WOHA at the Skyscraper Museum

John Hill
13. April 2016
Photo: Christian Erroi, courtesy of WOHA

Since Wong and Hassell founded WOHA in 1994, the Singapore-based firm has become one of the strongest proponents of integrating vegetation into buildings, while also pushing for dense, sustainable vertical living. These two concerns logically arise from their Southeast Asian context, where the tropical climate enables plants and trees to grow rampant, and where some of the densest, most populous and fastest-growing cities are found. Yet in WOHA's hands vegetation and verticality merge to create some of the lushest, most-eye-catching architecture produced this century. Their PARKROYAL on Pickering – the recipient of a 2015 Urban Habitat Award and a highlight from our visit to Singapore and WOHA's nearby office a few years ago – is a notable example, where planted terraces appear to draw the park from across the street up the side of the building. Yet the exhibition reveals that the hotel, completed in 2013, merely hints at what the office is capable of.

Photo: Christian Erroi, courtesy of WOHA

Given WOHA's two-pronged emphasis on building tall and building green, it's no surprise that their exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum – their first in the United States – is called GARDEN CITY | MEGA CITY (it is also the name of a forthcoming monograph done with writer and photographer Patrick Bingham-Hall). Skyscraper Museum founder, director and curator Carol Willis lured WOHA to New York City for the exhibition a few years after meeting Wong and Hassell in Chicago at, appropriately enough, an event on tall buildings. Although WOHA is fairly well-known in and around Singapore, where their buildings are found and are highly influential, they are more of a secret in New York and other parts of the US. GARDEN CITY | MEGA CITY should change this, particularly if Willis and WOHA are successful in extending the exhibition to other parts of North and South America after its NYC run.

Photo: Christian Erroi, courtesy of WOHA

Visitors to GARDEN CITY | MEGA CITY, subtitled "rethinking cities for the age of global warming," first encounter a model of Oasia Downtown (top photo), "a perforated, permeable, furry, verdant tower of green" in Singapore’s CBD. Lest they assume the tower – unlike anything else on the island of Manhattan – purely resides in the realm of the imagination, a large-scale photograph graces the wall behind the tower. From the roughly dozen projects presented with photos, renderings, drawings and highly polished models, about one-third to one-half of them have been built. (About a half of the remaining projects are moving toward construction and the balance will remain unbuilt.) This means WOHA's ideas on dense, literally green tall buildings are eminently realizable, and as the firm has built more in recent years, their projects have increased in size and height. As the duo described it to me, the 20th century was 2-D, but the 21st century is 3-D, a time of hyper-density where living happens vertically.

Photo: Christian Erroi, courtesy of WOHA

One wall at the start of the exhibition lays out the larger context for WOHA's projects in political, climatic, social, and other terms. This wall ends with an explanation of the metrics that accompany the presentation of each project, regardless of being built or not: green plot, community, civic generosity, self-sufficiency, ecosystem contribution, and so forth. These highly subjective "good" criteria, as Wong and Hassell tell me, intentionally stand in opposition to the efficiency ratios and other "typical" criteria that take precedence in Singapore, not to mention in New York and other cities. By including these metrics, WOHA shifts the indicators of a building's success from the client to the user. Ultimately they aim to devise ways to house the millions of people expected to populate mega-cities in the future, providing them living conditions that are better than self-built housing while also improving the human/natural environment through the provision of green space for food, communal activities, and ecological benefits.

Photo: Christian Erroi, courtesy of WOHA

WOHA's efforts toward addressing the mega-city housing crisis can be seen in Skyville @ Dawson (video below), a public-housing project that was completed last year in Singapore. The project consists of a dozen slabs oriented in groups of four about three external cores and full-height atria. Communal floors are inserted every eleven floors, thereby cutting up the project into a series of stacked "sky villages," where the distance from one's unit down to the communal floor is a reasonable distance (much less compared to many of the high-rise public housing projects built in New York and other US cities last century). Although Skyville @ Dawson does not have as much vegetation as other WOHA projects, and their attempts at providing "garages for places of experimentation" (in the vein of Steve Jobs) were thwarted by the client, the metrics pertaining to community and living conditions are through the roof, thanks to the communal floors and the generous flow-through units.

GARDEN CITY | MEGA CITY culminates in Permeable Lattice City, a project that WOHA carried out five years ago for the Vertical Cities Asia program organized by the National University of Singapore. If Oasia Downtown and Skyville @ Dawson are far-fetched yet remarkable creations to the New Yorkers seeing WOHA's work for the first time, Permeable Lattice City is pure science fiction: stacked and staggered "city columns" intertwine with "city conduits" that serve as elevated ground levels, integrating farming and other green uses alongside wind turbines. This vision of Singapore in the post-oil year of 2063 is an optimistic one that takes the vegetation and verticality of their built designs to the extreme, fashioning entire cities rather than just buildings. The scale of Permeable Lattice City makes the project hard to fathom as a built reality, but each of WOHA's buildings can be seen as a step toward making such a vision of the future not only possible, but also desirable.

PARKROYAL on Pickering (Photo: Courtesy of WOHA)
Skyville @ Dawson (Photo: Courtesy of WOHA)
Oasia Downtown (Photo: courtesy of WOHA)
Permeable Lattice City (Image: Courtesy of WOHA)

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