As a lesson in experience design for city makers, Gardens by the Bay is one of my favourite examples of the virtues of thinking about the start of a future place not in terms of an architect’s masterplan, but rather as a narrative journey that in itself is composed of and drills down into any number of further journeys.
Referred to by its architect Andrew Grant as a ‘screenplay of experience’, it’s a cinematic approach to place making, imagining Gardens of the Bay not through space, but rather as a set of multi-sensory and multi-dimensional moments unfolding over time. It’s the underlay, a masterplan for the gardens as born of the rituals and myth-making of the human. It’s a screenplay informed by metaphor, by the concept of the visitor as hero, by the marrying of the relative chaos of the sovereign experience with the order of the collective, by the spectacle being brought to life by the spectator. It’s quite a screenplay, and one that begs an accompanying manifesto – meaning I’ve taken the liberty of putting the bones down for one. Let’s dive in.
#1: Sort the poetic driver
The design team’s first task was to create a metaphorical narrative that would serve to capture imaginations and help structure maker conversations. This initial narrative was much more about establishing the poetry of the project than it was the creating of plotlines and the like. Underscored by the team’s delight in its epiphytic properties, the orchid is Gardens by the Bay’s supercharged motif.
#2: Design for an everybody hero’s journey
The project laid its narrative structure stall from the start, deliberately exploring a version of the classic hero’s journey, the visitor entering the garden by way of one of the many over-water thresholds, and being presented with the epic and marvellously unfamiliar world of Gardens by the Bay. It’s full of light. It’s full of gloom. It’s a drama, written by the visitor.
#3: Play the chaos-order game
The open framework as described above is not without a meta-order. It has the order of an experimental novel, in which the reader can both choose where to start and which story to experience first, but which, pursued to the end, always meets in the same place. The Hub is that place, a clearing, a temporal and spatial revelation, ‘where the narratives connect’.
#4: Make icons not Icons
Crucially, Gardens by the Bay is not about its conservatories, however magnificent they may. Attention, therefore, is constantly redirected onto the gardens, which explains the presence of the grove of supertrees. Their bizarre and magical presence relentlessly draws us back to the gardens, to an Avatar-like technology of nature, and so to Singapore’s vision for creating what Chief Executive at Singapore’s Housing and Development Board Cheong Koon Hean Cheong calls a ‘liveable density’ city.
So there you go, the story behind and in Gardens by the Bay. There’s a lot more to it, of course, and if I sound like I’m constantly beating on the engineer, then on the contrary, dear friends. The supertrees alone testament to the extraordinary problem solving brilliance of Atelier One and Atelier Ten. However, everything you experience here comes from understanding what Singapore is doing, and in particular what its people want. From this, follows all else, the dreaming, poetry, the story, and, finally, the making. And if you don’t believe me, then I’m sorry – or urge you to have a quick look at this , which in a few minutes covers all of the above, and served to so wow the commissioning board as to help get that initial bid over the line.