As It Happens

'You forget you're in a building,' says Israeli-Canadian architect of giant airport waterfall

Dubbed the Jewel, the airport park complex features a forest, a park, walking trails and a seven-storey waterfall over which more than 45,000 litres of water cascade per minute.

Architect Moshe Safdie calls the complex with 40-metre falls in Singapore's Changi airport a 'game changer'

Dubbed Jewel, this airport park complex features a forest, a park, walking trails and a seven-storey waterfall over which more than 45,000 litres of water cascade per minute. (Safdie Architects)

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A new complex called Jewel opened earlier this month at Singapore's Changi Airport. It features a forest, a park, walking trails and — the pièce de résistance — a seven-storey waterfall.

It is the culmination of a four-year project that cost $1.67 billion Cdn to realize.

Israeli-Canadian Moshe Safdie is the lead designer of the project. He is also architect behind Habitat 67, a residential complex that launched as a pavilion at Montreal's Expo '67 to showcase what future communal residences might look like.

Safdie spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off about his latest project. Here is part of their conversation.

What compelled you to put a waterfall of this size inside an airport?

It began in a competition. The airport wanted to build a new centre to connect and unify all the terminals. They needed more space [for] shopping and airport space. And then they said they wanted an attraction — something that would attract both Singaporeans and passengers.

Everyone in that competition was thinking dinosaurs, Disneyland, mummies and other such attractions. And I came up with the idea of just doing something much more timeless that will appeal to all ages — just a mythical garden, a paradise garden.

Out of that evolved the concept of an enormous glass roof, which contains that garden under which all the other things happen. And at some point I dipped the roof, the dome, in ... the shape of a doughnut so that the entire roof drains into the centre. 

That meant that every time it rains — which, in Singapore, is almost every day — you're going to get torrential waterfalls coming out of that vortex.

The roof collects rain to create the indoor waterfall. (Safdie Architects)

Can you just describe what it is like to stand beside this giant waterfall indoors?

Its impact is extraordinary — on sound, on air.

It swirls the air. It creates a bit of a mist. It's totally magical. And when the sun hits it, it breaks up into rainbows and spectrum and rays of light that are almost sacred in character.

And then at night, we've installed a very elaborate projection and speaker sound system, and they have the most beautiful light shows on the waterfall.

In the vortex itself, we have the capacity to adjust how the water flows through. We can break it up into little particles so it comes down like a rain. And then it becomes like a screen — perfect for projection. Or we let it come across as sheets, which is more like a dramatic waterfall, a bit like Niagara Falls.

The waterfall cascades over seven storeys. (Safdie Architects)

But it's not just this absolutely extraordinary waterfall, this centrepiece — it's all the greenery. ... What were you trying to create?

I was interested in the notion that you could take a busy place — an airport and a marketplace, you can call it kind of a mall, with hundreds of shops and all that comes with it — and cohabit it with a magical park, which is nature at its best, which is relaxing and serene, and is the escape from all of that busyness.

Airports are not exactly relaxed places, and I thought, what would be better than to create a place of total serenity? 

We've planted thousands of trees and all kinds of other vegetation. And now, six months since we planted it all, it's already a lush jungle.

You walk through the trails, and you forget you're in a city, and you forget you're in an airport, and you forget you're in a building. You're just out there in nature and, in that sense, it's completely magical.

The idea behind Jewel is to bring serenity and nature to an otherwise busy place. (Safdie Architects )

What effect do you see it have on people as they use this Jewel?

It's kind of almost bizarre to see the passengers walking around with their suitcases — and they're wandering about, like in a daze.

And the residents of Singapore who've been pouring in, they're just beside themselves.

But for me, as an architect, this was really an opportunity to explore something that I think could be a game changer in downtown development, in dense cities — where we build mall after mall, urban malls, which are very anonymous and, to me, depressing places — and show that you can have shopping and cultural facilities and cohabit them with great gardens and parks in the heart of a city.

Jewel is about the community in the city. It acknowledges that cities are dense and congested, as airports are, and that we crave for nature and the sense of contact with nature. 

And so, in some ways, it's a confirmation of the idea that if we can bring nature into our everyday environment in a big way — which is what Jewel attempts to do, and I think succeeds in doing — then it'll be so much more wholesome and ... uplifting to people's spirits.

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.