Updated: Apr 30, 2020
written by Teo Yee Chin
Since the Duxton Plain Public Housing competition in 2001, where WOHA received a merit prize with their striking entry of a matrix of nine tower blocks interlinked with skyrise streets and gardens, WOHA has continued to develop and test similar ideas through projects such as Newton Suites (2003), the Met (2003) and School of the Arts (2005). Skyville@Dawson, a direct commission from HDB (Housing and Development Board) in 2007, sees them coming full circle back to public housing with these ideas.
Skyville@Dawson has to be seen as a component in WOHA's long-standing practical research on the typologies of high-density urban living. It is made to be a typology that will address emerging needs in rapidly urbanising Asian cities.
This is made clear in the latest publication on their work, Garden City Mega City, by Patrick Bingham Hall. First, a quick overview of the book is in order. It has two front covers and no back cover. Starting from one front, the book describes the problems and crises that are facing the "mega-cities" of Asia, such as congestion and pollution, coupled with the impending threats that global warming brings to the environment, and that urban development only seems to make worse.
Flipped over to start from the other front, the book provides a set of solutions, seeking to address the abovementioned problems, that are based on WOHA's ideas. These revolve essentially around a three-dimensional architectural matrix, incorporating lushly landscaped, cross-ventilated terraces distributed vertically throughout buildings, enabling amenity and social life to take place. The book reads like a manifesto, advocating WOHA's large scale prototypes as solutions between architecture and city (Macro-Architecture Micro-Urbanism), to escape "what currently appears to be an inevitable fate of terminal dysfunction".
Nonetheless, SkyVille@Dawson is just as much a specific result of its context and a response to it. It is a unique architectural contribution to the locale of Queenstown and now stand as the home to 960 families.
While the project excites with its feasibility as a type, it also charms and awes with its effects as a built space. This review will look at the project while moving between the two frames of reference - Skyville@Dawson as 21st century urban prototype as well as a building in place.
The site plan is configured with a chain of three residential towers occupying the middle of the site, strung from east to west and thus facing north and south.
The strategy is to preserve optimum orientation (north-south) and unblocked views for the large majority of the apartments. Therefore, all the units are accommodated into a line of super high-rise towers, leaving a large swathe of land to the north unbuilt. This is instead remade as a landscaped garden preserving several large rain trees on it. The garden contains playgrounds and pavilions for communal activities.
To the south, a long low rectangular block houses the carparking and amenities such as a supermarket, a coffeeshop and a clinic. This block fronts and connects to the linear park to the south of the site. Skybridges connect the towers to this rectangular block.
Sky Villages and the Facade
The essence of the scheme lies in the section of the residential tower. It is a tour-de-force. Each tower of forty-seven storeys is broken down into four vertically stacked Sky Villages. The Sky Village is a community terrace in the sky that occurs every eleven storeys. Eighty apartments (eight units per floor per block) relate directly to each Sky Village, forming a smaller community within the larger development. From the access corridors going to the apartments, the resident is able to look down into the lofty space of the community terrace.
In a private development, such extensive sky terraces in a tower would need significant exposure on the facade to be exempted from GFA (Gross Floor Area), according to URA guidelines. These openings would need to be tall and allow rain and sun to reach the floor areas by way of a 45-degree line. Generally, the height of the facade opening will be equal to the depth of GFA-exempt space. Incorporation of sky terraces due to this rule usually results in a tower truncated into parts, like meat chunks on a skewer.
In Skyville@Dawson, the architects have inverted the relationship of form and void typically done in local residential towers. They have internalised the main exposure of the sky terrace towards the internal atrium and in so doing, achieved an integral facade while achieving the Sky Villages.
The typical block plan shows a simple transformation from the typical 4-unit condominium plan. The units are pushed outwards to make space around the core. This creates an atrium. It is akin to inflating a balloon with air such that the overall form appears larger. The ballooning of the towers to accommodate an airy void results in a diamond shaped form.
The lifts and staircases are arranged in a line, to achieve the thinnest core possible, so as to maximise the dimension of the void. Gaps between the lift groups and staircases form the crossing points from one side of the block to the other.
The taut exterior envelope is pulled together by an articulated system of windows, vertical fins and horizontal ledges as well as 9-storey tall stacks of balconies. The strongly articulated facades of the blocks are divided by the dramatic vertical voids. Yet, with credit to the architects, the overall form of the connected diamond-shaped blocks is experienced as a cohesive one, far more than the dispersed appearance of the apartments on plan would suggest.
The tightly woven exterior belies the voluminous atrium inside. One is taken by how large, airy and bright each sky terrace feels. On the periphery of the sky village, surrounding the tall atrium, the spaces are controlled at 1.5 storeys high after taking away planting depth and services. This not only reduces the disruption the sky terrace floor makes on the facade, but it also achieves a comfortably scaled space for activities to take place around the airy atrium.
The architects materialised the Sky Villages while balancing the multiple requirements of structure, vertical circulation, pre-casting, planting, and maintaining a coherent architectural form. This is all the more remarkable considering that this is not a one-off sky terrace, but a result of a tight system that has integrated the high density of housing units.
On Two Fronts
I will now touch on some of the consequences of the planning strategies adopted, and how the architects have tried to circumvent them.
To start, the making of a long linear core results in an almost solid divider between the north and south sides of each block. While there are deliberate openings between the lift cores that make dramatic visual axes across the site, most of the time one moves along the periphery of the block, especially on the ground floor, with little awareness of what is on the other side of the block. Other mechanical rooms are also housed in or around the core, such that the public spaces, called Community Living Rooms, back up against the solid core and open up towards the landscape.
The architects have pointed to this as a positive opportunity to "room up" the spaces that they felt were previously too undefined in the void deck. While the spaces are certainly more structured now, they also lose the flexibility and connectivity in all directions that the typical void deck possessed.
One could say that the buildings in this project are well-connected on the above-ground levels. For example, well-placed skybridges lead residents from the carpark to the apartment block in an axis cutting neatly into the gaps in the tower facade.
On the ground level, however, the connectivity suffers a little due to the need to accommodate services. This is felt when crossing from the apartments to the amenities to the south.
After experiencing the uplifting space of the SkyVillage, crossing the service road was somewhat unceremonious. While the axis is deliberately defined, walking along this axis requires that one crosses two roads - first the drop-off driveway, and second the main service road - in order to get to the amenities. The service road is also where one encounters at close quarters the bin centre and loading docks.
Like their recent book, Skyville@Dawson has two fronts and addresses both with the planning. To the north are the vast verdant woodlands. To the south lies the linear park connector that gave pedestrian connectivity alongside Alexandra Road. Both are appealing as contexts to relate to.
But unlike a book that can do without a back cover, a building needs a back of house for servicing. Garbage needs to be collected, goods need to be unloaded. In SkyVille@Dawson, the two halves of the project meet in the service road running down the middle, which is at once the back of house and also a "third" face of the project. As all ground level connections cross this road, it becomes a prominent part of the pedestrian circulation.
A basement would have helped tremendously in this regard, serving to take the driveway below grade. However, in a public housing project, it would doubtless have been deemed an extravagance. Nonetheless, one wonders if this long straight road down the middle, somehow reminiscent of the road that divides the hotel blocks and the commercial block at Marina Bay Sands, could have been planned differently.
The placement of the carpark block along the linear park to the south works hand-in-hand with the abovementioned alignment of the service road. Spatially, the carpark block obscures the proximity of the linear park from the rest of the development. To overcome this, the architects have played up the connectivity by defining walkways that penetrate the carpark and lead directly to the linear park. These are lined with lush planting and punctuated by skylights carved through the carpark. One of them is also a "heritage walk", marked by large scale concrete murals by local artist Troy Chin.
Some concluding thoughts on the meaning of Our Ground
The bigger question, that SkyVille@Dawson gives us the opportunity to contemplate here, is the idea of the ground in our pursuit of high-density and high-rise solutions to urban development. Does design effort to make new landscapes in the sky take something away from the real ground? What is the real ground that remains after all these other multiple ground levels have been built? Is the role of skyrise greenery and circulation to make spaces in the high levels more amenable and attractive, or is it a means to replace the true ground?
Before proceeding further, it seems necessary to carefully separate a material ground from a conceptual ground. A material ground is earth, always there, and it cannot be transposed. One takes it with all its pleasures and irritations. The conceptual ground, on the other hand, only contains positive meanings - of public-ness, connectivity and the ability to sustain life. The conceptual ground can take off as an architectural idea, even on the 36th storey, while the material ground is easily left behind in architecture.
To state the obvious, the material ground remains a highly active datum. People will be on the ground to take the bus, board a taxi, and just to get from place to place. Commercial spaces may spread upwards, but they almost always start from the ground. The ground remains the depository for all transportation networks of the city, as well as the origin for all patterns of activity.
There may be severe pollution and congestion on the ground in many mega-cities in Asia, but this is not the case in Singapore. Our public spaces on grade are pleasant and not so nasty as would compel one to seek escape from them.
In the example of suburban SkyVille@Dawson in particular, the site is fairly extensive and amenable for recreation and occupation. It is not a small site where ground is completely lost in the building's footprint and urgently needs to be compensated for. This is a notable difference from SOTA, the Met, and even Pickering, which all occupy tight urban sites.
Therefore, it needs to be stated that the strategy adopted stands on slightly shakier ground when posited against the firm's manifesto, if not for the continuing mission to test the super high-rise as a type. Furthermore, the strategy sets up a tension between the ground level spaces and the ground-like spaces, above-ground.
What is the role of the material ground in WOHA's projects, especially in their super high-rise prototypes where they advocate Multiple Ground Levels? As far as I can see, the material ground is a non-issue in WOHA's architecture. Instead, they view all levels with an even or non-hierarchical lens. Platforms can take on different roles, as the roles are disembodied from any preconceived level. In "The Four Layers of the Self-Sufficient City", no ground is mentioned, but four categories are formulated - Rooftop Canopy Layer, Residential and Workplace Layer, Parkland Layer, and Transportation and Services Layer. Presumably, in WOHA's architectural framework, these layers are interchangeable across the physical levels.
In SkyVille@Dawson, the ground is construed as a Parkland Layer (the somewhat isolated north garden) as well as a Transportation & Services Layer (service road and mechanical rooms). While connections to the amenities surrounding the development are catered for as well, the project does not privilege the idea of the ground as a large space for circulation and connection. Instead, specific lines of connection have been defined and articulated.
Architecture as Visionary Systems of Living
If the architects bear neither the memory of their own oeuvre nor their ambition to achieve a mega-architectural solution to the world's problems, would SkyVille@Dawson have materialised as such?
The project is remarkable, not just because of its material qualities, but because its existence lies somewhere between the future and the present, between a 21st century urban prototype as well as a building in place. While the review above raises questions, it does so in order to point out the tail of an architecture that is posited as a prototype.
But as we look forward, should not all architecture do this? Great architecture should contain within it a rumination, and be itself a platform for discussion, on how society can progres.
 p.7, Garden City Mega City - Rethinking Cities for the Age of Global Warming, 2016  In the words of Pearl Chee, Senior Associate in WOHA, in charge of this project.  The void deck of the typical HDB block, as an open field of columns, is able to accommodate, at different times, a funeral, a wedding, a soccer game, a study corner, and other uses.  Surely the forceful pushing of the agenda in Bingham-Hall's book has upped the stakes for Skyville@Dawson in this consideration.  ibid  p.286-287 ibid