I don’t see the point in planting roofs. That’s a pretty stupid idea,” or so a British landscape architect was overheard sneering sometime in the early noughties, following a lecture by Dr. Tan Puay Yok of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment on the city’s first ever green roof project. A mere decade down the line, any criticism on this previously unfamiliar approach has turned into unfettered euphoria.

When, in January 2013, the new luxury hotel Parkroyal on Pickering opened for business, both international hoteliers and architects hailed the sophisticated, ingenious design and its resulting novel aesthetics. Thanks to impeccable planning, the building’s green areas are twice the size of the hotel’s actual plot of land – and thus equivalent in size and coverage to nearby Hong Lim Park. All this is facilitated by a foundation encasing the bottom four floors – leaving four glass cubes with plenty of space for the building’s so-called sky gardens, pools of water, trees, plants, shrubs, and tropical climbers. Local architects WOHA were literally showered with awards for this latest and welcome green addition to the densely populated city-state – and the Parkroyal became Singapore’s first ever hotel to receive the coveted environmental BCA Green Mark Platinum Award.

Hotel Parkroyal on Pickering Singapore, photo: Parkroyal on Pickering
Hotel Parkroyal on Pickering Singapore, photo: Parkroyal on Pickering

At the time, WOHA already enjoyed international acclaim for their first green skyscraper in Singapore, the Newton Suites residential tower. On completion in 2007, the 36-story building was hailed as a directional template for tropical city planning. Its plant-covered façade covers 130 percent of the site’s overall size and – in conjunction with generous balconies – helps to regulate interior temperatures. But green facades and vertical gardens are not restricted to private projects or dwellings; public construction, too, benefits from this living, breathing feature.

At the School of Arts, a high school for visual and performing arts, the walls’ tendrils and shoots double as “environmental filters,” keeping out unwanted light, dust, heat, and street noise. At the same time, WOHA did not invent green architecture. Back in 2001, French genius Patrick Blanc created the first ever vertical garden – dressing the Pershing Hall hotel in Paris’ eighth arrondissement in his chic and verdant designs. In 2005, the botanist spread his green inspirations to nearby Musée Quai Branly, designed by Jean Nouvel, followed by a 600-square-meter trademark “mur végétal“ at the Caixa forum opposite the Prado in Madrid – a commission by Swiss starchitects Herzog & de Meuron. More recently, the green-fingered artist installed a 270-square-meter wall of plants at Berlin’s KulturKaufhaus Dussmann (2012).

While Blanc’s towering flower beds exhibit a strong sculptural streak, Singapore’s vertical gardens tend to pursue a different tack – a complete and consistent change and overhaul of the entire cityscape. Nowadays, the city’s public Urban Redevelopment Authority even demands the incorporation of such “skyrise greenery” in each new construction, covering an area that must exceed the new building’s plot of land.

In this spirit, vertical flower beds, green roofs, roof gardens, roof farms, roof pools, and water collection basins spring up all over the city, designed and tended with Asian precision. Leading by example, the state has started to sow the seeds for its transformation from “garden city” to “city in a garden.” Last year, for example, saw the opening of Singapore’s mega park “Gardens by the Bay”, featuring a hitherto unseen permutation of this green and sculptural theme with steel-frame “supertrees,” stretching 50 meters up in the air and soon to be overgrown by common and rare creeper species. And while these supertrees continue to thrive and grow, WOHA is planning its to day most radical – and consistent – vertical garden project. Scheduled for completion in 2015, their “Oasia” will add a 206-meter hotel and office tower to the city’s skyline, featuring green spaces that cover an impressive seven-and-a-half times the area of the building’s plot, including a continuously planted façade, roof gardens, and other green oases on or within the building.

Oasia Downtown, photo: WOHA
Oasia Downtown, photo: WOHA

Now, no-one remembers why green roofs ever sounded like silly idea – while run-of-the-mill glass and steel giants quickly start to lose their appeal.

Text: Sandra Piske
Header image: Martin Mai