Where have you seen an incredible garden made in the past 10 years? Not round my house, I fear, where I pursue a predictably English ideal of receding beauty, and not at Chelsea Flower Show, either, where the designs fade from the mind by early June. I have been stunned and incredulous only once, down by the harbour-bay in Singapore. Until 2006 the site was a polluted and corroding zone. Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay was then thrown open to a design competition which drew more than 70 entries worldwide. The first phase is now up and running. In the first seven months more than 3m visitors have been to enjoy it, 20 times as many as the visitors to a Chelsea Show. So far the Bay South phase is the main draw with Bay East and Bay Central still to come fully on stream and double the area on view.
“You are about to see a botanic garden masquerading as a theme park,” the garden’s presiding genius and chief executive, Dr Kiat Tan, warned me. The Bay garden is the ultimate FT site. It owes part of its existence to a nearby high-rise casino, one of very few permitted in Singapore. From the upper floors of its towering concrete block, the casino has backed the green swath of garden below, on the sound FT principle that capitalist risk-takers want to enjoy a garden experience between the placing of their bets. Globally the FT publishes me. In Singapore the National Parks Board has allotted as much as S$1bn to the new Bay garden. Attracted by the blend of gardens and gambling, the city’s financial community is now moving to a site which was once a mudflat of toxic waste.
Seven years ago, aged 63, Tan was put in charge of planting up a new Bay garden with, as he well puts it, a “wow” factor. “Down here,” he told me, “Wisley Gardens now meets Kew.” He is thoroughly in touch with British public planting. At first the plan was called East of Eden, to rival the Eden Project in Cornwall. At the highest political level its scope then grew and Tan had to travel the world to see what was possible. He went to the best English gardens, to the New York Botanical Garden, to the best of South America and Japan. Then he sat down to work out the details. A British connection is rooted in his approach. He holds the coveted Victoria Medal of Honour from the RHS. He is a revered orchid-grower and for years was head of Singapore’s established Botanic Garden. In 2006 he accepted the budget and the enormous challenge. Was he nervous, I asked him, at an age when most British gardeners are being told to move their pension-funding into safe and steady bonds? “My career was on the line,” he told me. On a vast site of more than 110 acres he has so far planted about a million plants. He is manifestly smiling now.
Tan knows horticulture in the Far East and southern hemisphere through and through. As his assistant director of horticulture he enrolled a quietly spoken Australian, Anton van der Schans, whom he knew from his nursery business in distant Queensland, majoring on native Australian plants. Queensland, Schans remarked to me, has a climate surprisingly similar to Singapore’s. Together they took me round, exemplifying the constructive contrasts which typify their success.
There are three predominating features in the Bay South garden landscape. Two are greenhouse domes for two very different types of plants and the third is an amazing array of tall Supertrees, seven of which are lit up at night by solar panels. The Supertrees are the brainchild of Andrew Grant, the prizewinning English project designer whose practice is based near Bath. How ever did an Englishman think of these brilliant fantasies? Their trunks of concealed concrete open up to the sunlight like inverted umbrellas. These trunks and their metal tracery of branches are covered with green climbers, bromeliads and flowering plants. Grant credits the movies for his inspiration. The idea first came to him from a 1997 Japanese epic fantasy film called Princess Mononoke. In it, the princess and the heavenly guardians of her forest fight against nearby humans whose town wants to consume the forest’s life. The plot recalled the delicate balance between high-rise Singapore and the Bay’s need for green trees and space. On the Bay, the Supertrees will soon be clothed with greenery and their watering will be run by solar-generated electricity. Already they rank as the most imaginative public feature in a humid, hot climate. We should be giving Grant a huge British cheer for his export of this new-style English gardening. When you see his skyscape, remember that it is still in its early days and the frameworks, still visible, will soon be covered with flowers and surface-hugging epiphytic plants, 163,000 of them from 30 countries. Just before 8pm some of the Supertrees are already lit up from the devices in their crowns. The biggest, about 150ft high, even has a bistro in its top, accessible to diners by lift.
The Supertrees punctuate a series of themed gardens round which I travelled with the two master-gardeners in their cart. The aim is for each themed section to evoke a local style and period, so much of which is of special interest to Singapore’s ethnically diverse population. There are Indian gardens with banyans and horseradish trees. The Chinese gardens refer to Chinese literature and include mulberry trees and scented white osmanthus. There is a Malay garden based on a Malay village, or kampong, with medicinal plants, hibiscus and coconut trees. The Colonial Garden has a white theme. Does Tan think the British colonial style and imports were detrimental to Singapore’s gardens? “Too early to say,” he told me with Far Eastern aplomb, before vanishing into a hibiscus to pick up two big Singapore snails which I had not even noticed. Tan’s father was a rubber broker, rubber being a British introduction into Singapore.
The theming has yet to mature but it has tested the staff’s sourcing skills to the limit. I was bewildered by the sequence, but then we came to the garden’s centrepiece, two cooled glass domes. The first aims to show the world’s cool-dry flora, ranging from parts of California to the Mediterranean, the Western Cape of South Africa and even Madagascar. It is an astonishing sight: acres of beautifully landscaped trees and flowers under glass, even including plantings of our beloved English roses. Vast old olive trees have been shipped in from Spain. There are yellow-flowered Chorizia trees from South America on a scale which makes Kew’s Palm House seem parochial.
I sensed that Tan still had an ace up his sleeve. In the second glass dome I surrendered my sense of global indigestion and give him game, set and match. He has built an artificial mountain 130ft high, in order to show one of the world’s most challenging floras, the plants of the fabled cloud forests. Nozzles spray a fine water-mist at Tan’s triumphant man-made mountain whose face is set with an experiment in hydroponics, a mixture of earth and concrete which he devised for the purpose. The entire mountain-face is a flowering wonder, smothered in wild orchids from Borneo or Malaysia, wild begonias and fuchsias and anything from tropical rhododendrons to pitcher plants and yellow camellias. To mastermind this truly incredible planting he travelled to Costa Rica and Java’s mountains and into wild Malaysia. Was it nerve-racking to risk it all with only a small pilot-prototype, I asked this genius of the clouds? “No,” Tan replied. “In the tropics everything is forgiving. I am the only unforgiving one.”
I am feeling less forgiving as a result. In 2000 the New Labour government spent £1bn on a similar contaminated site, the Millennium Dome and its gardens. We were given that absurd ungendered statue of a Millennium Person and a memory of the Queen on New Year’s Eve, putting a suitably grim face on Tony Blair’s attempt to enthuse her into “Auld Lang Syne”. Within three months I was receiving desperate PR circulars trying to bribe me to go to look at the gardens, which were already a flop. They closed two weeks later. When we next have £1bn to spend on infrastructure, please send for Tan, Grant and van der Schans and leave the UK with a showpiece the world will come to see.