5 Minutes With...Moshe Safdie, The Architect Of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands And Jewel Changi Airport
In Big Yellow Taxi, the pop song originally penned by Joni Mitchell, there’s a lament to urban blight in the lyric “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. Jewel Changi Airport, however, is singing a different tune. The 135,700sqm complex is built on the site of a former carpark, and now houses Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie’s vision of paradise: the world’s tallest indoor waterfall surrounded by a lush garden populated by thousands of trees, palms and shrubs that span 120 species.
We sat down with the genial Safdie to find out more about how he tackled this formidable project when he was in town to take journalists on a special guided tour of Jewel.
What inspired the design of Jewel?
Moshe Safide (MS) We wanted to do something that would be timeless and universal, that people from all walks of life would want to keep coming back to. That led me to think of some great paradise, a mythical garden.
I am fascinated by the idea of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, in which explorer Marco Polo describes cities with gardens suspended in the sky. Another landscape I remember vividly is from the movie Avatar. So we wanted to create this feeling of a garden that has the promise of a greater life, a better life—an optimistic place.
If you go through, say, a rose garden, it gives great pleasure, but it is what it is. I think a mythical garden is one where nature becomes bigger than itself. Everybody always says that Singapore is a city of gardens, the Garden City. This kind of becomes a metaphor for that whole idea.
What were the challenges of turning this fantasy of a mythical garden into reality?
MS The waterfall was a particularly formidable challenge. We created a mock-up in Burbank, Los Angeles, to ensure that it was feasible. The dome’s height had to stay below the radar, literally, of the air traffic control tower, so that was one constraint.
To accommodate the existing tracks of the Skytrain, this dome is actually an asymmetrical toroid, meaning the occulus where the rainwater comes through isn’t in the middle of the building. That was a geometric nightmare, but I think that tension in the geometry has also made it so much more beautiful.
We also had to make the case for commercial signage not to intrude on the garden. The retail marketplace and this space of nature cohabit side by side, but they cannot mix because then they will compromise one another.
This is the third project you’ve designed for an airport. What was different about this project?
MS The other two in Israel and Canada respectively, were full-fledged airports. This one is a centre for an airport, so they are very different assignments. I’ve been coming to Singapore for 40 years, I know how much Singaporeans love their airport. I love this airport. Changi Airport is amazing because of its care for the passengers, and how that manifests in every part of the customer experience. There are no lines, security is painless.
But, Changi has not been famous for its architecture. So I think what Jewel does is add a dimension of amazing architecture to Changi that contributes to its draw as an attractive hub. Airports are usually stressful and mostly obnoxious spaces; our role as architects is to make them pleasant and easy to navigate.
In hubs, where people can spend many hours between flights, you’ve got to give them something to do. Jewel’s garden gives them something serene that uplifts the spirit. Knowing how competitive this business is, people running other airports are probably scratching their heads right now and trying to figure out what they should do in response.
This is the second Singapore architectural icon you’ve designed, following Marina Bay Sands. Did you set out to create icons?
MS No, I set out to design wonderful places for people, not icons. I don’t know what an icon is, except we use that word when we feel good about the design. The Sydney Opera House is a symbol of Australia, the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris, but it’s rare for buildings to rise to that level.
I am, of course, pleased that Marina Bay Sands has become etched in people’s minds as a symbol of Singapore, but I didn’t assume it would happen. I think it happened because it is not a ‘one-moment wow’ building; it has some strong ideas behind it.
The Sky Park is not a visual gimmick—it represents a new way of thinking about cities, as places where you can create high-rise parks. It combines deep meaning with an exciting form, and that’s what people remember.
You will be designing a fourth tower for Marina Bay Sands. Is it a lot of pressure to add to a building that has become so iconic?
MS Not at all. I don’t think I need to make it more iconic, I just need to make sure I don’t spoil it. At the same time, the new tower should add value, and I think we are on our way to achieving that.
It will be a complementary building but will stand in its own right, a yin to the yang of the existing structure. It’s meant to be harmonious with the current Marina Bay Sands, but somewhat different in its posture, and we are very excited to be working on it.