamin Sheares Bridge, the project’s adjacent parabolic conservatories rose smoothly out of the opposite bank, their structural ribs turned to spears of light by the rising sun. In 2006, the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong opened a competition that would transform Singapore from a ‘Garden City’ to a ‘City in a Garden’. Inspired by British horticultural designs from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Kensington Roof Gardens and Letchworth Garden City, the 101-hectare project would elevate Victorian style gardening to contemporary levels. The reins of this ambitious task were passed to two British architectural firms, Grand Associates and Wilkinson Eyre. Between them, they constructed a labyrinth that blends nature, technology, ecological management, and daring imagination where plants from every continent on the planet besides Antarctica are carefully conserved. As part of the project’s aim to accommodate such an extraordinary collection, one of the glass domes features a dry Mediterranean climate, while the other recreates the cold, moist environment of a cloud forest.
Our jetlag, it seemed, had some pay offs. The wooden atrium connecting the garden’s two conservatories was deserted upon our arrival. Ushered into the taller of these domes by a patron who seemed a little bemused by our punctuality, we stepped through the dark, constricted entranceway into the vast expanse of Cloud Mountain. We were met by the thunderous sight of a 35 metre waterfall that crashed in front of us in an iridescent cascade. From the top of the dome, a wave of mist drifted languidly through the rain trees into the surrounding ravine. Within moments, our clothes were fully drenched by the rising spray from the waterfall. Enjoying the crisp chill of the mountain air, we marvelled at the simplicity of the dome’s internal structure, which allows great beams of natural light to tear through the forest canopy. From the base of the mountain, we climbed the twisted iron walkways winding round its broad bulk. On close inspection, the great mound is comprised of a tapestry of tropical ferns and flowers.
In contrast to the prescribed route of our first ascent, the adjoining Flower Dome lets visitors to choose their own path through its rocky terraces and stony outcrops. Where Cloud Mountain had transported us to the deep tropics, this second conservatory tells the story of the plants of southern Europe, and how the species cultivated in these regions are quickly becoming endangered as global temperatures rise. With a planted footprint of more than 10,100 square metres, the lavender fields and olive groves evoke the aridity of Greece, mainland Italy and Sardinia.
Some have criticised the project’s sustainability, arguing that the energy consumed by the conservatories is more than that of an average commercial building in the city, and that the gardens are nothing more than a marketing tool for tourists and investors. Even so, I found myself enraptured by the place. Both bizarre and visually astounding, it can be appreciated as a conceptual endeavour alone. If we are to criticise the energy consumption of its conservatories, we can applaud the nearby Supertree grove that generates hot water and electricity for the majority of the park through a network of solar panels. The rest of the complex’s energy comes from a biomass boiler powered by clippings from the surrounding trees and shrubs. We spent the following hours getting lost in the artificial forest’s trail and pathways, with a sense of being entirely separated from the city. Such is the level of detail that has gone into decorating every inch of this expanse, that we mistook a beautifully decorated ventilation factory for the Gallery of Sustainability, which sits at far end of the park. Attempting to smile knowingly at a workman who had been watching us, we went hastily on our way.
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence