Nanyang Technological University
View From the Roof: This new school of art, design, and media at Nanyang Technological University preserves open space, while serving as a green icon for the community
When Nanyang Technological University (NTU), on the western outskirts of Singapore, revisited its Kenzo Tange-designed master plan in 1993, it designated a verdant valley at the heart of the 500-acre campus as open space, or a kind of green lung. But as with Singapore itself, the school’s land has become increasingly scarce —a fact that came to the fore when the university established its new School of Art, Design, and Media in 2004 and needed a permanent home for it. So with the help of the Singapore-based architecture firm CPG Consultants, which came with extensive experience working on the master plan, NTU built an environmentally friendly “non-building building,” as CPG director Hoong Bee Lok puts it, that would allow it to build on the central green space without taking away from it.
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Formed by two sloping, tapering arcs that interlock with a third, smaller arc, the School of Art, Design, and Media is an elegant five-story, 215,000-square-foot structure housing more than two dozen studios and laboratories, two galleries, and as many lecture halls, alongside classrooms, a soundstage, a 450-seat auditorium, and motley other spaces spanning a library to prototyping rooms. Moreover, the $24 million building merges with—in fact, nearly disappears into—its surroundings by way of its most notable feature: its swooping green roofs. “We wanted to let the landscape play an important role in molding the building,” Lok says.
Accessible by stairs along the edges, the curving, green roofs prevent a loss of open space, while offering a sculptural solution for CPG’s design goals. For example, the dense voysia matrella grass turf adds to the building’s eco credentials by helping to absorb Singapore’s intense sun. Meanwhile, this effect enhances the outdoor gathering space at a university that has made a mission of promoting creativity—a mandate it wanted to express architecturally through spaces fostering interaction. In fact, the site was chosen in part because of its placement between the school’s main academic and dormitory clusters, a “strategic location that makes the building highly accessible to all students,” Lok adds.
Throughout the project, CPG managed to show how the twin imperatives of sustainability and community-building can be complementary. Following the roofs’ arcing silhouettes, expansive curtain wall facades of high-performance, double-glazed glass not only maximize interior daylight while minimizing heat penetration—longitudinally oriented east-west, the building has mostly north and south exposures—but they also contribute to a sense of openness, augmented by views to the surrounding natural landscape. The sunken, almond-shaped courtyard formed by the space in between the building’s two main arms further expands access to daylight. Enlivened by fountains, cascading water, and a “floating” performance platform, its reflecting pond creates a pleasant communal area while helping to cool it as well.
The building’s double-curve layout, interspersed with breakout lounges, also encourages a “non-linear” approach to education, Lok says. Upon entering the double-height lobby from beneath the building’s smaller wing, one gets a clear view past a metal bridge to the sunken courtyard on the other side. To the left are seminar rooms, gallery spaces, classrooms, and the library; to the right are offices, studio spaces, and the auditorium. Throughout, a simple, unfussy palette of raw concrete and cement-sand floors minimizes the use of materials and finishes, while providing resiliency and an unprecious “canvas for students to express their creativity,” says Lok. Motion- and photo-sensitive lights and efficient bathroom fixtures lower electricity and water use.
Of course, the building’s greenest feature, in more ways than one, remains the roof. In addition to reducing solar gain and slowing runoff during Singapore’s frequent downpours, it is irrigated using rainwater collected in storage tanks; a moisture retention mat installed beneath the lightweight soil also helps keep the grass consistently damp under the sun. Indeed, “inventing a turf system suitable to the local tropical climate was a challenge, requiring a good understanding of turf growth and a precise installation of irrigation and water drainage,” says Lok, adding that the latter was addressed with perimeter drains.The greatest challenge, however, was the roof itself. Cast in heavily ribbed, reinforced concrete, “it took tremendous site coordination, [a complicated] scaffolding system, and accurate setting-out for such curvilinear structures,” Lok says. Not to mention its price tag—early on, critics perceived the green roofs as being both radical and costly. But in the end, integrating the building with its natural surroundings proved to be a successfully iconic solution that has won favor across the entire campus. “By developing a student-centric scheme incorporating green communal spaces,” says Lok, “we tried to promote interaction among all students beyond the classrooms for a constant exchange of creative ideas and to build a student culture.” A greener culture, that is.
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