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How the New Jewel Changi Airport Can Help Us Rethink Urban Design and Architecture

There’s a new jewel in town in Singapore: Jewel Changi Airport. Designed like an indoor park, it begs the question what the city of the future will look like.


CNN reported that the opening date for the new addition to Changi Airport has been announced — the Jewel Changi Airport is going to be opened on the 17th of April this year. (1)

Singapore is known as the City in a Garden and architect Moshe Safdie worked to turn the new addition of the Changi Airport into a magical garden. The “jewel,” at least the five stories that are above ground, are made of glass and steel and therefore. There are also five stories underground.

Like most large airports, it will have an impressive number of stores and food and beverage outlets, but what makes it so unique is that it’s an indoors park and mall all at once. The Forest Valley is a four-story garden. The Jewel comes complete with an indoor waterfall too — the Rain Vortex. It’s 130 feet high, making it the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.

According to CNN, Safdie said: "I wanted to explore a new kind of urban space, a space you go to as a matter of course, because you need to shop, because you're flying out somewhere, and yet it's a garden -- somewhere that says 'let's rethink what the public realm is, let's rethink what it is to shop.’”

"I think one of the reasons [we won] the bid was that the other submissions looked like malls and felt like malls, while this one, you don't think of it as a mall, because it's a new kind of experience. It makes us rethink what urban centers could be like if we stretch our thinking.”

Rethinking Urban Design — My Personal Musings

I read in a novel, while I was still in high school, that Leonardo da Vinci once refused to redesign the city of Milan as requested as he claimed that what they wanted went beyond what the city could be optimized for. I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t remember the exact quote, but the gist of it was that if you, for example, try to fit ten people into an office space that would only provide optimal working conditions for five people tops, then you shouldn’t try to fit ten people in there.

This idea has stuck with me ever since. Possibly because I built cities in the sand as a child and have always dreamed of designing a city. When I daydream, I often think about what “the optimal” urban design would look like and how it would feed society and vice versa.

Questioning the Status Quo

I grew up thinking houses are rectangular, or square in shape, with a triangular type of roof. This is how houses are built where I’m from. Most likely because that was the easiest way to build a house without the use of advanced technology. But is it the best way to build a house?

If you look at Cappadocia, people turned natural sandstone spires (tall cone-shaped rock formations also known as fairy-chimneys) into their homes. The huts in many places in Africa are round, with cone-shaped roofs.

In short, pondering houses, it hit me that sometimes we design things one way because we’re used to it being done that way, not because it’s the best, most aesthetically pleasing, or fun way to do it. I mean, is there no school that looks like Hogwarths? Wouldn’t kids be more inspired if they were in an environment that filled them with wonder?

Designing the Ultimate Home

Being me, I also spent a lot of time wondering why houses had stairs to walk up, but no slides to go down? And I was fascinated by older houses that had things like dumbwaiters, various “intercom” systems, pantries, root cellars, wine/food cellars, secret passageways and so forth. Some of these things are completely impractical and unnecessary, depending on the house, but these kind of features made me ponder how house design can be optimized. Only yesterday I walked by a house in Athens that had an intriguing looking mailbox. Or rather: there was a hole in the wall that I presumed was a mailbox. As the text next to it was in Greek, I’m not entirely certain that’s the case, but it made me wonder about the design.

I was raised in Sweden, where most apartment buildings used to have what would directly translate to “trash down throw.” Basically, on each landing in the stairwell, you found a little door that opened to a giant pipe or slide, in which you threw your rubbish bags. It was like a slide where your bin bags were transported into the rubbish bin. Very effective.

This system has been abandoned in most places due to the need to recycle and thus the needs for different bins for different types of rubbish. Of course, if new houses are built, you could simply add different systems for the different types of rubbish.

In Swedish apartment buildings you also have shared laundry facilities in the basement. Instead of every home owner/tenant buying a laundry machine and tumble dryer each, you share. You just put your name down in the calendar to book a time slot and then you do your laundry that day.

In more modern buildings around the world today you find shared swimming pools, shared office facilities, shared gyms, shared saunas…the list goes on. Personally, I often wonder what it would be like if there was a shared nanny, or two, and a place to do community cooking. Cooking every day, looking after the kids…it takes up a lot of time. If people got together and took turns, it would be different. It would be like back in the day where you had tribal support. I just find it kind of sad that we often cook alone too. What happened to community? And could architecture and urban planning help rebuild a sense of community in the modern city?

New Ways of Transportation

I was working with U-TT on a potential project a few years ago and reading up on their projects I was struck by how they installed a cable car in Caracas, Venezuela instead of letting the government pave a new road through the barrio. If the road had been constructed, people would have had to be relocated and unable to get to the city center anyway, as they wouldn’t have money to buy a car and bus services were unreliable.

I read somewhere recently, the BBC it was, that soon drones may be the new “delivery man.” Could get tricky with things falling from the sky…but it could also help, in many ways. As technology keeps changing, the idea of the “ultimate” city, or the perfectly “optimized city” keeps changing. Yet, certain things remain similar. People and animals need to get around and have places to eat, sleep, work and socialize, but other things change. Just look at how office spaces have changed in the past ten to twenty years.

Making It Pretty

As I’m big on art and design, I like things that I find pretty. I fear the day when cities like Paris, where you can still find beautiful carvings and engravings woven into the design, will be gone. Replaced, no doubt, with square, sleek, designs where it doesn’t cost to use wrought iron handiwork, or handmade wooden doors with intricate designs.

Here in Athens, where I’m currently visiting, you find carved stones in the pavement even — different motives that you literally walk on. There are tales woven into the city at every twist and turn. Unfortunately, most of the city has been run down, but you can still see glimpses of its former grandeur.

Which brings me to the next question: how much do our surroundings influence our state of mind? What would happen if we actually set out to make cities pretty? And what would happen if we banned advertisement? Instead posting positive quotes all over the city? While I’m in marketing myself and am often bemused by the creativity going into various ads, I’m fairly certain being bombarded by inspiration would do our minds better.

In Closing

Reading about Safdie’s new design, it made me ponder all these things once more. Not least, because one of the questions I’ve been asking myself is “what would a city, built to incorporate as much nature as possible, look like?”

“I abhor the supreme folly of those who blame the disciples of nature in defiance of those masters who were themselves her pupils.” - Leonardo da Vinci

I’m someone with an active imagination, not an architect, or urban designer. I do think we could all do with a dose of questioning modern structures and cities though, as we should question everything else in life. Often we create more of what we’re used to, as opposed to creating what we’d truly love.

And on a note of creating something for the sake of pure entertainment — a man in Canada has set the new record for the world’s largest snow maze. Doing so, he also created a new business that helps feed his family. I like the creative thinking behind that. Who says every city shouldn’t have a cool maze to get lost in?! (2)



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