Cover The Rain Vortex in Jewel Changi Airport has recirculated, natural rainwater, which helps provide cooling and airflow in the garden

Singapore is already a poster child for biophilic architecture but architects and designers are reinventing new ways of living with the natural world

When Jewel Changi Airport opened last year, the world marvelled at the ingenious idea of incorporating a waterfall and verdant gardens into an airport mall. This feature is not only aesthetically pleasing, it also relieves shopper and traveller fatigue. The project, which was designed by Israeli-Canadian starchitect Moshe Safdie, added to the list of noteworthy biophilic architecture in Singapore across typologies, reiterating the tiny island’s reputation as a nature-infused city-state.

Among them are works by architectural firm Woha, a long-time leader in the field of biophilic design, including Parkroyal Collection Pickering, which remodels the city hotel into an oasis with 15,000 square metre of gardens and terraces, and the School of the Arts with landscape curtaining its walls.

In healthcare, international architectural firm RMJM and homegrown development consultant CPG Consultant’s Khoo Teck Puat Hospital set a new benchmark with naturally ventilated wards overlooking a public park.

In the realm of high-rise living, British three-dimensional designer Thomas Heatherwick’s Eden at Draycott Park, featuring greenery-draped, scalloped balconies, is a recent example that differs from ubiquitous glass-and-steel apartment blocks. Soon to come is Serie Architects’ One Pearl Bank, with 13 allotment gardens for residents to partake in gardening and whose curvaceous structure will house over 500 trees. 

Singapore’s biophilic architectural accomplishments build on the efforts of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose foresight initiated Singapore’s Garden City vision. “Our basis for urban planning and its Garden City origin that predates the term biophilia by about two decades inherently encourages nature into our built environments,” affirms Tan Szue Hann, chairman of sustainability at the Singapore Institute of Architects.

Over the years, astute directives and incentives have supported the creation of a lush urbanscape, which has become part of our collective psyche even before biophilic architecture became popular in other parts of the world. Among them are green plot ratios that promote the replacement of natural green areas with accessible gardens in buildings, and green building rating systems encouraging greenery, sufficient daylight and visual access to nature in high-rise towers. Coupled with sensitive design, biophilia has also become an aspect of “luxury chic”, which adds value to architecture beyond aesthetic and wellness benefits, Tan highlights.  

Buildings overflowing with plants project an alluring, bucolic picture but true biophilic architecture is more than just an image. First termed by social psychologist Erich Fromm in 1964, then popularised by American biologist Edward Wilson in 1984 as a reaction against nature-isolating urbanism, it goes beyond specifying solar panels and reducing waste to acknowledging humans as an inextricable part of nature—which is why we thrive in its presence; the term itself means “the love of living things” in Greek. Thus, incorporating plants, biodiversity, flowing water, natural materials and ample sunlight into everyday spaces should be integral rather than token must-haves. Its effects are manifold. 

For the individual, it improves wellness, healing rate, productivity and happiness—equivalent to the calming and restorative results of a country jaunt. For dense cities, it leads to cooling temperatures that dissipate the urban heat effect, slower rates of stormwater surges due to landscaping like in forests, improved air quality and reduced energy use in buildings. In the times of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is even more poignant. Confined to our homes, we appreciate the importance of good ventilation, sunlight and greenery brought into our hermetic shells. Simultaneously, news of biodiversity returning to ponds and mountain views cleared of smog for the first time in decades due to production standstill remind us of earth’s fragility and the urgency of slowing down the pace of damage through more holistic practices.

The building industry has a strong responsibility in designing better environments along this mindset. This necessitates acceptance by stakeholders as well as collaboration with experts. Consultants such as landscape architects, whose expertise were previously an afterthought, are now more involved at project conception stages for more effective brainstorming. “The difference is the realisation that landscape is essentially our global life support infrastructure. The Covid-19 crisis further emphasises this need for moving away from traditional systems of urban planning and design toward a more nature-inspired world using nature-based systems,” says Andrew Grant, founder of Grant Associates.

The UK-based landscape architecture practice worked on the Gardens by the Bay, as well as the new Funan integrated development and Robinson Tower—both featuring ample, accessible terraces and rooftop gardens that refresh the mall and office block typology. Grant is also designing the Sentosa-Brani Master Plan, which will see many members of the Gardens by the Bay project reunite to create nature-attuned recreational destinations by harnessing Sentosa and Pulau Brani’s natural ridge-to-reef attributes.

Meanwhile, design consultancy Wow Architects is creating another nature-guided tourism attraction for the Singapore Zoo. In the Mandai resort, which is operated by hospitality marque Banyan Tree, more than half of the matured trees on site will be retained, and other native species planted. Guests will be housed in elevated, pod-like rooms that reduce impact on the environment, encouraged to be hands-on with green processes, and be upfront with Singapore’s fauna and flora.

Wow Architects co-founder Maria Warner Wong believes that knowledge is key to making biophilic architecture effective—be it subtly through ecotourism or at policy level. But more importantly, this bond with the land should come naturally, which takes time to develop for city folks used to a manicured form of nature. 

(Related: How SCDA Designed The Singapore Art Museum's New Look)

“We can become more familiar with our own surroundings, more comfortable with the environment and less fearful of nature as we grow accustomed to it,” she reiterates. Tan agrees, highlighting that a paradigm shift is needed in the industry away from the notion of buildings beyond real estate derivatives. “Buildings are works of art, and they are our homes; they contribute to health too—Covid-19 drives that point home. These aren’t necessarily things you can write into a building code but developed into societal and cultural sensitivities over time.”

Read other stories that are part of our series on biophilic design here:

How WilkinsonEyre Bridges Art And Science In Projects Like Gardens By the Bay

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