As the parking lot outside Terminal 1 at Singapore’s Changi Airport brimmed to capacity in the 2000s, airport officials contemplated how to redevelop it. The easy choice would be to build a multistory garage, but the site was prime land at the heart of one of the world’s most-prestigious airports. Simply adding parking spaces didn’t seem like a smart idea.
“We wanted to build something that could transform Changi Airport from being just an air transport node to a tourism destination in its own right,” reflects Changi Airport Group Senior Vice President Ivan Tan. The ultimate aims of the project, company officials add, were to “capture tourism mindshare and entice travelers to choose Singapore as their preferred stopover destination.”
The result is Jewel Changi Airport, a distinctive US$1.2 billion glass-and-steel domed complex that opened earlier this year and is home to an array of attractions, including indoor gardens and one of the world’s tallest indoor waterfalls. Fitting for a city where retail malls continue to thrive, and a passion for great food rises to the level of a national pastime, Jewel offers some 200 retail outlets and 100-plus eateries, many of which are new to Singapore. For travelers, there are also early check-in and tax-refund facilities, as well as baggage storage and a lounge. And for those wondering about Jewel’s origin story, there are 2,500 parking spaces, nearly three times as many as before.
City in a Garden
Jewel’s centerpiece is the HSBC Rain Vortex, a 40-meter-high waterfall whose seven-story descent commences from a rooftop oculus. Ten thousand gallons of rainwater cascade through the mall every minute; during dry spells, additional water can be pumped in as needed.
Most visitors first approach the waterfall through the Shiseido Forest Valley. Walking past Borneo
conifers, Indonesian palms, Australian ferns, bamboo, orchids, and even Caribbean black olive trees, Jewel’s foliage harks back to a vision of Singapore first articulated by the country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore would become “a garden city beautiful with flowers and trees,” Lee pronounced in 1967, as he launched a drive to clean up the island.
More recently, the twin air-conditioned domes at Gardens by the Bay—a SG$1 billion project—opened near Marina Bay Sands in 2012, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Inside the terminals and transit areas of Changi Airport, there are also pockets of green intended to reduce traveler stress, though nothing on the scale of Jewel, where landscapers have planted more than 100,000 palms, shrubs, and trees.
Conceptualized by Safdie Architects, Jewel’s design concept is “a juxtaposition where an urban park and a vibrant marketplace are situated side by side,” explains Jewel Changi Airport CEO Jean Hung. The gardens and waterfall are the inner core of the building, while shops and restaurants are accessible on every floor from the perimeter of the forest.
On the upper levels of the HSBC Rain Vortex, visitors take selfies, while on the basement floors, where the falls are enclosed in a massive transparent tube to protect passersby from getting soaked, diners eat Thai noodles and drink coffee. A light and sound show is projected onto the waterfall every hour during the evening. The Rain Vortex was designed by WET, a U.S.-based engineering firm best known for the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas.
There are several reminders that you are at the airport, and not a typical mall or attraction. From certain angles, you can see the air traffic control tower through the rooftop dome. Then there’s the sky train connecting Terminal 2 and Terminal 3. It predates Jewel, which was built around it. Transit passengers may be surprised by what they see, as the train now passes through the middle of the complex, within a stone’s throw of the Rain Vortex.
Reflecting on the design, architect Moshe Safdie says initial ideas included thematic attractions, like dinosaurs or mummies, but he worried their appeal would fade. “We felt that the attraction should be timeless and should attract people of every age and income,” he told reporters at the launch. “And that led me to think of some kind of a great paradise, a mystical garden, as something that would be appropriate for an airport. A place of serenity and repose and nature.”
Jewel is a joint venture between the Changi Airport Group and CapitaLand Mall Asia, a subsidiary of one of Singapore’s largest developers. Company officials expect annual footfall to reach 40-50 million people a year. Jewel is well on the way to exceeding that target. The average daily footfall in its first quarter was 300,000 per day.
Locals account for 60% of Jewel’s visitors, a statistic that might confound travelers in other countries who only think of getting in and out of an airport as quickly as possible. Singaporeans, on the other hand, have always enjoyed going to Changi to eat, shop, and even study. It’s not unusual, particularly during exam season, to see students camped out in the Aviation Gallery or one of Changi’s food outlets, with books and papers strewn in front of them. Since Jewel opened, there have been long lines for many of the restaurants, such as Singapore’s first Shake Shack, where people have queued for hours to taste the New York chain’s malted milkshakes and hamburgers.
On Jewel’s top floor, a young girl in a sky-blue dress sits in the middle of grassy bowl as mist rises around her. Foggy Bowls, designed by San Francisco’s Exploratorium, is one of nine features inside Canopy Park, a 14,000-square-meter gated attraction. The four half-moon bowls here, two big and two small, are designed to let children feel as if they’re playing in the clouds.
Other attractions inside the Canopy Park include a sculptural playscape called Discovery Slides; a topiary walk where orangutans made from coconut husks are a favorite photo point; a petal garden with seasonal displays; a challenging mirror maze and hedge maze, both designed by the United Kingdom’s Adrian Fisher; and Canopy Bridge, a glass-bottomed walkway suspended 23 meters above ground, offering great views of the Rain Vortex.
There are also two Manulife Sky Nets, one made for climbing and walking, the other for bouncing and sliding through net tunnels. Designed by Germany’s Officium and France’s Chien Noir, both nets provide the added thrill of being far above the ground below.
Tickets to several of the attractions inside Canopy Park are sold on an hourly time slot basis, on top of the SG$5 general admission price. Packages range from about US$28-50, with cheaper tickets for children and seniors. Outside the gated areas there are eight bistros, including Britain’s Burger & Lobster and the Tiger Street Lab, featuring seasonal flavors of Singapore’s trademark beer paired with local dishes.
Changi Experience Studio
Jewel’s hidden gem is the Changi Experience Studio (CES). Part museum, part family entertainment center, the 3,000-square-meter CES leverages an innovative German technology called “NO_THING” that transforms everyday objects into interactive multimedia surfaces.
Upon entry, each CES visitor receives a “travel guide.” At first glance, the guide looks like a simple folded brochure. On the cover it says “Welcome to the Journey.” Open it up, and there’s nothing on the inside. That blank piece of white cardboard, though, comes to life at touch points throughout the attraction.
In the Cloud, where visitors learn to use the device, holding and moving it under projectors, whimsical animated butterflies appear and take flight. Later, the guide becomes an interactive hand-held screen for learning about Changi and even playing games. Under projection lights, the travel guides act like an iPad. Users can swipe, drag and drop, and flip through content.
“The core idea is that, as a visitor, you are in contact with the media, information, and experiences, but you don’t feel any technology, because you are just holding a very simple cardboard in your hand,” explains Fabian Fuchs, who helped develop the technology at Milla & Partner’s Innovation Lab in Stuttgart, Germany.
In the “backstage” zone, games have been designed around key airport processes. How quickly can you service aircraft so they can take off again? From the check-in counter, can you ensure that baggage makes it onto the correct flight? As a security officer, can you spot dangerous items?
The games test dexterity, visual recognition, and even arithmetic, and each one is played on the travel guide. An embedded RFID chip stores user scores, as well as fun photographs taken along the way.
The chips are also used to assign instrument sounds in the Garden of Harmony, where moving the guide up or down changes the tone. Visitors join together here to form an orchestra. Some use their guides to play the piano, others a Balinese tingklik. There are eight instruments in all. The music complements the fantastical animated forests and oceans projected onto eight large-format curved screens, each a slightly different shape, by 60 Panasonic projectors.
The NO_THING technology makes use of live projection mapping and motion tracking. Interactions are controlled by individual spatial movements enabled by infrared markers embedded in the board. As visitors move the travel guide, under one of the many projection lights in the attraction, the system calculates the geometry of the interaction, live and in real time.
Fuchs’ colleague Christine Scholl notes that the software framework can be embedded on any
object—paper, flags, flowers, or even an umbrella. The CES marks the NO_THING technology’s Asian debut, though it has been previously deployed in exhibitions for the German pharmaceutical company Bayer.
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.