Worldwide, and for a few years now, some architects have been designing buildings that integrate “green” components in their morphological characteristics in an attempt to respond to the environmental crisis. The “three-dimensional garden”, created by the Singaporean firm WOHA, entered the contemporary debate on the relationship between built environment and nature.
On one side, those who consider planting trees an almost “natural” way to contribute to Net-Zero impacts. From this point of view, plants and trees are still conceived for traditional outdoor green spaces but also added to interior spaces, roofs, and elevations. To cite an Italian case, the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) designed by Stefano Boeri could be the most known example of this approach. Since its realization, this project has almost become the firm’s trademark and inspired many others.
On the other hand, some consider this strategy simply a fashionable practice, perhaps frivolous, with no practical ability to reduce global pollution. Indeed, one may suggest that the “green conquest” of the façades transforms buildings into mere supports for vegetation growth. In any case, such a design strategy also promotes a formal figure beyond its environmental paradigm. In hiding behind the green surfaces of the plantations, architecture seems to recede instead of facing the challenge of proposing new and original formal poetics that can respond to the current needs of the environmental sustainability.
This is not the case of the project we are focusing on. For many years, the Singapore firm used greenery more meaningfully rather than just cosmetically. WOHA’s architectural research fully reflects the green strategy of the Asian city already present in the political will of its rulers since independence in 1965. Meticulously planned, such a strategy has been developed and applied efficiently to become the dominant theme of the main legislative document concerning environmental sustainability in urban development: the Singapore Green Plan 2030.
From the designers’ point of view, the pavilion has one goal: to demonstrate that the built environment does not need to replace nature and exclude it from contemporary overbuilt urban contexts.
In this sense, the pavilion design proposes an assembly of three main typological elements: the horizontal planes, the suspended paths, and the conical internal volumes. In addition to offering physical support to the whole complex, the cones provide the only almost-closed spaces of a rather open and highly permeable system that interacts with the local climate. At the same time, however, using vegetation pervasively defines a tangible ecosystem. It can offer better comfort to visitors, reducing the temperature by a few degrees with respect to the outside. Obviously, this “natural machine” needs sophisticated technologies to support the feasibility of the operation. It is here that the transdisciplinary nature of the designers’ approach emerges and informs the architectural solutions.
The pavilion was conceived to be completely self-sufficient from an energy point of view using photovoltaic panels positioned on the roof and to minimize water waste. For this reason, the water present in the saline soil was withdrawn on-site through a reverse osmosis process then desalinated it to meet the needs of irrigation and nebulization. In the end, creating a tropical paradox in the desert requires considerable quantities of water.
Digital control of plants’ health is provided by robots who help architecture be as biophilic as possible in its theoretical aims; instead, one may argue that it could be understood as a cumbersome cyborg in its actual built application.
Beyond the Singapore government’s environmental aspirations and communication strategies in proposing its participation, the building is an excellent example of elegant architecture, undoubtedly modern and impeccably built. All the details celebrate its “green” content. The black painted metal structure perfectly integrates the technical services until they disappear. Every detail, such as the false ceiling made up of thousands of black pots – those of the nursery seedlings to be clear – contributes to the notion of “green architecture”. As it always happens, if the design idea is coherently developed down to the last detail, it becomes an architectural statement, clearly recognizable, the bearer of a strong identity and resulting quality. In this sense, the building represents the canvas on which the “green world” imagined by its designers is painted. The space offers notable perceptive cues changing as one walks through it. The canopy walk is the tectonic device used for crossing different zones. It provides glimpses of the various plant, floral, and artistic installations in an internal/external alternation typical of tropical architecture. Such design is always careful to interpret the peculiar climatic conditions offering intermediate, permeable spatiality, criticizing and reinterpreting, by decomposing it, the building envelope.
The Singapore Pavilion is a manifesto. It is the declaration that contemporary cities and architecture can reconnect with nature. However, in the last resort, one may wonder: what kind of nature? Because, around the planet, the latter has radically different characteristics. Singapore is a hot, stormy, humid, typically tropical place. In that region, nature is potent, and it seems invincible. It overrides man’s attempts to domesticate it, as happened successfully in the western hemisphere to which we are most accustomed.
Singapore has always been green. Therefore, through its architecture and urban development, the city is not pursuing an ideological goal but is trying to establish a dialogue with such a dominant entity inherent in its nature.
For this reason, Singapore’s choice to become a Green City is not alien and imposed from above. It is a natural choice.