The man behind the Supertrees
British landscape architect Andrew Grant, lead designer of Gardens By The Bay South, tells Senior Writer Cheong Suk-Wai that those Supertrees serve a practical function too: of letting off hot air.
The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2012
THE enchanted forest that is Gardens By The Bay South may seem the fruit of fevered imaginings, with its towering Supertrees, clamshell-like conservatories and rainbow gardens.
Indeed, landscape architect Andrew Grant, the gardens' master planner and lead designer, drew inspiration from the magical jungles in the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke for Singapore's $1 billion newest public park.
But that spectacle was underpinned by his insistence that the Gardens should be, above all, a model ecosystem too.
Mr Grant, 54, founder of the eponymous Grant Associates, recalled: "Right at the beginning, I did sketches to show how the energy cycles in the gardens should relate with its water cycles and rainfall patterns. My challenge to my design team was for them to find efficient and environmentally friendly relationships between the gardens' buildings and its landscape."
He is a farm boy at heart, who grew up "in tune with the seasons". At his father's farm in the village of Roos in East Yorkshire, he fed the family pigs, harvested corn and packed sacks with just-dug potatoes. The instinct to protect, not harm, natural surroundings is ingrained in him.
Mr Grant, married with two young daughters, has never owned a car. It helps that he lives in Bath, the historic south-western British city where everything from the train station to the theatre is within walking distance.
He says he was deeply influenced by a fellow landscape architect, the late Geoffrey Jellicoe. In 1994, Mr Jellicoe told him that since the job of landscape architects was to "make marks" on the environment, whether in Stonehenge or in the city, it was better to make sure those marks healed, not harmed, the Earth.
Mr Grant's belief in that led to the biggest bump in the road for the gardens' design team: how to cool two giant glasshouses without using energy-guzzling air-conditioners?
The solution from his team-mates at Wilkinson Eyre Architects was simple yet daring: Burn the tonnes of grass clippings and wood waste from all over Singapore for heat to power turbines that would in turn chill underground water pipes to cool the conservatories from the floor up.
That innovation has won Mr Grant's team global renown. Yesterday, the conservatories were collectively named the World Building of the Year, which is the top prize at the prestigious World Architecture Festival (WAF), held here this year.
There was a portent of their victory on Thursday, when Wilkinson Eyre took home the WAF Display award for the conservatories.
Grant Associates was also up for best completed urban landscape project, but lost to Germany's Atelier Dreiseitl, which scored for another Singapore project, the Kallang River Bishan Park.
As lead designer, Mr Grant parcelled out the work on the gardens, from Supertrees to conservatories, to the various partnering firms.
A senior landscape architect was put in charge of each parcel while Mr Grant then "guided, cajoled and made sure they worked to my masterplan", along with his Grant Associates colleague, Mr Keith French.
Gardens By The Bay chief executive Tan Wee Kiat said of the team effort that helped turn Gardens by the Bay from a tropical garden concept dreamt up by the National Parks Board (NParks) to reality: "We had a unique working arrangement that entailed housing the consultants spearheaded by Grant Associates, the entirely local team of contractors, the government agency partners in the project and the entire Gardens by the Bay staff under one roof."
The design vision for Gardens by the Bay South began in 2006, when Grant Associates beat 75 others in the international design competition NParks held for the gardens' masterplan. Before clinching that contract, the 32-person firm's projects were mainly within Britain.
So Mr Grant considered the 54ha gardens on reclaimed land a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity, because of its sheer scale and complexity. He recalled: "We were all struck by Singapore's vision, which is all about thinking ahead. I mean, to actually have faith in making a statement like 'We're going to put this huge park in the centre of this prime place and this is what Singapore is going to be about' is very bold and visionary."
He began by doing little sketches of Singapore icons such as the Merlion and Changi Airport before settling on the national flower, the orchid, as the layout template for the gardens.
"We thought through how the orchid's stems became the network of pathways, growing into the city, how its blooms would be the special gardens and how its leaves would be the project's infrastructure, like roads and drains."
To enhance visitors' sense of awe, he took a leaf from southwestern Australia's Valley of the Giants, in which grow trees of varying heights, from the 20m-high eucalyptus to Karri trees that each shoot up to 70m. From that, he decided to create a cluster of Supertrees "that were tree-like but did not copy trees", which doubled up as vertical gardens shooting up to 50m skywards, made of steel and concrete.
Some critics pan the Supertrees as complicated, unnecessary structures that are mere steel copies of real trees. Why not just plant giant tropical trees, the way the domed conservatories transplanted huge baobab trees from Africa to Marina Bay?
He pointed out that his team had already done so by creating the Fragile Forest, which has young rainforest trees that would grow to great heights in time.
In fact, the Supertrees also serve a practical function: as concrete chimneys. The burning of waste material to cool the conservatories generates a lot of smoke. This smoke is treated to remove particles and then deplumed to suck the ash out of the air.
The result is purified hot air which is then released into the atmosphere via chimneys hidden in the Supertrees.
Some have also wondered if Mr Grant took inspiration from the tree-like structures in Clarke Quay, the brainchild of another British architect, Mr Stephen Pimbley of British firm Alsop Architects. Mr Pimbley's sprouting structures form a giant canopy over Clarke Quay's common areas, and look like transparent lilypads viewed from under water.
Mr Grant laughed good-naturedly, then stressed that that was not the case, although both projects shared the same structural engineer.
Some of his ideas may have drawn brickbats in the global design world, but Mr Grant says it was remarkable that NParks and other agencies involved supported the unusual design vision. There were no naysayers.
Instead, he found Singapore's whole-of-government approach an education in best practices.
NParks saw to all the plants for the gardens. His team worked closely with the Public Utilities Board on how to supply water efficiently to their ecosystem, and also with the Building and Construction Authority and CPG Corp (the former Public Works Department). These all worked together, producing integrated design, water, ecology, energy and value-for-money solutions.
The Singapore government's "sense of thinking ahead" impressed him deeply.
"In many other places," he mused, "they would build the buildings first and leave the parks for later. But Singapore is thinking of its future, how in this century can it create a better environment for all here."
He added, "What you get here is a very clear, direct link from the Government's policies which are very clearly expressed by your prime minister, which translate very quickly into projects and programmes.
"In Europe, and certainly in Britain, you will have those policies but they'd have to filter through a whole myriad of influences before they end up somewhere to be implemented."
He has opened Grant Associates' first overseas office here, manned by five colleagues. They are working on projects such as the mixed development of the Capitol Theatre site here, Kuala Lumpur's new financial hub the Tun Razak Exchange, and raising visitor arrivals to Malaysia's Endau-Rompin National Park.
Meanwhile, his work on the gardens goes on. He told The Straits Times that the gardens will soon get a second bridge linking its Meadow to the Bayfront MRT station, as well as a 9m-long bronze sculpture of a baby titled Planets, by British artist Marc Quinn.
Best of all and "incredibly satisfying", he said, is this: "Seeing so many people go, 'Wow! Wow! Wow!' with smiles on their faces at all hours of the day... it's the most rewarding thing."