The Straits Times: Gardens by the Bay: No walk in the park

The Straits Times reports on the various challenges faced in building Gardens by the Bay.

Gardens by the Bay: No walk in the park

THE just-opened Gardens by the Bay is not a garden in any traditional sense, but rather a theme park based on plants.

Its chief executive, Dr Tan Wee Kiat, 69, says: ‘We consider the Gardens a New Age park, a truly tropical garden very much based on the understanding that we are creating a people’s garden by reflecting their culture.

‘What this also means is that we are developing a garden for people who don’t normally come to gardens.’

That is because visiting parks is not a tropical tradition, not least because of the sweltering climate and because there are few of the mass flowerings that people in temperate countries enjoy.

What a leap the $1 billion Gardens is from the time former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew planted his first tree on Tree Planting Day in 1963, thus entrenching for his countrymen the vision of bush-lined boulevards, neighbourhoods and even industrial estates, and to signal to investors that Singaporeans were highly disciplined workers and well worth investing in.

The Government has been so committed to that garden city vision that from the get-go, it housed its parks department under the Ministry of National Development to emphasise that greening was an essential part of Singapore’s infrastructure.

In 1973, it set up the Garden City Action Committee, which reported regularly to the prime minister, no less, on national greening efforts.

Dr Tan recalls that Mr Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Mr Lee, once remarked that Singapore was the only country he knew whose head of government read garden reports.

The Republic also shut the door on lucrative but polluting heavy industries.

Today, says the National Parks Board, Singapore has achieved the improbable – it has grown even more green spaces despite ever-rapid urbanisation; in 2007, 47 per cent of the island was green compared with 36 per cent in 1986.

Such relentless greening is how the Gardens came to exist.

It all began in 2004, when Singapore’s city planners and park developers sat down together to work out how to shape a 360ha piece of prime land next to the Central Business District that had been reclaimed in the 1970s. That will be the New Downtown.

In an interview earlier this month, HDB chief executive Cheong Koon Hean, 55, who then headed the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2004, said she wanted Singapore to have a green lung like London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park and that 360ha site was the perfect opportunity to do so.

They eventually settled on carving out 101ha for that green lung, which would house three gardens – the 54ha Bay South (which opened yesterday), the 32ha Bay East and the 15ha Bay Central.

At this point, Dr Tan, who was then chief of the National Parks Board and had spruced up the Botanic Gardens, proposed that they not only rejuvenate Marina City Park, but also make it Singapore’s second Botanic Gardens.

He recalls: ‘By 2004, the Botanic Gardens here had attained a popularity that was causing it to strain its resources as a recreation spot.

‘So we felt it was time for another park of the same scope, scale and magnitude as the Botanic Gardens to take some of the heat of attraction off it, and allow it to perform its more traditional role as a botanic institution.’

For more than 100 years, the plant-rich Botanic Gardens has been a treasure trove for international botanists, including housing a species capable of fighting HIV.

The proposal for the new park, which Dr Tan named Gardens by the Bay, went up to the Ministry of Finance and then the Cabinet in 2004. The Cabinet allowed them to craft the project brief in 2005 and launch an international design competition in 2006, which drew 76 entries.

Mr Khew Sin Khoon, president and chief executive of CPG Corp (the former Public Works Department), which is the overall consultant for the Gardens, travelled with Dr Tan and his team to visit designers, famous as well as unknown, during the competition.

Mr Khew recalls: ‘We weren’t sure how many landscape architects would take part because it was just gardens, which might not have the international buzz of a building.’

Eventually, small British firm Grant Associates won the right to mastermind the building of the Gardens. Announcing this, then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said: ‘I would expect that $300 million to $400 million will be needed to develop a normal group of Gardens of this nature.’

All well and good, but the Gardens team had first the mammoth task of transforming a barren site bereft of roads, drains, sewers and electricity. Worse, it was all reclaimed land, which meant they had to express as much water out as possible to hasten the settling of what was essentially sand on top of the sea floor, by piling on rich soil in which plants could grow.

Dr Tan lets on that the site seemed so unpromising that an earlier suggestion that it be offered to Malaysia in exchange for Tanjong Pagar railway land was seen as a non-starter. On top of that, recalls Mr Ng Boon Gee, the Gardens’ assistant director of development, they had to build an underground canal the size of Bukit Timah Canal to channel out rainwater that might otherwise flood the Gardens’ grounds.

And just as Dr Tan’s team broke ground in September 2007, right after the Cabinet gave them $893 million to build the Gardens, the cost of construction materials and labour spiked by 34 per cent, and as infrastructure works soaked up almost 80 per cent of the budget, they would certainly bust it.

Dr Tan says evenly: ‘When we say our final expenditure was $1 billion, people think, ‘That $1 billion went into what?’ Well, a lot of it went into what you don’t see as basic infrastructure. What you do see, like the 700,000 plants, cost less than 20 per cent of the budget.’

Singapore was in a building frenzy then, with two integrated resorts (IRs) and numerous condominiums to complete. Worse, there was also a global building boom fuelled by China, causing demand to outstrip supply madly. Mr Ng recalls: ‘We were caught in between the building of two IRs and the contractors sent in such high bids to us!”

In the end, they settled on five main contractors, all local.

Grimly, they began cutting back, even deliberately delaying the opening by almost two years so that the five local main contractors could spread out the costs. They settled for aluminium instead of titanium shelters, cement instead of granite pavements and 18 instead of 36 supertrees.

Things came to such a head that they almost had to scrap the Gardens’ two iconic glasshouses, or domes, which cost $400 million in total to build.

Asked why there should be domes, Dr Tan says: ‘People were telling me, ‘We want roses and cherry blossoms, we want colour, shade and open spaces but we don’t want humidity.’ So the glasshouses fulfil that.’

A garden looks its best when it is mature but with only five years to create the Gardens, Dr Tan and his team had to comb construction sites for old trees that had to go, and salvaged cannonballs from Upper Cross Street, Madras thorns from Seletar Airbase and frangipanis from Bidadari Cemetery to be replanted in the Gardens.

In the end, they busted the original budget by 16 per cent but managed to justify keeping the glasshouses, bringing the total spent so far to $1 billion.

They also got to keep the glasshouses because they found a way to cool them without money-guzzling air-conditioners. Instead, the domes are cooled from the bottom up using underground chilled water pipes cooled by electricity generated from the burning of plant detritus. That has cut the domes’ energy bill by 30 per cent, although Dr Tan and his team still will not divulge the cooling costs.

But he did allow that maintaining the entire Gardens would cost about $50 million a year, little of which they will recoup even if the 2.7 million visitors they expect yearly give them the projected revenue of $1 billion in the next 10 years.

Admission to the Gardens is free, save for the domes ($20) and the skybridge walk ($5).

Dr Tan says: ‘The payments will not pay for replacements without the help of sponsors, and that is why we have been going around with a tin cup.’

So it is that while the Gardens is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, it is of such social and educational benefit that the Commissioner of Charities has recognised it as a charity and an Institution of a Public Character. This means it pays no tax except goods and services tax and can accept donations, and those who donate get a 250 per cent tax rebate.

Also, recognising that the Gardens is really public infrastructure, the Government underwrites the shortfall between what the Gardens earns and what it has to spend to maintain the Gardens.

Speaking of which, Dr Tan admits that he does not have enough staff to check that visitors do not pluck or take away the Gardens’ plants, 60 per cent of which are rarely seen here.

He says: ‘Building these Gardens is like giving you an iPad with which you do your own thing… So enjoy it but protect it and prevent others from destroying what is yours.’

The day the earth moved beneath the feet

WHEN Mr Kenneth Er stood on a 54ha piece of reclaimed land that was to become one of Gardens by the Bay’s three gardens, he felt the earth move under his feet.

Literally.

Contractors were speeding up the settlement of the land, which required loading it with earth mounds and sucking water out from the soil 30m to 40m deep.

One of the mounds slipped, causing a landslide.

‘We literally ran for our lives. It was like an earthquake,’ recalled the 40-year-old chief operating officer of the new gardens.

When he went back to look at it again, his first thought was: How are we going to get this fixed?

The answer came from his chief executive, Dr Tan Wee Kiat, who looked at the damage and said: ‘We will turn this into a wetland.’

Getting Singapore’s next great icon ready over the last seven years has been no walk in the park. ‘We used to joke that people who came on this project didn’t ride on business class. It was cargo. It was a lot of turbulence along the way,’ said Mr Er, a forest ecologist who has spent most of his career at the National Parks Board (NParks).

That thought did not quite cross his mind when he was first asked to get on board.

He had finished a secondment term as deputy director of infrastructure at the National Development Ministry and it was his first day back at NParks.

‘There was no team, no big buzz about it. I was just told to report to work. You just didn’t have time to get excited about it,’ he said matter-of-factly.

But the magnitude of the project soon sank in.

‘You look at the site and what you have to do, and it seemed so insurmountable.’ Especially for a forestry expert who had to put together advanced engineering systems to make the manmade mega-park hum.

An enormous amount of research has gone into every aspect of the gardens’ operations – from studying how much temperature and light are needed for plants to flower and how long the flowers would hold, to how to keep heat out of the conservatories but let in as much light as possible, and what energy sources to use.

Then there was the re-engineering work that had to be done when the project was hit by escalating costs because of a crunch in the construction industry.

‘Every day and night, even Christmas, we were doing value engineering – how to contain the cost,’ said Mr Er, who has a master’s degree in forestry from the University of British Columbia in Canada.

That has meant cutting down the number of supertrees from 36 to 18; making them lighter, thus using less steel; and reducing the excavation needed for the carpark and service tunnels.

When asked what aspect of the project he is most proud of, Mr Er did not hesitate.

‘That all the main contractors are local ones.’

On a personal note, Gardens by the Bay has been a dream come true.

‘You would never think that you would ever be involved in something like this – to deal with plants of such palette and variety and experiment with a wide array of technologies,’ he said, with a smile.

‘But now, I still feel we have a long way more to go. And we’ll just keep going.’

‘Once in a lifetime project’ for design team

WHEN a National Parks Board team was in London to meet architects to tell them about an international competition to design a major landscape project, two people from small landscape architecture firm Grant Associates took a train from Bath to the big city.

There, they met the Singaporeans in a hotel lobby, and were wowed by the prospects of the project. The company’s director, Mr Andrew Grant, 53, had won awards before. But never had he, in the 15 years since he set up his own practice, taken on anything of this magnitude.

The brief: to design the world’s best tropical garden. A significant visitor attraction. One with a conservatory with two distinct environments and habitats.

It was hard to pass up on it. He got down to work, building a team comprising architects Wilkinson Eyre, structural engineers Atelier One and environmental engineers Atelier Ten.

The masterplan: a series of supertrees with a science fiction feel, inspired by the Valley of the Giants in south-west Australia. It features a tree-top walk through a grove of more than 400-year-old giant trees. And two huge cooled conservatories that, at 2ha together, would be among the biggest the world has ever seen.

‘We have maps that show different regions and other extraordinary glasshouses, but they sure as hell are not on the equator,’ said Mr Paul Baker, 53, director of Wilkinson Eyre, with a laugh. He was responsible for designing the twin domes.

Ten teams were shortlisted from over 70 applications and flown to Singapore. When the Grant-led team had a chance to peek at the other entries, they were surprised by how different each designing team responded to the brief.

‘We felt the conservatories should be near the waterfront. Others positioned them in the middle. But by being near the water, you could get good daylight and there is maximum exposure,’ said Mr Keith French, 43, landscape architect and director of Grant Associates.

‘Some were really crazy, like conservatories built underground, or with an opaque roof,’ said Mr Baker of the other ideas.

‘But there was a feeling Singapore didn’t want to play very safe. Singapore in the last 10 years had rebranded itself.’

Their design was good enough to win over the international jury panel, which included the heads of various statutory boards and famed Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.

Seven years on, the team acknowledges that a large, complex and iconic project like Gardens by the Bay has helped bolster their portfolio; the companies have even set up branches here.

‘You think, wouldn’t it be fun to do something like that in another part of the world? But it will never happen,’ said Mr Baker.

‘It’s a project you’re lucky to do once in your lifetime,’ said Mr Meredith Davey, 33, senior associate director at Atelier Ten.

A variety that stumps even an expert

MR ANTON van der Schans may be the go-to guy for all things horticultural at Singapore’s latest national garden, Gardens By The Bay.

But even the plant expert admits that of the over 2,000 plant species showcased, about 10 per cent of them were alien to him.

Between the two conservatories, the 18 supertrees and the rest of the outdoor gardens, there are some 700,000 plants from nearly every continent, except the Antarctica. There are also a large number of trees salvaged from land affected by development elsewhere on the island.

‘In selecting the plants, we wanted to showcase a diversity, particularly plants that are not commonly seen in this part of the world,’ said the Australian.

Yes, Singaporeans who were surveyed during the concept stage of the Gardens said that they wanted flowers and colour. But in the end, aesthetics was only one factor in determining the horticultural displays at Bay South, the first of the three parks which opened yesterday.

They should carry important themes and messages too, said Mr van der Schans, 48, who is assistant director of horticulture at the Gardens. ‘Our aim is to entertain and educate visitors by transporting them into diverse botanical worlds and presenting the plant kingdom in a compelling way that illustrates its important relationship with man and the ecosystem.’

The largest order the Gardens made was for its Bromeliad collection, which boasts 210,000 plants comprising 3,475 varieties, both species and hybrids. But the most difficult-to-find plant was the Mauritia flexuosa, one of Mr van der Schan’s favourite palm species from the Amazon. To date, he has only been able to obtain small seedlings as it is not widely planted outside of the Amazon.

And the most difficult to transport? The Baobab, or Adansonia digitata, from Senegal. ‘It was too large to fit in a normal 40-foot shipping container, so it had to come on an open, flatbed container,’ he recalled of the 12m-tall tree.

The National Parks Board (NParks) had been carrying out extensive experiments for this project, going as far as building a prototype glasshouse at Hort Park to test the survivability of many of these non-native plants.

The most eye-opening experience for Mr van der Schan, who studied landscape architecture in the School of Built Environment at the Queensland University of Technology, was how adaptable some of the plants have been.

Prior to joining the Gardens, he was a partner in a small landscape architecture practice in Cairns, specialising in botanical survey and planting design.

He met the Gardens chief executive Tan Wee Kiat a few years ago when the Singaporean was in his hometown of Cairns for a plant sourcing trip.

When asked which particular section of the Gardens he was most proud of, he said: ‘It wouldn’t be fair to pick a favourite ‘child’.

‘However, our palm collection spread through the theme gardens and elsewhere is fairly comprehensive.’

Image from Royce-Rolls

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