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Reflections on Jewel Changi Airport

Xin Yi originally wrote this pictorial essay on Jewel Changi Airport 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 Jewel were PWP Landscape Architecture and ICN Design International.

 

Jewel is a symbol of a smart and sustainable Singapore. With its iconic architecture and lush indoor garden, Jewel is a multi-dimensional lifestyle destination for residents and visitors. A reimagination of the modern airport, it is a bridge between Singapore and the world. According to the 2019 Fact Sheet, the two key highlights of the Jewel experience include HSBC Rain Vortex and Shiseido Forest Valley. The five pillars constituting the Jewel Experience are shop, dine, fly, stay and play. Reflecting on ideas such as typology, form, function, infrastructure, and artificiality, I shall study the aforementioned elements that make Jewel unique.


Figure 1. Plan of Jewel’s interior landscape (PWP Landscape Architecture, 2022)
Typology

As architectural journalist Sam Lubell describes, “Jewel Changi Airport returns wonder to air travel. It again lifts our beings and creates a new paradigm for how we think about the journey and the public spaces related to it. It does this deftly by merging architecture, urbanism, public space, landscape, greenery, transit, and retail in a new way. It’s not a building. It’s not a garden. It’s a complex hybrid, a layering of spaces and experiences and dimensions.” (Lubell, 2020, p. 14).


The beauty of Jewel Changi Airport is that it does not belong to any category or typology. It is the definition of multi-functional. Although the plan (Figure 1) shows distinct spatial zones planned for internal programs, Jewel on a whole is a hub where the boundaries between building and garden are blurred.


“It would be a place of commerce and a place of nature all juxtaposed with a great urban park. Except that this park would be enclosed and protected from the noise and heat outside, truly an oasis.” (Lubell, 2020, p. 28) Despite the blend of typologies, Jewel is still effective in terms of creating an oasis that optimises and balances climatic conditions for plants and comfort levels for users.


Figure 2. A cross-section illustrates the juxtaposition of Jewel’s gardens and the marketplace. (Safdie Architects, 2020)

1 Rain Vortex

6 Food Hall

11 Level 1

2 Forest Valley

7 Carpark

12 Level 2

3 Canopy Park

8 IMAX Theatre

13 Level 3

4 Retail

9 Coach Access

14 Level 4

5 Immersion Garden

10 Basement Level 2

15 Level 5

(L-R) Figure 3: Geometry & building organization; Figure 4: Gardens & retail areas; Figure 5: Shifting the building’s centre geometry. (Safdie Architects, 2020)

Form

Early design sketches illustrate the geometry and organization of the building and the genesis of the Forest Valley and Rain Vortex. (Figure 3) The sketches evolved into a great dome, elliptical in shape, hovering over a loop of shopping arcades, containing the great garden with a range of shopping programs as well as airport facilities that soon evolved into a five-level stacking of space. (Lubell, 2020, p. 29)


According to Moshe Safdie, the lead architect of this project, the dome was somewhat simplistic, an expected design solution. The notion of making it a toroid shape, which comes back on itself, arose as a notion of collecting rainfall through the building. (National Geographic, 2019) Fit for the rainwater system, the iconic toroid structure was designed with a massive hole in the roof, with the purpose of showering gallons of water through the 10-meter wide oculus.


The next set of early sketches illustrates the mid-level gardens in green and roof-level retail areas in red (Figure 4). The spatial planning for the gardens and retail spaces are considered at different levels of the development.


(L-R) Figure 6: Rendering of the Forest Valley; Figure 7: Current photo of Skytrain and the proximity to Rain Vortex. (Safdie Architects, 2020)

Function

As the design developed, it was evident that the waterfall would intersect with the proposed train path passing through the center of the building, which was already fixed and constructed. The design team then changed the toroidal shape to asymmetrical, shifting the vortex towards the control tower to avoid the train path (Figures 5-7). This shift heightened the geometrical and structural complexity of the space and took the design team many months to reach a solution. (Lubell, 2020, p. 29)


Both form and function have equal importance in this project. The toroid form was the initial driver of the project, but Jewel’s functional aspects were later heavily considered as shown in the preliminary sketches as well.


Infrastructure

Infrastructure is defined as “the network of physical and bio-physical systems that facilitate the necessary operations of daily life” (Herrington, 2017, p. 232). The on-site roof system represents Jewel’s identity and the challenge comes with making the roof stand with practically no support. A network of close to 18,000 steel beams, over 6000 junctions and 9000 unique glass facade panels put the structure under immense pressure. (National Geographic, 2019)


Figure 8. Roof structure installation process. (Safdie Architects, 2020)

Figure 8 illustrates how each of these QR-tagged triangular glass panels, weighing nearly 300kg, was transported by machine, then assembled by “spiderman” up on the roof, where installers drilled the fitted panels and applied waterproof sealant around the edges of the glass to complete installation). The effort and attention to detail driving this process demonstrates the integration of aesthetic, economic, social, and technical considerations


Figure 9: Water Flow Rate of the Rain Vortez (National Geographic Asia, 2019)

Another key aspect of Jewel is the waterfall feature, a focal point that attracts visitors from all over the world. There is a rain vortex reservoir room where stored rainwater will be recycled and sent to the roof to create the waterfall. Singapore’s wet climate where rainfall is experienced on an average of 167 days a year was the inspiration for Jewel’s design. (National Geographic, 2019) The weirs control the flow speed and guide water to flow at 37,000 litres per minute (Figure 9). Both of these roofs and water infrastructural systems have only been partially exposed to the public. It is a shame because users may not learn about the true value of the concealed and underlying infrastructural processes that play an integral part of the landscape.


Artificial, but not Fake

“Fake according to Cormier is a material that is meant to deceive, to look distinguishable from something it is not.” (Fazari, 2007) The waterfall feature, indoor plants, roof structure and misting in the air all contribute to crafting a comfortable and beautiful environment that is similar to the scenes in a forest. Jewel is an artificial piece of artwork in terms of the induced indoor atmospheric qualities, but it is not fake because the interpretations that users have after interacting in these spaces are real.


According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the official opening ceremony on 18 October 2019, Jewel Changi Airport is a symbol of bold dreams, and not a “cold, impersonal” infrastructure, which epitomises how, in Singapore, we must dream boldly to create a new possibility for ourselves. (Lim, 2019) It is inspiring to see passionate professionals breaking typical boundaries to innovate and realise a common vision. It is even more inspiring to see how spaces like indoor forests contribute to humanizing a large-scale development to create comfortable, memorable spatial experiences for users. It is our jewel, a national icon to be celebrated and a timeless public space to be enjoyed by all.

 

Chai Xin Yi has always been interested in using the analogue method of pen-to-paper in her design thinking process. She believes that this approach is fundamental and relevant in creating timeless landscape designs that harmonize aesthetics and function.


Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong

 
References

Jewel Changi Airport // Safdie Architects. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://issuu.com/accpublishinggroup/docs/jewel_changi_airport_look_inside

Jewel Changi Airport not a ‘cold, impersonal’ infrastructure, it’s a symbol of bold dreams: PM Lee. (n.d.). TODAY. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/jewel-changi-airport-not-cold-impersonal-infrastructure-its-symbol-bold-dreams-pm-lee

National Geographic Asia. (2019, October 20). Inside: Jewel Changi Airport | National Geographic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Gc0XneJiw

S8126932G. (2019, November 4). Fact sheet about Jewel Changi Airport. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.jewelchangiairport.com/content/dam/jca-project/documents/media/FACT_SHEET_About_Jewel_Changi_Airport_FINAL.PDF

Herrington, Susan. (2016). Landscape Theory in Design. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jewel Changi Airport | PWP Landscape Architecture. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from http://www.pwpla.com/projects/jewel-changi-airport/&details

JEWEL CHANGI AIRPORT by ACC Art Books—Issuu. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://issuu.com/accpublishinggroup/docs/jewel_changi_airport_look_inside

Jewel Changi Airport Partners Scoot to Publicise its Grand Opening | Spafax, Aviation Media Specialist. (n.d.). Spafax Media | The World’s Leading Global Aviation Media Specialist. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.spafax.media/success-stories/jewel-changi-airport-partners-scoot-to-publicise-its-grand-opening

National Geographic Asia. (2019, October 20). Inside: Jewel Changi Airport | National Geographic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Gc0XneJiw

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