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The sky's the limit – Gardens by the Bay

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Gardens by the Bay, Singapore – by Grant Associates

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With its extensive green belts, trees and parks, Singapore has always managed to disguise the fact that it is one of the most heavily populated countries in the world. And now, the government has taken the greening of Singapore a giant step further, creating a horticultural wonderland that covers 54ha of reclaimed land in Marina Bay.

Bay South Garden is the first part of the massive Gardens by the Bay project, which will eventually cover 101ha on a prime waterfront site. The design of Bay South Garden was conceived by landscape architect Andrew Grant of Grant Associates, a UK company that specialises in large-scale projects of a civic nature.

Grant says the brief from the National Parks Board (NParks) was quite straightforward – the garden was to showcase the most extensive collection of plants gathered from around the world, and it needed to incorporate iconic architecture that would attract worldwide attention.

"It was an extremely ambitious programme to advance horticulture in the tropics," says Grant. "Mah Bow Tan, the former Minister for National Development, also set challenging sustainable design targets. For example, the two enormous cool conservatories, which jointly enclose an area of more than 20,000m2, were not to use more energy than a standard office building."

Tan also said the project needed to cement Singapore's status as a model sustainable city of the future.

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With the site a virtual blank canvas, Grant says the first challenge was to conceive a masterplan for the layout. His solution was inspired by nature, in particular the orchid, the national flower of Singapore. The two giant domes and outdoor gardens form petals, with pathways and additional gardens forming the stems, leaves, veins and additional flowers. To provide verticality on the flat landscape, Grant added towering replica trees, ranging in height from 35m to 50m, and supporting vertical gardens of epiphytes, bromeliads and creepers. The trees provide shade, and support a cantilevered treetop walkway and a restaurant.

Grant says he took inspiration for the walkway from the Valley of the Giants treetop walk in Western Australia.

"That walkway is suspended 40m up, between enormous kauri and eucalyptus trees, giving an extraordinary view and providing an amazing spatial experience. In the Singapore garden, the suspended walkway also means visitors can view the plants from above. Many of the plants, notably the palms, have a particularly interesting form when seen from this angle – and this park has one of the best collections of palms in the world."

But Grant says the park wasn't just about creating a day destination.

"It was also about providing a place for people to come in the evenings. By day, visitors can enjoy a tropical garden experience, and by night the garden becomes a meeting place. The trees are part of a spectacular sequenced light show."

However, it was the giant biodomes that provided the most challenging aspect of the project for Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Both conservatories, the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome, needed to be cooled and the temperature had to remain constant, despite the intense heat outside. At the same time, however, light needed to be transmitted at the right levels, and the domes had to withstand monsoon rains.

Wilkinson Eyre Architects director Paul Baker says sustainability was the starting point.

"To house an organisation that is focused on preserving ecology in a building with a huge carbon footprint would have been madness. Passive design principles were essential."

The firm's solution provides a giant gridshell framework protected by a series of 28 steel ribs or arches, anchored at the base. The arches deflect and absorb the strong winds, protecting the glass beneath. The customised glass panels, each weighing approximately 320kg, incorporate metal oxide adjusted to a level to achieve the right amount of light transmission. The panels also have a low-e coating on the inside, so they essentially act as a mirror, reflecting heat. Automated, triangular sunshades provide further cooling when required.

The canopy design also achieves another of the architects' goals – to provide a sense of lightness and transparency. In addition, it ensures there are no structural elements or exposed infrastructure on the interior to detract from the natural world within.

The energy-efficient cooling technology utilises a liquid desiccant cooling system, whereby the tropical air is dehumidified before being cooled, which saves energy. The cooling system itself is powered by electricity generated from steam turbines. The steam is produced by burning a biomass comprising of chipped pulp that comes from the pruning of trees and plants in the wider Singapore area. A co-generation process ensures the heat from this process is also converted into electricity.

Wood ash created by the process is turned into fertiliser. The smoke is also treated, with the resulting colourless gas dispersed via a large flue that is concealed within one of the tall tree forms.

Grant says these processes, along with the climate control and water management systems, are all presented and explained to visitors.

"There is a strong educational aspect to the project. Exhibits showcase the different narratives, including the stories behind the plant exhibits."

The gardens include baobab trees imported from Africa, Madagascar and Australia, 1000-year-old olive trees from the Mediterranean, Americas and Australia, and plants from countries as diverse as Chile, California, South Africa, India, Australia and the Mediterranean. In the Flower Dome, plants are grouped according to geographic region.

Key highlights of the Cloud Forest include a mountain and waterfall, so visitors can experience the forest at different levels.

First published date: 29 November 2012

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Credit List

Location Bay South Garden, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Client National Parks Board (NParks), Singapore
Masterplanners and landscape architect Grant Associates
Architect Wilkinson Eyre Architects
Structural engineer Atelier One
Building service engineer, environmental designer Atelier Ten
Communication design Thomas Matthews
Interpretation and exhibition designer Land Design Studio
Design management Buro Four
Films and animations Squint Opera
Cost consultant Langdon & Seah
Lighting design Lighting Planners Associates
Engineering support Meinhardt (Infrastructure) Pte Ltd
Architecture and engineering support CPG Corporation
Project management PM Link Pte Ltd
Irrigation design Water Equipment Technology (WET)
Awards World Building of the Year, World Architecture Festival (WAF) 2012