Edward Cullinan Architects knew how to design a university, but not how to design one in a country where the annual temperature varies between 85 and 89°F. Yet its solution was brilliant...
Given that the Equatorial island-state of Singapore is energetically setting itself up as the most highly educated city in the world, what could a British architect with next to no foreign experience have to offer it?
Roddy Langmuir's answer was: "We know a lot about universities but nothing about tropical climates. So we thought it could be interesting to pit our understanding of the one against our ignorance of the other." Yet with only half the credentials for the job, Langmuir's practice, Edward Cullinan Architects, managed to win an open design competition that attracted 172 entries from around the world.
The competition, staged in 2000, was for the new Singapore Management University. The first six buildings, which provide 112,000 m2 of floor area and house 4000 students, were completed in January at a cost of £105m. As well as the inherent complexity of university buildings and Singapore's steam-bath climate, the contestants had to grapple with a highly sensitive park in the heart of the metropolis, surrounded by a cluster of iconic cultural buildings. "It is," says Langmuir, "the first campus ever built in one go in the centre of a capital city."
The six buildings are arranged as a loose necklace around the park, and set back from rows of mature trees along the existing street frontages. This arrangement preserves much of the park and views through to the National Museum and Art Museum on either side.
Of even greater interest is the innovative design of the buildings themselves. Designed with WSP Environmental, the buildings buck the trend for air-conditioning - taken as read in Singapore to counteract the incessant equatorial heat and humidity. Instead they are ingeniously configured to induce cooling breezes of fresh air. "Humidity demands air movement," says Langmuir.
The buildings are linear extrusions that share the same cross section. They all come with hollow cores and basement-level concourses that pass beneath the streets to link them all together. Such features are standard practice in Singapore to give sanctuary from the city's heat, humidity and noise. The twist given by Cullinan is that the buildings are porous. The ground floors are open on either side, the first floors are pierced by open cross passageways and the hollow cores are narrow courtyards, open at the top.
The "breezeways" passing through ground and first floors, combined with the natural stack effect within the courtyards, suck air through the buildings. In effect, the concourses and the terraces overlooking them act as lungs for the buildings and social hubs for the departments.
Admittedly, the horseshoe-shaped lecture halls and staff offices are sealed and air-conditioned, but overheating is avoided using a combination of overhanging upper floors and roofs, solid perimeter walls, the outer curtains of hanging gardens that drape over the balconies and the neighbouring buffers of mature trees.
The new buildings effectively extend the existing park by adding three tiers of greenery in the external green curtains, the basement concourses and rooftop water gardens. The ubiquitous greenery and the porous buildings invite passers-by to percolate through them, mingle with students and enjoy the park they surround. Little wonder that the Cullinan's scheme was praised by Japanese architect and chairman of the competition judges, Fumihiko Maki, because it "answers the difficult urban questions quite brilliantly".