Cleon originally wrote this pictorial essay for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student at the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning. Working within a multidisciplinary consultant team, the landscape architects of Gardens by the Bay were Grant Associates.
I first visited the conservatories on 25 September 2018 before the A-level examinations and thereafter on 11 February 2019, the day before enlisting into National Service. It was a place for pausing and contemplation, somewhere I visited to collect thoughts before stepping into the unknown. In writing this essay, I seek to re-examine the conservatories through the lens of artificial nature, and how the design connects to the function of creating sights of awe for its visitors.
Definition of “Artificial Nature”
There are many ways to define the term “artificial nature,” especially when we examine its meaning with embedded historicity. Artificial nature is defined as the mimicry of nature and its forms, or landscapes designed and made using scientific and ecological knowledge. This meaning suits the current age of post-enlightenment and technological advancement.
Artificial Environments – the Felt and the Seen
One distinct character of the domed conservatories is the controlled climate that sustains the plant life harboured within. The controlled environment is a product of a cooling system built into the architecture as well as the materiality of the dome panels. This artificial climate is clearly perceptible by the visitor, where cooler internal temperatures contrast sharply with the outdoor temperatures in equatorial Singapore. This reduction in internal temperature allows the conservatories to host a wider selection of plants that may not tolerate outdoor tropical temperatures, which gives flexibility to the attraction when changing its floral arrangements and hosting international varieties.
In addition, the artificial climate creates a phenomenon of “eternal spring” in the Flower Dome, where conditions permit plants to exhibit full bloom all year round. The temperature regulation mechanisms built into the design of the domed conservatories provide experiential qualities in terms of thermal comfort and enhance the quality of the plant exhibits, augmenting the conservatories’ role as naturalistic tourist attractions.
Delving deeper into the topic of artificial environments, the mimicry of tropical montane forests is quite evident in the design of the Cloud Forest Dome. Tropical montane forests are high-altitude ecosystems, home to mountainous regions of Central, South America, parts of Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia, marked by cool temperatures and heavy precipitation. The central outcrop architecture in the dome known as the Cloud Mountain, could be seen as a metaphorical exemplification of the mountainous geology of the montane forests, while the water circulation system that is built into the infrastructure serves to create mists through the breaking of falling water.
Furthermore, periodic misting could be observed spurring out from emitter systems, which further adds to the foggy effect. Plants of varying height are planted to partially mimic the vertical stratification of forest structure. The biomimicry of montane forests observed in the Cloud Forest Dome, lends its success to the careful study of montane forest forms and properties, which in turn influences the design and engineering process in creating the attraction.
On the other end of the spectrum, a dry climate is created in the Flower Dome to suit the design of pocket gardens that showcase dry-adapted plants of the subtropics. This is achieved infrastructurally through the use of a desiccant system that removes moisture from the air in the flower dome.
The design of controlled environments are evidently infrastructure-dependent, to serve one common purpose: to counteract the equatorial tropicality of the site and recreate new conditions to ensure the survival of curated vegetation within the domed conservatories.
Curated Nature – Nature as Exhibits
Vegetation in Singapore can theoretically be classified using a spectrum that describes its artificiality. Spontaneous vegetation refers to a community of plants derived from natural succession with minimal human intervention. Conserved vegetation is largely naturally succeeded but with human aid to reintroduce and protect endangered species. Managed vegetation would refer to vegetation intentionally planted as streetscape or “greenery” and particularly trimmed and maintained. Lastly, curated vegetation is managed vegetation that is carefully selected for exhibition purposes. Vegetation in the domed conservatories can be described as curated vegetation, a planting palette selected and managed with great intentionality in terms of creating the environment required for their survival.
For the Cloud Forest Dome, the composition of curated vegetation is designed to mimic the plants observed in montane forests. This involves the inclusion of dense, epiphytic vegetation which encompasses a range of orchid, bromeliad, fern, begonia, and pitcher plant species.
For the Flower Dome, the exhibits are subdivided into pocket gardens with vegetation curated according to their spatial origin. These include a succulent garden with cacti and other xeromorphic plants planted in a sandy substrate, which exemplifies an arid desert; baobab trees that originate from African Savannahs; date palms and cypresses that recreate scenes from the Mediterranean. Looking at the variation in curated vegetation between the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest Dome, it could be inferred that the planting palette aims to create visual contrasts through borrowing opposing spatial contexts and climates (cool-dry climates versus tropical montane forests).
In addition, there is seasonality observed in the collection of plants exhibited in both conservatories. When I visited the Flower Dome back in February 2019, the exhibits consisted of beautiful arrangements of chrysanthemums and mandarin orange plants to accompany the Chinese New Year season. Thereafter, when I visited the Flower Dome on 26 April 2022, the ongoing exhibit “Precious Peonies” showcased different varieties of peonies in bloom. Meanwhile in the Cloud Forest Dome, “The Flight of the Moth Orchid” exhibit was ongoing, showcasing Phalaenopsis orchids and their hybridisation histories to the public. It is interesting to note here that the hybrid orchids are also a type of artificial nature, selected and crossbred by orchidists for their desired traits. The seasonality and change of curated vegetation in the domed conservatories add the element of novelty to the existing landscapes, which could help to attract more visitorship to the attractions.
Choreographed Nature – Intentional Placements
“Nature” is carefully choreographed in both conservatories in terms of placement. This choreography is most likely intended to create visual spectacles for viewers.
Comparing the arrangements of plants between the two conservatories, the plants in the Flower Dome appear more choreographed with shorter shrubs and groundcover planted in the foreground and middle ground, and taller trees towards the background. This is most likely intended to create an accessible view, such that each plant layer can be seen by the visitor. However, for the exhibits such as the “Precious Peonies,” the shorter vegetation envelopes central features such as the Peranakan house, pagoda and courtyard. This creates a level of hierarchy where the exhibits take precedence as display focal points, while the plants serve as a backdrop to embellish the exhibits. The contrasting arrangements observed in the Flower Dome exemplify how “nature” is choreographed differently according to the display subject.
Meanwhile, the arrangement of plants in varied heights is common across the planted beds in the Cloud Forest Dome. However, for vertical vegetation, the plant arrangement appears more indiscernible and disordered, especially plants that are affixed to the Cloud Mountain. This placement of vegetation could be intended to imitate more naturalistic forms to fit into the character of biomimicry that underscores the attraction.
Plants on Concrete and in Glass Enclosures
It is interesting to see how vegetation is affixed to the concrete architecture of the Cloud Mountain to grow as a live exhibit. The root system is balled up and attached to a special growth material that is layered onto the walls. It is interesting to note the innovative methods used to take nature out of its natural context and to grow it to suit human desires. In addition, some plants of conserved status are kept in glass cases, to protect them from vandalism by visitors, which shows how humans attach differential values to plants according to their rarity.
Reflecting on the domed conservatories after three years and through a landscape architecture perspective, I understand that prioritising aesthetics in the design of artificial nature could create a gateway through which people could appreciate nature. Through this appreciation, a sense of connectedness with nature could be fostered. It could be this very biophilia that made me view the conservatories as a space of respite, somewhere to go to in order to let go of encumbering thoughts and to reflect on the present.
Cleon Lai Yi Hui is an undergraduate student majoring in landscape architecture, with a minor in aquatic ecology. He is interested in designing landscapes that help to conserve biodiversity and integrate farming into urban contexts. He enjoys expressing himself through art, painting varying degrees of human emotion through digital and analog media.
Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong
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