Singapore’s Green City Within a City

Marina One is a tropical version of New York’s Rockefeller Center.

by Michael Webb
Jan 16 2019, 9:46pm

Singapore, an island state with the second busiest port in Asia, has channeled its growth to become one of the greenest, most prosperous cities in the world. Its Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) owns all the land and leases it for developments that are rigorously controlled. The Central Business District is expanding outwards on reclaimed land that includes three waterfront parks. A new subway network links it to every part of the island and a station is seldom more than five minutes’ walk away.

Photograph by H.G. Esch
Photograph by H.G. Esch

Marina One, which opened a year ago, is a model of enlightened development. It’s Singapore’s version of Rockefeller Center: a city within a city and a bold departure from the tower as an isolated object. In contrast to the masonry shafts and sunken plaza of the Manhattan landmark, its forms are organic and they enclose lushly planted, multi-level gardens. It is also a model of sustainability and density: 20,000 people live and work, shop and play in a complex of four million square feet. Marina One was developed as a Malaysian-Singaporean joint venture that symbolizes the close relationship between the two states. It responds creatively to the tropical heat and humidity, as well as the needs of a fast-growing metropolis, embodying the spirit of place and the vision of Ingenhoven Architects.

Photograph by H.G. Esch

“Architecture is an aid to survival, especially in the mega-cities of Asia and South America,” says Christoph Ingenhoven. He urges greater density—for conservation and to reduce traffic—noting that the sprawling, unplanned city of Houston consumes 50 times more energy per capita than Hong Kong. His 100-person office in Dusseldorf has created a succession of sustainable buildings in Europe (most importantly the long-delayed high-speed railway station in Stuttgart) and he views Singapore as a place where he can realize his dreams on an even larger scale.

Photograph by H.G. Esch

Ingenhoven's competition-winning proposal, developed jointly with Singapore architect Michael Ngu, began with a sketch: a hollow square, cross axes, and a tangle of wavy lines. The square comprised four 330-foot square lots in the urban grid, the axes the streets that separated them, and the wavy lines are the ramps and projecting brise-soleil that shade the garden and weave together the two 660-foot high office towers and a pair of 460-foot tall residential towers. These massive blocks are pushed to the edges of the site to maximize the interior space, and their inner faces undulate like the waves that once swept over this expanse of landfill. The glass-skinned office towers are screened by projections of steel mesh up to six feet deep, while the apartments are shielded by projecting window frames. But the overall impression is one of continuity, and there’s a vertiginous thrill as you look up to the opening that frames the sky, or down from the roof terraces into the green heart of the complex.

Photograph by H.G. Esch

The URA mandated that the cross streets be preserved for pedestrian access to the site, and Ingenhoven embraced the idea of openings between the four blocks to channel breezes and frame views of the city beyond. It was his decision to landscape the roof of the three-level podium of retail and services, and create sky gardens at the 15th and 32nd floor levels. “This would still be a jungle if it weren't for the city,” he observes. “Maybe we could restore a little of it.” Singapore aspires to be “a city in a garden” and the URA requires that 25 percent of the site area of every new development be planted and made publicly accessible. Here, it is 125 per cent.

Photograph by H.G. Esch

Gustavson Porter + Bowman, in association with Henry Steed of ICN Design International, a local firm, won a limited competition to design the gardens, along with the water features, pathways, and ramps. Kathryn Gustavson visualized the site as a mountain with rice terraces. and the organic lines of the garden amplify those of the buildings. “The plants must inform the design from the beginning, otherwise you cannot get the infrastructure right,” she says. Working with structural engineers and local plant experts, her team selected 350 species, setting up a nursery where the taller trees could grow for several years before they were trucked to the site. The challenge was to integrate the plantings with the architecture, which required deep planting beds and drainage for tropical downpours, as well as the right mix of sun, shade, and cooling breezes.

Photograph by H.G. Esch

On early visits to the island, which lies just north of the Equator, Ingenhoven saw that residents love to sit outside in the cool of the evening and even during the day wherever there is shade and a breeze. “Architecture can help create a feeling of authenticity, but people have to accept and use it for it to be successful,” says Ingenhoven, who insists that every architect should be asked the question: “Would you want to live or work in the building you are creating?” His answer for Marine One is, “Yes.”

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