Beyond Buildings


Dumb Dome: Singapore Builds a Desert

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The Flower Dome at Singapore’s Marina Bay Gardens. Image Credit: Aaron Betsky.

The domes soar, the paths curve toward alluringly odd plants, and a thousand year-old olive tree elicits gasps. What’s not to like about the new Flower Dome at Singapore’s Marina Bay Gardens? The scale, the way in which it seems so out of place, and the horrid design of the actual gardens.

The Dome, which officially opens to the public next June, is the first part of the development of a 150-acre garden district adjacent to the line of hotels, casinos, shopping malls, and office buildings that is now rising to define the contours of a human-made reservoir next to Singapore’s downtown. To its south, a residential area will stretch out on reclaimed land to the seashore. The public garden part of this redevelopment, the buildings of which will eventually more than quadruple the CBD, represents an investment of close to a billion U.S. dollars. That's quite a statement about the importance of public space.

The outdoor portion of the gardens has been designed by Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Porter, and promises to be quite beautiful. I cannot say the same of what landscape architects Grant Associates have wrought inside the two domes. Those structures come from the boards of WilkinsonEyre Architects (the whole thing is a bit of a British colonial affair, as that is where most of the designers come from), who made their name designing some of the more exuberant examples of British High Tech. The two stretched ovoids bear more than a passing resemblance to the Stirling & Wilford Esplanade Performing Arts Center just on the other side of the Marina. The Flower Dome shows off what we can do with technology: when you enter, it stretches out for its full two acres in front of you, its asymmetrical ribs completing their 400-foot arc without any visible support.

Once you catch your breath, there are more wonders in store, including bulbous desert trees that store water in their trunks, as well as the aforementioned olive trees.  Unfortunately, those specimens look like midgets in the huge space, while they sit in raised beds that curve up behind purple retaining walls in configurations that seem designed to prove that nature should be left to do the forms it does so well, while humans should stick to orthogonal shapes. Everything—from the proportions of the various accouterments to the breadth of the planters, which always make you feel you are missing something—annoys. The color and signage choices, which again make you wish humans had stuck to unnatural whites, grays, and blacks, make it all worse.

The interior of the Flower Dome at Singapore’s Marina Bay Gardens. Image Credit: Aaron Betsky.

Beyond the discrepancy between the form and the decoration or exhibit design (for some of which Land Design Studio must take credit), the whole thing makes you wonder: why I am in this massive artificial environment while outside there is a sub-tropical paradise? Singapore aims to be a global city, and part of their efforts include bringing commerce as well as culture, and I guess horticulture, from every continent there. You have to wonder whether there would not have been a simpler and more easily maintainable manner(though the Dome is supposed to be “sustainable,” that mainly means using burning biomass for the massive amount of cooling it needs) to bring the high desert to this tropical paradise.

One of my favorite parts of Singapore is its (outdoor) botanical garden, home to the world’s largest selection of orchids. It is a dense and labyrinthine oasis by the Orchard Road shopping Mecca. It reflects what Singapore is, not what any aspiring world city wants to be. When I was an advisor to their Redevelopment Agency (see my previous post), I argued that a simple law requiring the first few floors of all new construction to be shaded, but open and un-conditioned, would help reinforce what makes it such a great place. Unfortunately, Singapore always seems to want to be something else.


Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:04 PM Monday, December 05, 2011

    I think you're giving Singapore a little bit too much credit. Singapore never sought to be something else. It always follows the footsteps of others. The esplanade, after the sydney opera house, the flyers, after the london eye, the flower dome, the eden project. Zouk out, parties that happen on a normal weekend on ibiza. ponggol rivers, try the ones that cut through the city of south korea.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.