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Touching the void: Marina Bay Sands

Ruth Slavid books into Safdie Architects’ surreal Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, the venue for this and next year’s World Architecture Festivals. Photography by Timothy Hursley

It is 100 years since the emergence of the skyscraper,’ Moshe Safdie tells delegates at the World Architecture Festival, held in Singapore at the beginning of October, ‘but we still have no idea how to deploy them to create urban place.’

He also argues that megastructure is the greatest challenge for the rapidly growing cities of Asia. His talk is lent added poignancy by the fact that it is taking place within the conference centre at Marina Bay Sands, a piece of urban megastructure designed by Safdie’s own practice, Safdie Architects.

The most immediately visible element of Marina Bay Sands is the eponymous hotel, a standout event even in a city of towers, by virtue of its three 55-storey blocks, joined at the top by one of the world’s most theatrical building gestures, the 1 ha Skypark, complete with a 150m-long swimming pool, trumpeted as the world’s highest infinity pool. One entire side appears to hover above the city, the trough beyond the edge only becoming visible when you are less than a metre away.

A photographer is employed at the pool to take those vital snaps for users scared of getting their cameras wet, and visitor tickets are sold to the Skypark, although they do not include access to the swimming pool, for which there are no changing facilities. So, whatever its wonders, this is certainly not a public space, and there are even degrees of privacy, with the best bar restricted most of the time to the use of those who are staying in suites and club class rooms.

In general, the hotel is successful in its own terms. Ordinary guests stay in the deluxe rooms of Tower 3 (in a facility like this there is no level below deluxe) while the suites in Tower 1 and Tower 2 contain club class rooms plus a spa and gym. The rooms are generous, the showers are good, and there are balconies. These vary in width going up the building, as the towers are not vertical but bend over slightly. None is generous enough for a table and chairs, but this does not matter, as Singapore’s climate is not one in which people would choose to sit out. Temperatures range from a typical 24°C at night to about 30°C in daytime and humidity is always high. It is always more comfortable to be indoors with air conditioning, provided it is not too violent.

The balconies do have plants, uniform rows of dwarf bougainvillea. A team of three in each tower is charged with their maintenance, working on two floors a day, so that they can service the entire tower in a month. They use a large plastic tub to climb over the glass balustrade, but do then hook themselves on before hoeing and clipping.

The lobby between the splayed legs of the frame is huge, just one of the factors that made this an engineering tour de force for Arup. It has the flavour of an airport terminal, though the food is better, with massive restaurants offering such choice at breakfast the appetite tends to wither. If it all feels impersonal, this is not surprising, given there are 2,560 rooms in total. And the hotel is just the tip of the iceberg.

This is not just a hotel development but a huge piece of city, an integrated resort developed by the US Las Vegas Sands Corporation, whose properties include the Venetian in Vegas, a gambling resort on the site of an old steelworks in Pennsylvania and several huge hotels in Macau. The casino at Marina Bay Sands is decidedly aimed at foreigners. Only real high-rollers from Singapore would not be discouraged by the gambling levy of $100 for 24 hours, or $2,000 dollars for the year, that Singaporeans have to pay. Everyone else gets in free.

The hotel is designed as a resort, albeit one that is located close up against the central business district, on reclaimed land and overlooking the equally eye-catching Gardens by the Bay by Wilkinson Eyre. The total cost of the development was US$5.7 billion (£3.5 billion). It includes the casino, a conference centre, a retail centre of more than 74,000m² quaintly called the Shoppes, two theatres, a museum of art and science shaped like a giant hand and, apparently, an event plaza with room for 10,000 people. There are also two ‘crystal pavilions’ in the dock to the rear of the scheme, one containing a Louis Vuitton store and the other a nightclub. Both of these are reached from underground (or under water in this case).

And that is one of the problems. It makes sense to house a coach terminal for hotel guests below ground, but visitors are perpetually going up and down escalators to get from the hotel to the metro or the shopping centre or the conference centre. Busy roads sandwich the hotel and crossings are scarce. Singaporeans like to shun the heat, but perpetually having to duck below ground and walk past shops is disorientating. I stayed at Marina Bay Sands for five nights, and was still getting lost at the end of my stay. Bizarrely, one of the few incentives to travel above ground level is on the link to Wilkinson Eyre’s Gardens by the Bay.

This, one of two pedestrian routes, passes through the hotel at fourth floor level (an alternative route is, of course, underground) but is not accessible from inside the hotel. It can be reached from the shopping centre, providing the escalators are running in the right direction, but otherwise the only access is via an outdoor lift behind a bus stop.

The shopping centre does taper down to a single storey and then open onto the waterside. ‘We latched onto the idea of a promenade beside the water, a spine of urban life, which all development hangs onto,’ Safdie says. The route is well-used by joggers in the early evening, but the restaurants opening onto the space are poorly patronised, in contrast to the thriving food court within the centre arranged around - what else? - an ice rink. Equally incongruous is a short canal on the lowest floor, complete with boats for hire in a very approximate homage to Venice.

Despite these quirks and generous planting, it all feels rather corporate and bland and hermetic. Even a giant metal artwork by Anthony Gormley, probably the length of a couple of cars, suspended above the atrium in the hotel seems to disappear into insignificance. It is part of an ambitious public art programme, more impressive in theory than practice. But the development is certainly popular, and thronged with visitors, even if those perpetually filing past the shops don’t look particularly happy.

Habitat

Safdie’s Habitat 67, Montreal

For Safdie this is part of his effort to redefine the Habitat housing he designed for the Montreal Expo in 1967. That became iconic but not influential and, when Safdie revisited it, he concluded that it was not dense enough and too expensive. He is building out his response in several cities, with Marina Bay Sands an early example. In Chongqing, he has designed a mixed-use development even bigger than Marina Bay Sands, with not three, but six towers joined at high level. There, too, the climate is brutal, though in a different manner, and Safdie has also introduced an enclosed complex part-way up the megastructure.

‘We are building today at a size, scale and a density we never have before,’ Safdie says. His designs seek to humanise megastructures and building at this scale. He may not be entirely successful, but he is to be applauded for not shirking the challenge.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of the Marina Bay Sands hotel by Safdie Architects

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