Jewel Changi Airport will be a Singapore icon, says architect

Multi-award-winning architect Moshe Safdie says he expects Jewel Changi Airport to become a powerful icon for Singapore.

Mr Safdie, 80, who also designed Marina Bay Sands, said he did not expect MBS to become a landmark symbol of Singapore, possibly exceeding the status of the Sydney Opera House.

“I do predict now, though, that Jewel will become an icon for Singapore no less than MBS,” he told reporters on Friday, ahead of Jewel Changi Airport’s official opening on Wednesday.

While many architects focus on the outward structure and form of a building, much of Jewel’s beauty lies within the 135,700 sq m development. The centrepiece is a five-storey garden with a 40m-tall indoor waterfall and more than 2,000 trees and palms.

“That is the difference between the 10-minute ‘wow’ and the long-lived ‘wow’,” said the Canadian-Israeli.

When he first discussed with property developer CapitaLand about a thematic attraction to go with the retail space for Jewel, “the obvious ideas started flying around”.

“Dinosaurs, an aquarium, some thematic kind of attraction. But we, as the architects in the room, resisted this notion of something limited,” he said.

Mr Safdie, founder of Safdie Architects, said such attractions have a limited lifespan and would appeal only to a particular age range.

Instead, he aimed for an attraction that would appeal to every age and income group.

“That led me to think of some kind of great paradise and a mystical garden. Something that would be appropriate for an airport and that is a place of serenity and repose,” he said.

He drew inspiration from the 2009 film Avatar, which had a landscape that he says blew his mind.

“At some point, we tried to get a hanging rock for the garden, to be placed in the middle of the dome, but it was too heavy,” he added.

The shape of the building, he said, is like a doughnut, or in geometrical terms, a torus.

The unique shape means that rain that falls on the dome naturally collects towards the centre, thus forming the building’s indoor waterfall.

The HSBC Rain Vortex, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, features water falling through the roof at a velocity of 10,000 gallons per minute. The water is then circulated through pipes concealed within the building. A water tank with a 500,000-litre capacity is stored at basement three of Jewel. Rainwater is also harvested for the landscape irrigation system.

While Mr Safdie had quite a free hand, he faced some challenges while designing Jewel.

One was the skytrain tracks that run through it.

“When we designed the torus, we wanted it to be symmetrical with the oculus (circular opening) in the middle. That would have meant that since the train runs in the centre line of the building – that every train coming through would get a train wash. I think that would have caused issues!”

So the oculus of the torus had to be moved off-centre, which was a “geometric nightmare”. But he said the asymmetry makes the building more beautiful and “created a tension in the geometry”.

Another challenge was height restrictions – the development had to be below the radar of Changi Airport’s iconic control tower.

“That limited us to about 37m above street level. We could have used more height to get more curvature to the dome as it would have been more efficient.”

But the biggest challenge was ensuring that the building was comfortable for both people and plants.

“We needed to get enough sunlight in for the plants but still keep the temperature at a comfortable 24 deg C for the people.”

Besides air-conditioning, there are also chilled pipes in the floors and fogging devices near the top of the waterfall to cool the air. In an open space at Canopy Park, retractable shades mounted on the roof help to provide cover.

Asked what he thinks of comments that Jewel looks like MBS, Mr Safdie is unperturbed. “If Jewel looks like Marina Bay Sands, then I look like a horse. I can’t see it. Yes, it has similar ingredients, it has shopping and gardens. But in essence they are totally different.”

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