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Can the world's best airport get even better? Singapore's Changi Airport hopes its new $1.5 billion building will be a new reason for travellers to choose to transit through the hub.
On the surface, the fact that Singapore started work on yet another shopping mall at the weekend – the latest of 150 "retail experiences" that cover the tiny island – is not much of a story. But when that shopping mall comes at a cost of $S1.5 billion ($A1.37 billion) and is also going to add much-needed capacity and connectivity to Singapore's Changi Airport you find yourself with Jewel, the Lion City's attempt at an iconic new building.
Behind this latest retail mall from CapitaLand – one of Singapore's biggest developers, and the company behind such projects as the eye-popping Ion Orchard shopping mall – is a strong sense of purpose and design.
Changi Airport Group had a problem: the old T1 car park was too small but it was also unpopular as it was open air in a country with four months of monsoon every year.
But its location, right in the centre of Terminals 1, 2 and 3, gave them an opportunity: push the car parking underground and sit an iconic attraction on top.
"Having gone through a whole gamut of ideas, ranging from a theme park to a space port, we settled on a signature building," says Lee Seow Hiang, CEO of Changi Airport Group.
The building would have key elements, the first was shopping – not a surprising move given that Changi Airport is one of the biggest retail players in Singapore with over $2 billion worth of sales generated in the past 12 months. But the second element was to be more playful –22,000 metres of lush, landscaped gardens.
Lead architect Moshe Safdie took the theme of the mythical garden – Eden, Shambala, even James Cameron's Avatar all influenced the green spaces at Jewel – and Singapore's title of the Garden City and combined it with the idea of a marketplace, or souk, all under a cutting-edge dome.
At the centre of this space is a 40-metre manmade waterfall, the Rain Vortex, that will channel the monsoonal rains down into the centre of the space, then recycle the waters it has captured into a constantly flowing water sculpture. At night the waterfall will be lit by a light-and-sound show, designed by water feature design company WET, the team behind the famous Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.
But one of the smartest functions of the new space will be to unite the once separated Terminals 1, 2 and 3. Jewel sits in the centre of the three terminals and will be accessed by the three terminals via sky bridges; the Changi shuttle between the terminals will run through the centre of Jewel, giving passengers a brief glimpse of the gardens. The new building will also link Terminal 1 to the MRT public transport system for the first time.
For visitors to Terminal 1 it will expand the baggage claim area by 90 per cent, the greeting area by 35 per cent and increase the passenger handling capacity to 24 million a year.
Heading off the obvious question: Was this just a vanity showcase to allow Changi Airport to keep the kudos of its oft-won title of World's Best Airport?
Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, guest of honour at the ground breaking at the weekend, admitted it did play a part.
"We are operating in a dynamic and increasingly competitive environment," Mr Lui said. "Passengers today are spoilt for choice as air hubs around the world actively pursue new ways to boost their appeal as destinations and as transit points."
It is hoped that Jewel will actually become a reason for people to choose to transit through Changi, that a self-consciously iconic building will be able to woo customers usually driven purely by the attraction of low airfares. And while that might be too lofty an aim for any bricks and mortar, those who do transit through Changi after the expected 2018 completion date of Jewel will certainly have to check out this sparkly new attraction.