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Green giant: ParkRoyal by WOHA

WOHA’s Singapore hotel is stuffed full of trees and eco-gadgetry - but does it all add up to a sustainable building? asks Christine Murray. Photography by Patrick Bingham-Hall

I first noticed WOHA’s ParkRoyal on Pickering hotel from a passing taxi in Singapore during the World Architecture Festival in 2012. Its glazed tower perched on a strange and wonderful striated geological formation, reminiscent of painstakingly assembled cardboard models of Italian terraced hillsides, is unmistakable. It looks joyful, impractical, unbuildable - but is there.

A year later, back at the festival, I ask project architect Bernard Lee to take me on a tour of the 367-room hotel, which is connected to an eight-storey office complex, now both complete. The project is the first ‘collection’ concept hotel for ParkRoyal, a new venture of special buildings by signature architects with unique features that command a premium room rate.

The hotel website describes ParkRoyal on Pickering as ‘an oasis of green’ and ‘iconic’, as well as the ‘proud recipient of the BCA Green Mark platinum award’ - the highest standard in Singapore’s national green accreditation scheme. Rooms at this hotel cost SGD$100 more than at ParkRoyal’s other locations in Singapore, a 62 per cent increase, which gives some indication of the value brought by the architecture. When I visit in October, it’s fully booked.

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Founded in 1994, WOHA has a reputation for tower design - the practice quickly shot to fame after its first high-rise building, Moulmein Rise, won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007. The practice also won the Lubetkin Prize in 2011 for The Met - an unprecedented and controversial win for the RIBA award, given that neither of the founders (Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell) is British, or UK-trained.

The taxi drop-off point for the hotel is dramatic, located underneath the vast concrete outcrop that I spotted from the cab. This star feature is actually a two-storey car park, unusually located on the hotel’s third and fourth floors and concealed behind its undulating concrete facade. Lee explains this was actually a cost- and time-saving exercise: ‘We saved money on digging, and it’s a totally naturally ventilated space’.

Lee admits that Ken Yeang is a big influence on the practice - ‘and all high-rise towers that are green’. Sustainability, or at least nature, is touchstone, brand and gimmick for this hotel. In the lobby, timber replaces concrete as the geological motif, which curves to form the reception desk. Rock-inspired flooring gives way to green carpet with raised patches that resemble moss. The furniture design is teak, and could be described as cabana-chic.

I found the lobby and restaurant spaces of the hotel unremarkable. This part of the building is long and corridor-like, fully glazed, with a nice enough, if not spectacular, view of exterior landscaping and a not unattractive restaurant located at the rear. It is on the upper floors that this hotel impresses - among spaces that are off-limits to anyone but guests.

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Half of the hotel corridors are streets in the sky lined by four-storey green walls, water features and sky gardens. You may be several storeys up, but it feels as though you’ve taken a stroll to a private villa in a leafy resort. The rest of the hotel corridors are standard, although all the rooms are special, lined in white oak - including timber floors and the paned (not openable) windows, which overlook the large sky garden decks. The private club, with its business suite, café and library, is also lined in white oak.

The most celebrated space is the fifth-floor skypark, with its infinity pool, gym, running track and lightweight timber ‘bird cage’ pavilions - private party rooms that appear to float on the pool, or out over the edge of the building. Walking the garden paths, planted with giant tropical ferns and trees, there is a Jurassic feel, matched by the Blade Runner-esque premonition that this is the future as we imagined it would be.

To view photographs of ParkRoyal on Pickering taken from the air is to misunderstand the experience of the building. From the aerial view, the gardens - positioned every four floors - look tokenistic. From inside the hotel, looking down from a window or a ‘street’, the gardens and their accompanying concrete formations overlap, creating vast green views that bleed into each other until they blend into the adjacent park at ground level. Looking up, portals in the concrete reveal trailing vines - weeds that float down in front of windows, which will grow to infinite length when mature. If you can suspend your cynicism about it being probably not all that sustainable, it’s both playful and stunning.

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Not sustainable because, after all, this is a big new-build tower. But it’s also laden with eco-bling. And eco-bling buildings such as this come with a slew of eco-buzzwords. There are plenty here, which Lee rattles off, from motion-activated lighting to energy-efficient chillers. The sky gardens are ‘zero energy’ - irrigated by rainwater harvesting, with a gravity-fed drip system powered by solar energy from PVs on the roof. High-performance glass reduces the cooling load, as do the green walls and the solar shading provided by the plants. Half of all the corridors in the hotel are naturally ventilated, thanks to the streets in the sky, and all of the adjacent office corridors are too. The practice used Cobiax technology to reduce concrete usage. The scheme put 200 per cent of the greenery from the original site back on to the building. Granite used for the bathtubs and the sinks is recycled.

The hotel also enforces its green agenda on its inhabitants. The room thermostats can only be lowered to 22 degrees unless you phone the front desk to request it cooler (compare this to my room at the SwissÔtel, where upon arrival the thermostat was set to 16). There’s no bottled water in the rooms - they reuse glass bottles refilled with water purified on site (in the SwissÔtel, plastic bottles, drunk or not, are replaced daily). The ParkRoyal on Pickering is also, apparently, the first Singapore hotel with in-room recycling bins - which a hotel representative admitted did puzzle some guests.

If the test of any hotel is whether or not you would book a room, I would stay here - for the sky gardens, the timber-lined rooms, the business suite and the hotel’s relaxing, yet professional, air. Indeed, 87 per cent of the 287 reviews on travel website TripAdvisor rate the hotel as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ - although one reviewer admits they only chose the hotel as the Moshe Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands (AJ 01.11.12) was sold out.

As we look to redefine the word ‘sustainable’ in architecture at the AJ’s Green Rethink conference (see pages 18-20), whether or not this is a sustainable building, or points to the future of building green and tall, is a question worth asking, regardless of its high green rating. When I asked Yeang about WOHA’s work, he said that building green was not just about putting greenery on a tower. This may make for a peaceful idyll and a stunning view, but reflects a desire for eco-branded luxury in hotel design, more than an ecological architecture for the future. Refurbs are greener.

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