Changi Airport’s Jewel: For Every Traveler, a Garden
For architects, there’s a comforting myth surrounding the history of airports and architecture. Once upon a time, we’re told, there was a “golden age” of air travel. The buildings created for that era were sleek, modern, and fun—a word no one associates with airports today. But a look through the relevant literature tells a different story. The glamorous Mad Men era of air travel, if it existed at all, was painfully short-lived. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, an undisputed masterpiece, was outdated and overwhelmed virtually the day it opened. Sadly, the same was true for most of the architecturally distinguished terminals built during that brief and shining moment. The aviation industry struggled to keep up with surging demand—a demand that has not really abated in the ensuing half-century—and then quickly pivoted, trading design quality and a certain grandeur for the factory model that has prevailed ever since. Today, whatever amount of time we spend in airport terminals is imposed on us. No one without a ticket goes to the airport.
Fortunately, there’s an entirely different truth in Singapore. Like any major transport hub, Changi Airport is a massive people-processing machine. It moves about 66 million travelers a year through four huge and bustling terminals with startling efficiency (and has plans to move many millions more). What takes at least 40 minutes at LAX or Kennedy or O’Hare—the physical acts of retrieving luggage, exiting the terminal, boarding a train, bus, car or taxi, and leaving the gravitational pull of the airport, with its lines, traffic, and interminable waiting—is dispensed with in Singapore in about 20. Other airports can surely claim similar efficiencies, but none in the U.S. that I can think of. Not one, however, can match Changi’s boldest achievement: an astounding public space, designed by Safdie Architects, that rivals, and maybe even surpasses, anything else out there.
I’d seen the images of Jewel prior to landing in Singapore, so I knew what was inside that glass-and-steel bubble, located in front of the airport’s iconic control tower. But looking at the building from the galloping vantage point of a moving sidewalk, slaloming through families with straggling kids, I welcome its dome-shaped, almost otherworldly form. Jewel feels like a friendly invader (think E.T.’s rescue ship). At night, its round, glowing presence provides visual relief from the immense rectilinear terminals that stretch out, seemingly, as far as the eye can see. I also know that the main attraction—Changi’s audacious experiment in placemaking, the urban garden—is wrapped in something a bit more prosaic: a gleaming, multilevel airport mall. This is not a criticism, merely an observation: every commercial airport in existence serves as a tool for economic development (Singapore’s special genius).
But the real surprise comes when I stroll through the mall and finally step foot inside the garden, the “Forest Valley,” as the architects call it. I’m shocked that I’m shocked! Because I’d seen it, on the web, in all of its two-dimensional glory: the Rain Vortex (the world’s largest indoor waterfall); the five floors of terraced trees and the steps between them snaking to the sky; the dramatic glass-and-steel roof; the monorail slicing through the vast space like a 1964 World’s Fair apparition. It’s a great relief to realize that, as amazing as those images were, they still don’t do the garden full sensory justice. They can’t possibly capture the physical properties of falling water (you can enter into a trance just looking at that), the leafy smell of the terraced forest, the faint whiff of dissolving mist, the play of sun and clouds on the roof, the shards of sunlight shooting through the cascade. To experience this, in real time, at an airport, encased in an airport mall, 10,000 miles from home, makes me giddy. “It’s insane,” I hear a man say to his companion, in English, in a sort of awed whisper. “But in a completely good way.”
And yet, Singapore being Singapore, it’s not at all insane. The dense city-state has a well-deserved reputation for plotting, planning, and accounting for nearly every acre of valuable land. As a result, large developments tend to be executed on swift and aggressive timelines, often in concert with supporting infrastructure. It’s a coordinated approach that makes Singapore the envy of planners everywhere. And the expansion of the airport will be no different. Jewel—a partnership between the Changi Airport Group and CapitaLand—is the prelude to a much bigger effort. The airport recently announced plans for construction of a fifth terminal (to be designed by Thomas Heatherwick, in a collaboration with KPF) that will add runways and nearly double Changi’s capacity. Completion is set for 2030.
Jewel will be the front door for all of this projected growth. As a quasi-public space, as a civic building, the structure is a fascinating hybrid. It is both a huge retail complex and a spectacular urban park. An international hub for travel and a wildly popular local destination. A nature refuge and front door for the world’s seventh busiest airport. And baked into the economic logic of the development is Singapore’s long love affair with airports. Even before Jewel exponentially upped the ante, locals here have for years been flocking to the subterranean world of Changi, to eat, shop, hang out, go to the movies, and buy groceries. Planners love to talk about “airport cities,” but most of the time that’s still shorthand for a traditional get-in/get-out airport. Changi (along with Tokyo Narita) is an anomaly: an actual “Aerotropolis” heavily frequented by local residents. That history alone should ensure Jewel’s economic viability for years to come.
Although the building houses nearly 54,000 square feet of retail—and that space is the project’s economic reason for being—Jewel is still spatially oriented, with sightlines, signage, and interstitial spaces, toward its beating heart. You’re always aware of the garden. You catch glimpses in many restaurants, where tables peek out into the forest. Some vistas provide stirring views of the Rain Vortex, but the full impact of the space isn’t fully felt until you step completely inside it. And when you do, the effect is utterly altered: all vestiges of the mall tend to fall away. It’s a series of spatial moves, both subtle and generous, that enhance the experience of the garden without in any way compromising the shopping around it. That kind of artful dance between the two worlds occurs all over the building.
The building itself also acts as an orienting object for the entire airport. I didn’t fully understand the layout of Changi until I rode the escalator down to the second basement level (there are four), directly under Terminal One, where the airport proper meets the glistening new amenity. Peering up through a huge expanse of glass, facing the main entrance to Jewel two floors up, I saw how the new building linked up with Terminal One, the bus and subway lines, car and taxi pick-up, connecting walkways, and the monorail, and almost instantly understood the internal logic of the entire airport. As a result, though I did wander a lot during my visit, I was never once lost.
The garden, I soon realized after visiting at different times during the day, attracts a fluid mix of people. In the early morning, it is weary travelers, who have somehow stumbled off the plane into some sort of secret garden. They appear both thrilled and perplexed (a combination I attribute to jet lag). As the day progresses, school children arrive, and the mix begins to shift. At night, after work, when the setting sun begins to cast the great room in a warm glow, the hourly light shows commence to a packed house, spanning many generations. This feels like the beginning of a daily ritual, a Singaporean tradition. It seems beside the point to wonder whether I’m in an airport or a mall. What I’m witnessing are the daily social rhythms of a great urban park. No wonder they love it.
Airport officials estimated that between 40 and 50 million people would visit Jewel during its first year. Judging from the early crowds, those might be conservative numbers. (In fact, the 50 million mark was reached within six months.) Still, it’s hard to say how the perception of this grand civic room—very much in the tradition of Grand Central Station (also surrounded by stores, with an Apple store inside the hall)—will evolve over time, because it’s new and still very much in its billion-selfie moment. But it will change of course. For Singaporeans—who will have grown up in the garden, eaten in the food court downstairs, gone on dates at the movie theater—the intense sense of wonder they’re experiencing now (and recording, copiously) will be replaced by something deeper: a connection to people, places, and memories, a sublime connection to nature that might be more fleeting and elusive in the future, and ultimately more important to their emotional well-being.
Whatever the future of air travel, arriving passengers years from today are unlikely to lose that initial jolt of awe upon seeing the garden for the first time. It’s a sort of biophilic rollercoaster: we take in the spectacle, like children; moments later, our bodies register a kind of peace. Closing the eyes amplifies the effect. We’ve just stepped off a plane, sealed for 12 hours in a steel tube, and been handed an unexpected gift.
That feeling of generosity is likely to deepen over time, because Safdie and his team have used as their basic tools primal elements connected to our DNA: light, water (the source of life), nature, gravity, beauty. These will surely outlive the Zeitgeist, at any moment in time. And if the great garden of Changi inspires imitators—airports from all over the world, seeing dollar signs and opportunity, in the creation of authentic public spaces—then that will have been just one of Jewel’s great legacies. Perhaps Changi can usher in a second golden age, one centered not so much on the miracle of flight (a given today) but on the shared humanity of everyone involved.
Moshe Safdie once said that the basic idea behind Habitat ’67, the project that launched his extraordinary career, was embodied in a motto: “For everyone a garden.” More than a half-century later, more than halfway around the world, he’s provided a similar offering, lush and wonderful, to weary travelers and the people of Singapore.
All photos by Timothy Hursely, courtesy of Safdie Architects. This essay appears in the book, Jewel Changi Airport, available here.