It’s hard not to be awed by the audacity of Marina Bay, the project that has transformed downtown Singapore’s seafront over two generations. An exorbitantly ambitious piece of civil engineering, it entailed the creation of three massive expanses of reclaimed land and a barrage to seal off the basins of the Singapore and Kallang rivers from the sea. The result is a seaside freshwater reservoir with a crucial role in reducing Singapore’s dependence on Malaysian water supplies. The Marina Bay Sands casino resort dominates the area, with its museum and rooftop restaurants, and it is inevitably the focus of any visit to the bay, along with the extravagant new Gardens by the Bay next door. Close to the Padang, the Theatres on the Bay arts complex is worth a detour for its skyline views, with more of the same available from the oversized Ferris wheel that is the Singapore Flyer.
Opinion is split as to whether the two huge, spiked shells that roof the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay project, just east of the Padang and the Esplanade Park, are peerless modernistic architecture or indulgent kitsch. They have variously been compared to kitchen sieves, hedgehogs, even durians (the preferred description among locals), though two giant insect eyes is perhaps the best comparison.
The venue boasts a concert hall, theatres, gallery space and, on the third floor, library@esplanade, with a wide range of arts-related books and other resources. It’s possible to take a self-guided iTour of the building based around audiovisual content stored on a hand-held gizmo, but what lures most casual visitors are the views, particularly fine at dusk, across the bay to the Financial District and Marina Bay Sands.
From afar, two vast conservatories, roofs arched like the backs of foraging dinosaurs, announce the southern section of
Gardens by the Bay
. Touted as a second botanic garden for Singapore, it is split into three chunks around Marina Bay; the southern area, next to
Marina Bay Sands
, is the largest and very much the centrepiece.
One conservatory houses Mediterranean and African flora, the highlight being the stands of small, bizarrely shaped baobab trees; less impressive are the collections of flowering plants, so tidy that they look like a formal display in a well-kept European park. The neighbouring conservatory nurtures cloud forest of the kind found on Southeast Asia’s highest peaks, and includes a 35m “mountain” covered in ferns, rhododendrons and insect-eating sundews and butterworts.
The gardens’ other big draw is the Supertree Grove, an array of towers resembling gigantic golf tees and sheathed in a sort of red trelliswork. Their sides are planted with climbers, ferns and orchids, which poke out from the gaps in the trellis. The towers don’t look so alluring from close up; more exciting is to walk the long, slightly wobbly OCBC Skyway, arcing between the tallest two supertrees high up and providing good views over the gardens and around Marina Bay. At night the supertrees are lit up using power from their own solar cells, and take centre stage in free light shows at 7.45pm and 8.45pm.
Marina Bay can be viewed as yet another triumph, perhaps the most impressive, of Singapore’s long-term urban planning. Yet there is an alternative view, namely that the project has proceeded in a slightly haphazard manner. The original idea had been to create a new downtown area for the tiny island. To that end, Marina Centre became the first zone to be reclaimed from the sea, in the 1970s and 1980s. Its malls and hotels were already beginning to open in the early 1990s, and development there was crowned by the opening of Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay in 2002.
But back in 1987, Lee Kuan Yew, fed up with constant bickering over the pricing of water supplies that Malaysia was piping to Singapore via the Causeway, had floated another idea: what if land reclamation, combined with a dam, could create an enormous coastal reservoir? The scheme, together with smaller counterparts elsewhere, would reduce or end this potentially crippling dependency. Still, it wasn’t until seventeen years later that the government would invite companies to tender to build the Marina Barrage. One year after that came the announcement that casinos were going to be licensed in Singapore. With the successful launch of Marina Bay Sands, Marina South finally seemed to have found its raison d’être.
The last piece of the jigsaw was the sheer amount of green space built into the area, in the form of gardens, plus a golf course at Marina East. On the face of it, this offers a poor return on the huge amount of taxpayers’ money pumped into creating Marina Bay, unless you regard the greenery as an environmentally worthwhile gesture. The reality may, as is usually the case in Singapore, be one of pragmatism: the vision of a new downtown had to be radically scaled back because the reservoir’s arrival curtailed the density of the surrounding buildings – cleanliness of the waters being now the paramount issue.
Rarely does a building become an icon quite as instantly as the
Marina Bay Sands
hotel and casino, its three 55-floor towers topped and connected by a vast, curved-surfboard-like deck, the
. The most ambitious undertaking yet by its owners, Las Vegas Sands, it opened in April 2010 and quickly replaced the Merlion as the Singapore image of choice in the travel brochures, summing up the country’s glitzy fascination with mammon. Even if you have no interest in the casino – open, naturally, 24/7 – the complex, which includes a convention centre, a shopping mall, two concert venues, numerous restaurants and its own museum, is well worth exploring. The hotel atrium, often so busy with people gawping that it feels like a busy train station concourse, is especially striking, the sides of the building sloping into each other overhead to give the impression of being inside a narrow glassy pyramid.