Singapore gets criticised for many things, but it is hard to find fault with its public spaces.
And the new ‘Gardens by the Bay’ project is yet another fantastic example.
The centrepiece of the Gardens is the imposing glade of ‘Supertrees’ – a cluster of man-made structures built from concrete and steel – which give the impression of a futuristic world without the benefit of genuine flora and fauna.
But the forest of Supertrees do in many ways resemble the real thing. They can generate power through solar cells fitted into the structure. They collect rain water. And they also act as air-venting ducts for the two huge glass houses, which display other examples of plants from around the world.
Their last feature is the ‘living skin’. Each tree has a mesh-like covering onto which thousands of climbing plants and flowers have been planted. These will eventually grow up and over the whole structure.
The massive project is overseen by Kiat Tan, a veteran horticulturalist who worked for many years at Singapore’s renowned Botanical Gardens, and is an expert on orchids and other tropical plants
He sees ‘the Gardens’ as an important tool in persuading the young generation to leave behind their X-boxes and I-phones and explore the real world around them.
‘The wow affect’
‘First of all it’s to grab the attention of young people who are firmly arrested by cyber space, and to attract such attention, if I can start communicating with them, is to create a wow effect,’ he tells me.
The ‘wow’ factor begins with the 128m-long suspended walkway between the trees, which will give visitors a view of the Gardens from the air. Imagine being hoisted halfway up a giant tree in a rainforest and you begin to get the idea.
And then there’s the ‘aah’ effect: the relief you feel when you wander into one of the two huge Glass Houses. Inspired by the Eden Project in the UK, the two biospheres are air-conditioned and a good 10 degrees cooler than the prevailing tropical heat outside.
In colder countries glass houses are hot and humid. Here in steamy Singapore the glass houses are the reverse, and allow Asian visitors to see plants from more temperate parts of the world.
Hydrangeas poke their way through a bed of Daisies. Giant cacti point towards the ceiling in a scene reminiscent of a Wild West movie.
I catch up with Kiat Tan again, as I admire the Baobab Trees inside the Flower Dome. Found in desert and arid environments they store water inside their trunks which swell like a pregnant belly.
Tan is fussing over last minute details before the Gardens’ opening. An affable man with a smiling face and rotund figure, he’s clearly extremely proud of what’s been achieved in just five years.
He gives me an explanation of where the trees come from. And with a twinkle in his eye tells me: ‘It took me a long time to find trees that can make me look slim’.