With Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Aims to Become the “Botanical Capital of the World”

Singapore’s national flower is the orchid. So UK-based team Grant Associates, a landscape architecture firm, and Wilkinson Eyre, an architecture firm, decided to use the structure of this epiphytic plant to model their new $545 million, 54-hectare Gardens by the Bay project in that city-state’s Marina South Gardens, which is just the first piece of a much bigger project (two more gigantic garden parks are coming). The design team explains: “First, the garden takes root on a piece of new garden infrastructure and grows out towards the city. Leaves (earthworks) and roots (water, energy, communication systems) and shoots (paths, roads and links) create an integrated network across the space and beautiful flowers (feature/theme gardens) occur at key intersections or nodes.”

With this massive project, which was built on reclaimed, restored land, wealthy Singapore aims to become the “botanical capital of the world.” There are many elements (almost too many to go through), which include more than 225,000 plants. Just a few are new theme gardens that “showcase the best of tropical horticulture and garden artistry.” Within these gardens, there are multiple horticultural collections, including the “Heritage Gardens” and “World of Plants.”  

In the Heritage Gardens, there’s a range of garden collections that reflect the unique cultures that make up diverse Singapore, along with the city-state’s colonial heritage (It was a British base for many years). A new Malay Garden “tells the story of life in a traditional ‘kampong’ (village),” while the Indian Garden’s layout “echoes a traditional illustrated flower motif.” The Chinese Garden illustrates the role of gardens as places of “inspiration for writers, poets, and artists” — places of tranquility — in Chinese culture. The Colonial Garden tells the story of plants as “Engines of Empire,” featuring the many spices and other crops that served as a foundation for regional, British-controlled trade. 

The “World of Plants” Garden then showcases the rich plant biodiversity of Southeast Asia. There are gardens dedicated to ancient plants, fruits and flowers, trees, tropical palms, and the understory, which looks at the “forest root zone,” the plant species that make up the forest floor.

Perhaps the iconic element of the new super-park are the 18 “supertrees,” ranging from 25-50 meters high, which Grant Associates describe as a “fusion of nature, art, and technology.” These multifunctional engineered structures act like, well, trees, except they also create power for the park and light up at night. According to the design team, “they are at one level spectacular vertical gardens and landmark features, at another they are the environmental engines for the cooled conservatories, incorporating devices for water harvesting and storage, air intake, cooling and exhaust, photovoltaic arrays, and solar collectors.” 

During the daytime, the trees provide shelter and shade, like any tree. But at night, says Grant Associates, the trees “come alive with lighting and projected media that activate the city skyline.”  Built into the supertree line is a 128-meter aerial walkway. The biggest supertree has a bar, offering a treetop view to go with your cocktails. Grant Associates seem to say that they needed to get large trees up fast and couldn’t wait for real ones to grow: “Given the relatively short time span to create a garden from reclaimed land, the Supertrees provide an immediate scale and dimension to the Gardens while marrying the form and function of mature trees.” 

Working together with the outdoor gardens and supertrees are “cooled conservatories” that use “sustainable energy sources” (from the supertrees) to create new micro-climates indoors. “The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean and semi-arid sub-tropical regions such as South Africa and parts of Europe like Spain and Italy. The Cloud Forest Dome replicates the cool-moist climate found in tropical montane regions between 1,000 to 3,500 metres above sea level, such as Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, and high elevation areas in South America.” The Cloud Forest alone has some 130,000 plants.

Sounds like a lot of energy and air conditioning for those cooled conservatories. But Grant Associates argues that the “suite of technologies used” actually means about 30 percent energy savings on a conventional (if there is one?) climate-controlled conservatory. The design team used “spectrally selective glass and light sensor-operated shadings” to reduce solar heat gain and maximize sun exposure for the plants. There are more complex systems like “thermal stratification, an efficient de-humidification cooling process, and a Combined Heat Power (CHP) biomass steam turbine” to control the indoor climate and create electricity. 

As a final note, the signage by Thomas Mathews graphic design is really fun. The design team used the colors of the local Mangosteen fruit as the palette, with a dark purple as the unifying color.  

We would have liked to hear more from Grant Associates about how they will harvest Singapore’s heavy rainfall to water the garden year round. Will there be cisterns to store some of that water for drier periods? Also, there is little info about the biodiversity benefits they are expecting, beyond the plants. What kind of insects and birds can be supported by the new park?

Still, the gardens are expected to be a huge tourist draw. The Wall Street Journal writes that tickets will be $28 Singapore dolllars for tourists and $20 for locals. Restaurants, bands, bars will also help draw people in late into the night.

Image credits: (1) Grant Associates (2) Chinese Garden / Craig Sheppard Photography, (3-4) Supertrees / Robert Such Photography, (5-6) Cooled Conservatory / Craig Sheppard Photography, (7) Branding design / Thomas Mathews, (8) Signage / Craig Sheppard Photography

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