In a suite with its own pool table on the seventh floor of Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s new casino resort in Singapore, architect Moshe Safdie has a one-word answer when asked what he has learned from designing the $5.5 billion project.
Scale is right. The complex — a 2,560-room hotel, convention centre, theaters, museum, shopping mall, casino and 4,000-car garage — boasts a list of impressive statistics, from the 300 metre- (984 foot-) long hotel atrium to the 15-tonne Antony Gormley sculpture suspended over the lobby, to a cantilevered rooftop park that’s longer than the height of the Eiffel Tower and 55 stories above the ground.
“We drew these things and we didn’t understand them,” said Safdie, 71, whose firm had just four months to present a design in the 2006 contest for the resort. “Even with very large models, we couldn’t understand the space until it was built.”
The scale extends to eight art installations from five artists as part of Singapore’s programme that grants developers more land if they use it to provide first-class public art. Rather than dot the grounds with Richard Serra’s steel sheets or other monumental sculptures, Safdie said he chose artists whose works, costing a total of $40 million to $50 million, integrated with the architecture of the buildings.
So gamblers trying their luck in Singapore’s second casino enter through James Carpenter’s Blue Reflection Facade, a series of blue-lit vertical glass and metal fins designed to echo the tropical city’s blue skies. Ned Kahn’s three works continue the natural theme with Wind Arbor, curtains of aluminum elements that reflect and ripple with the wind and provide shading along the glass exterior of the hotel atrium, helping Safdie meet Singapore’s environmental rules.
“This work is the climate control,” said Safdie, who has smiling eyes, white hair and mustache. He gained fame at the age of 24 with his Habitat residential design at the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal, Canada. “It shields us from the sun.”
Another of Kahn’s works, “Tipping Wall,” is a basketball-sized vertical waterfall of polycarbonate channels that tip over as they fill with water. “As you stand waiting for a taxi, you’ll be entertained,” Safdie said.
Kahn’s third work is the most ambitious. “Rain Oculus” is a 22-metre diameter acrylic bowl on a steel structure that weighs 90 tonnes and will create a swirling vortex of water. The whirlpool drains through a hole in the base into the canal that runs through the shopping mall below. Kahn said the original idea was to gather all the rain from the roofs of all the buildings, a concept that turned out to be impractical in the tropical island.
‘Lot of Rain’
“You get a lot of rain,” Kahn said at a press briefing in the hotel. Like the Tipping Wall, the Oculus is still awaiting parts before the water, now pumped, can be switched on, a testament to the complexity of the designs. “A number of these things are unprecedented and kind of crazy engineering,” he said.
“It seems like a black hole” from above, said Safdie of the Oculus. “It might be tempting to see what a black hole feels like and jump in,” he joked.
Inside and around the atrium are 83 3-metre-high glazed ceramic beakers that are so big, Shanghai-born artist Chongbin Zheng had to build a customised kiln to fire them in Yixing, a centre of Chinese ceramics since the 11th century. Each of the hand-made pots contains a tree, watered though electronically controlled tubes from under the floor, Zheng said, giving the work the name “Rising Forest.”
Safdie said he looked at the works of three or four artists for each installation for the public art and chose Gormley’s complex structure for the lobby because it occupied the space without filling it.
“Drift,” a 40-metre long matrix of 16,100 linked steel rods, was an engineering nightmare that required collaborator Tristan Simmonds to develop software to model the structure. Gormley and Simmonds hired Singapore engineering firm AME International Pte, which previously only made parts for the oil industry, to construct the matrix in sections, Gormley said.
“The whole thing was sent to Singapore as an e-mail,” said the artist, wearing a pressed white shirt in the hotel’s Fuse restaurant. He said it took 42 welders to put the sculpture together and the sections covered 2 ½ factories.
Where’s the Body?
The result is a delicate-looking work that hangs over the lobby and bar (which is where bars always were in Singapore’s great early hotels like Raffles — right in the lobby as you walk in the door). Gormley said the signature body that characterises most of his works is in there, you just have to look for it.
Only one artist’s work departs from the architectural integration that Safdie demanded for the public works: the bright colored bands of Sol LeWitt behind the reception desk and in the tunnel leading to the MRT rail station in the basement. LeWitt died in 2007 and his works are continued by a team of master painters, in this case with the help of artists from the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.
Still, Safdie’s rigorous integration of the art to fit his design wasn’t all one way. Gormley said he persuaded the architect to forgo paneling that would have clad the underside of the cantilevered balconies around his installation.
“It would have destroyed my piece,” said Gormley.
And how does Safdie feel now that his almost-complete colossus has opened its doors?
“I feel like I’m in a fairy tale,” he said.