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Garden city, mega city

Singapore is famed for its urban greenery cascading from skyscrapers throughout the city – something Richard Hassell (M Architecture, 2002), a principal at architecture firm WOHA, brings to life in his work. Here he tells the story behind three major projects by the firm.

1

The PARKROYAL on Pickering (completed 2013)

Singapore is a city-nation and all the available land is already taken up. Cities are getting so big and sprawling and if you don’t provide eco systems and greenery and habitat through the city, eventually there’s nowhere else – you’d just have one enormous urban conglomerate that stretches forever.

With the PARKROYAL on Pickering Hotel, we wanted to push the boundaries and see how many plants we could get into this building. Greenery is drawn up the building and planted in lush openings, crevasses, gullies and waterfalls.

We also wanted to get rid of the underground carpark. These are one of the silent criminals in the sustainable world – they just sit there sucking energy for decades. They need constant air pumped into them, and water pumped out of them. So they’re actually very energy-intensive spaces and yet they’re terribly non-enjoyable spaces.

So we put the carpark above ground and surrounded it with greenery. Our experience is everyone loves to do the right thing and create environmentally sustainable buildings, they love to do things that are new and exciting – but they also have to balance a budget. Not having a basement carpark saves five months of construction time and a lot of expense.

We’ve proven that it is possible to create quite large areas of habitat on a high rise building and now we’re really interested in working with ecologists and landscape designers to make these vertical landscapes do a lot more.

If you created a selection of plants that provide fruit and flowering throughout the year, then you can support a continuous population of birds and animals. It’s possible that the entire city becomes a connected ecosystem. You can have amazing nature going on outside your window rather than watching it on TV.

A family of otters have recolonised Singapore through the river in the CBD. I saw a whole family of them the other day – each one holding a huge fish that they were eating like corn. It’s so cute and everyone was taking pictures and posting them on Instagram so there’s this kind of multiplier effect too. It’s hugely beneficial to live with nature – which is why we should think about spending money on that, rather than underground carparks.

2

Alila Villas Uluwatu, Bali, Indonesia (completed 2009)

You can’t assume what worked in one country will work in another. It’s actually incredible how different it is – for example, in apartment projects, how big the master bedroom is in relation to the living and dining area is precisely calibrated and different in every country.

The Alila Villas Uluwatu in Bali was a boutique hotel project that went very slowly and took almost a decade from beginning to end, but it was also nice because we had the chance to work with local traditional crafts in Indonesia.

We had really big problems finding sustainable wood in Indonesia. So the owner found out that the government was replacing all the telephone poles in Indonesia with concrete ones and so he painstakingly collected lots of them from auctions over about two years, and all the recycled iron wood was then used for construction.

Our landscape and carpenters were also really committed and did things like collecting all the local plants and going to the gardens to get them identified. It was a rare experience where everyone was doing good and interesting things and we’d all go and eat barbecued fish on the edge of the cliffs and talk about what the project could be.

My RMIT journey was quite unusual as I did my Master of Architecture by correspondence in Singapore as part of a program run by Professor Leon van Schaik.

It was a really smart program and it was super useful to me as a practitioner. When you’re running a practice, in a way, you’re preaching to the converted. You’re singing a song that everyone wants to hear but no one is pulling you up on claims that are being made.

The program had that rigour to say things like, “Isn’t what you’re saying there contradictory to what you’re doing here?” For us it really helped focus our ethos and our practice and what we thought we were doing.

3

SkyVille @ Dawson, Singapore (completed 2015)

I think a lot of architectural innovation in the past 20 years has been about façade and formal expression. The middle and low end of housing tends to be pretty generic as it can’t afford these games. But there are many other elements that can be critically studied such as the social spaces and relationships of public and private spaces.

This was a large public housing project and we were really interested in whether there was possibility to create the sort of social village space that people used to live in generations ago in Singapore. So this project includes a series of “villages” within the high rise. Everybody is a very short distance from a public space which is something that they can use as a community, a place to meet up with friends and family, if you want to have a barbecue.

It’s something we’re really proud of because it was rolled out in a big government organisation, it was 100% prefabricated development with a lot of time constraints and budgets on what could and couldn’t be done.

If you manage to build one project right and achieve something, it does create a benchmark that other people try to emulate, so that can drive a lot of change. And it takes out a lot of risk for other people as they can go and see it and always improve on it.

There’s a lot of green accreditations for buildings out there, and those are great, but they can also give people a sense of complacency. So we introduced a new one – it’s called the ‘self-sufficiency rating’, in our latest book, Garden City, Mega City. If every component of a city is self-sufficient then the city itself will be self-sufficient. Our own buildings scored appallingly by this measure, which is fine because everyone else’s do too. If Singapore wants to be self-sufficient then the city has to be self-sufficient and all the components of the city must do their part.

We find hopping between project typologies quite stimulating as you can bring something you learnt on an underground train station to a high rise or a resort to a city hotel.

We find that it’s terribly boring to become an expert in something and have to do it over and over again. And I think it’s also bad for you creatively as there’s only so many ways you can solve a problem over and over again and you end up following a formula.

It’s important to us to keep jumping between different types of projects and allowing them to influence each other and bring new experiences to our work.

Richard Hassell was awarded a Master of Architecture in 2002. He is the co-founder of WOHA, a Singapore-based architectural practice, which has gained global recognition for its dedication to the environment and sustainability.