There is something wrong about building a massive greenhouse one degree above the equator. Memories of sweaty Sundays in the palm house at Kew Gardens suggest that greenhouses should be hot and drip with condensation. But in Singapore, the biggest greenhouses in the world are doing something quite different: keeping plants cool, emulating dry Mediterranean and mountain climates.
Wilkinson Eyre’s pair of massive, undulating glass houses are situated in a garden of a scale that competes with the city’s spiky skyline. They are interspersed with clumps of “supertrees”, mushroom-shaped steel armatures that sprout into branches and are clad in green climbing creepers, which will be illuminated at night.
Singapore’s huge new botanical gardens, the Gardens by the Bay, have been built on reclaimed land in a virtual ring around the city’s central business district – much of which was itself reclaimed – creating a verdant corona around the dense centre of a metropolis that has been trying to transform itself into a garden city.
Singapore is no longer defined by Raffles or the old colonial-era post office (now the Fullerton Hotel) or even by its de rigueur anodyne skyline. But the problem is that, no matter how green the city centre becomes, it is eclipsed by the gargantuan “integrated resort” – the Marina Bay Sands.
If you think that description sounds like a euphemism for something sinister, you are right. Singaporeans cannot quite bear to mention it, so they call it the “IR”. It is a 50-plus-storey monster, consisting of three monumental uprights and a Flintstones’ lintel that supports an attenuated, unsettlingly high infinity pool. Designed by Moshe Safdie, the building opened in June 2010 and combines hotel, conference hall and casino – the latter being its raison d’être. Despite the £50 entry charge, it has – with its twin in nearby Sentosa – already outstripped the whole of Vegas in turnover. It looms over the skyline like a movie monster and dominates it like nothing else.
The Gardens by the Bay is the public sector riposte to the resort; the glasshouses and supertrees are an attempt to impose vertical scale on a landscape that would otherwise only lie low and leave the towers firmly in charge.
They do not succeed – they barely register on the skyline – but they do create an extraordinary piece of public realm. In a faint echo of Singapore’s colonial history, the gardens are a British stitch-up, featuring Wilkinson Eyre’s buildings, Grant Associates’ landscape and Atelier One and Atelier Ten’s engineering. And they seem to spring from a particular set of British traditions and templates – from Kew, the Crystal Palace and the Eden Project to the great station roofs. Their concern, to create a contemporary and romantic landscape in the city, also seems notably British, echoing the tradition of London parks or stately home gardens with pavilions.
Singapore is demonstrating through this hugely ambitious scheme that the financial district is not an exclusive ghetto – that this is an open city. And, in a place where virtually the entire population lives in government- built apartments, there is greenery, colour and fresh air. It is, in a way, quite a visionary idea for the future of a still-determinedly modernist city.