Located in the green heart of Singapore’s historic civic and cultural precinct at the mouth of the Singapore River, the landscapes of Empress Place & Esplanade Park are contemporary in character yet retain strong references to its historic past. Laid out according to the Raffles Plan of 1822, the iconic park settings are fringed by a contiguous riverfront promenade and the city’s major cultural buildings—the Asian Civilizations Museum, Victoria Theatre, National Art Gallery—and signify both the historic beginnings and climax of the city’s green necklace at Marina Bay.
In 2013, Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority held an international competition for a new Civic precinct masterplan to celebrate Singapore’s fifty years of independence. The aim was to highlight the recently restored civic and cultural precinct as a centrepiece of Singapore life and imbue the somewhat tired waterfront and open spaces with an enhanced destination and parkland experience.
Cox Architecture and CONTEXT Landscape Architecture, in association with Architects 61, Arup, and Arcadis, won the competition, subsequently realising a project which has reinvigorated the riverfront parkland location and gifted the city with a new ‘great lawn’—the Empress Lawn—fronting the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.
At its core, the master plan sought to enhance the civic decorum of the public and ceremonial spaces, enhance the pedestrian and visitor experience, improve connections, and restore the status of the parklands as a much loved events and gathering space in the City in a Garden.
The project has delivered improvements to the waterfront promenades and parklands, new events spaces, streetscape improvements, a new playground, two sets of water steps, special lighting, new signage, street furnishings, and extensive landscaping for the precinct. The parklands have also been retrofitted with enhanced connections, new lifts, and improved access to the adjacent Esplanade Theatres car park and MRT, improving permeability and wayfinding in the public domain. The heritage fountains and memorials have also been restored, tangibly engaging the public with their multicultural past.
The new planting design of the parklands strengthens the character and identity of this heritage setting, with a focus on sweeping lawns, large shade trees and a lush new understorey of colourful shrubs and groundcovers to unify the various lawns and garden rooms.
Complementing the tree avenue are waterfront steps, inspired by the Chand Baori stepwell in Rajasthan. Modular precast concrete pieces were fitted like a jigsaw puzzle onto piles to form the complex step design extending and suspending over the river, reducing construction time and materials.
To consolidate the ‘great lawn’ in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, roads and pathways were realigned and over eight 60 tonne heritage-listed Rain Trees (Samanae saman) were seamlessly transplanted from the street edge of Empress Place to frame the western perimeter of the lawn. The trees were successfully transplanted through a bespoke, minimally invasive, yet simple system of pipe-jacking before being lifted by crane, relocated and anchored to a specially designed concrete slab underground. This technique was a first for Singapore.
To encourage activity at night, the lighting design took a site-sensitive, LED driven approach to rebalance light intensities, creating a soft ambience for seamless and comfortable wayfinding. The architectural details of historic landmarks are respectfully highlighted and integrated into the landscape design to complete the approach.
Since the reopening of the precinct, Empress Place and Esplanade Park has reignited its vigour as a vibrant destination for civic events and ceremonial functions, as well as a place for social interaction, festivals, events, and locals at play.
Project Name: Empress Place & Esplanade Park
Short office name: CONTEXT Landscape Architecture
Other designers involved in the design of landscape (architects and landscape architects): Cox Architecture, Architects 61, Arup, Arcadis, Fiona Robbe Landscape Architects
Project location (Street, City, Country): Empress Place, Singapore
Design year: 2013-2019
Year Built: 2019