June 27, 2019

Singapore High Stakes – Wilson McWilliam Studio

Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam of Wilson McWilliam Studio review their success at the Singapore Garden Festival, where they won both Gold and Best of Show – Landscape Garden for their garden Sacred Grove

Wilson McWilliam

Sacred Grove features a roof garden with a grove of 37 trees on top of a shady courtyard area with a central water feature. The garden, which won Best in Show and a gold medal at the Singapore Garden Festival was praised by judges for its ‘exploration of light and shadow and the basic elements of waters, light and air, and intelligently addressing issues such as drainage, sustainability and greening of the city.’

When the invitation to exhibit at the Singapore Garden Festival came, Gavin and I leapt at the opportunity – it was a chance to design for a different climate in a show that’s attracting worldwide attention.

The garden would be in the open air, located on the Meadow, a circle of grass within Gardens by the Bay (all previous shows have been indoors). The meadow is densely irrigated meaning no dig was allowed and the garden had to rise.

In February 2014 we went to Singapore on a recce trip which gave us the chance to meet May Oh of Evershine who was our allocated partner contractor. We knew that the design was ambitious and innovative – as a precaution we had prepared an alternative. Both May and the National Parks team who organise the event enthused about the more adventurous design and so we continued with design detailing. The visit also delivered the zeitgeist of Singapore – a thriving city dominated by dense high rise development incorporating exciting green spaces at almost every level. Shade and cooling breezes are valued, or alternatively green spaces are designed to be looked at from the comfort of an air-conditioned interior.

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The finished garden

Sacred Grove as a concept was an idea we had played with for some time in the studio – the sense that a combination of planting and built form could be special, sacred or memorable as the ancient Greeks might recognise. As the soil level began to rise, we considered the context of modern Singapore. The roof garden took shape creating an undercroft in which shade and a cooler atmosphere might create a contemplative space.

The two levels were never designed to be connected physically but we did want to achieve a visual connection. We were aware of the heavy rains that fall almost daily in Singapore. We opened the centre of the roof partly for light and to give views up into the planted canopy or grove, but also to allow rain to interact with the space underneath.

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The Sacred Grove garden at night

Immediately below in the centre of the garden we placed a reflecting rain pool, still and mirror like in dry conditions but disturbed and rippling during rain. Rain water could also overflow into the pool with excess water collected for irrigation.

Polished concrete formed the floor of the garden contained by an aluminium edge that disguised lighting, creating the sensation of a floating construction. The uprights relate to a controlling grid – some carrying excess water away from the roof or lighting cables.

The planting is dominated by Schizolobium parahyba to create the grove. The trunks are slender and vertical topped with delicate fern-like fronds that created a soft texture and exciting reflections in the pool below. Beneath we planted a tropical meadow, randomising native and cultivated orchids into a mix of bamboo grass, Ophiopogon and soft ferns.

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Adding the finishing touches

The exuberant meadow tumbled over the roof edges with asparagus fern and Stephanotis. The only connection between the two levels was made with the aerial roots of Cissus nodosa hanging down through the central opening. Alongside, a large bowl of cloud-white Phalaenopsis orchids shared centre stage with Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun chair for quiet relaxation and contemplation.

Wilson McWilliam

Gavin McWilliam and Andrew Wilson celebrate with partner contractor May Oh of Evershine at the awards ceremony

Wilson McWilliam Studio is one of the UK’s leading garden design practices, combining the talents of Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam in the design of bespoke gardens and public landscapes. The studio is based in London, but as a practice they work across the South East and internationally at both garden and landscape scale. Sharply detailed construction, elegant spaces and inspirational planting design percolate through their unique design responses. Andrew and Gavin both trained as landscape architects but share a passion for garden design and experimentation with materials and plant associations. They are strong advocates for cross fertilisation between both disciplines.

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