ParkRoyal on Pickering serves up expressions of jungles, ponds, and rice paddies
During the self-centered decade of the 1980s, a design movement emerged where focus on the needs of the users became paramount in the design process. Design Thinking, it was named; a process of creation that claimed to improve people’s lives. It has its roots in the “Scandinavian Approach,” a method that integrated into the design process the participation of the end-user through thorough prototyping; and was largely successful in the delivery of products Scandinavia is known for, such as Nokia and IKEA, brands known for superior usability.
While the shift in attention from the designer to the end-user was a welcome development, it eventually came to be considered insufficient. Today, usability is no longer the reigning hallmark of good design. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, a winning design is one that makes the end-user feel good about the product. And so Design Thinking proposed that we dive headlong into the world of the user by integrating not only ergonomics and logic into a product, but also positive experiences and psychic rewards as well.
ParkRoyal Hotel is located at Upper Pickering Street in the historic and charming Chinatown at the Outram district of Singapore, opposite Hong Lim Park. It is just four blocks away from the Singapore River. Chinatown was once the home of derelict shophouses with seedy inhabitants until government and business intervened to gentrify the area to what it is now. One shophouse after another was inventoried by government, determined for its heritage value, gazetted for conservation, and offered for re-purposing to creative businessmen. What emerged is a district with character so unique it is irresistible to tourists and locals alike. The experience is full and textured from the cuisine to the architecture.
While ParkRoyal was not an old shophouse, it may very well be the crown jewel of Chinatown in its delivery of a unique and memorable experience. The glossy new development designed by WOHA, a multi-awarded Singaporean architectural design firm, won the accolade Design of the Year at the prestigious Singapore President’s Design Awards of 2013.
Composed of four massive blocks of blue glass set in a line on a long rectangular lot, this 137 million SGD development claims to be the greenest in the verdant city-state. Three bands of lush garden connect the three hotel blocks to each other, creating this canyon of green view for every room of the hotel. The office block, the fourth in the series, floats on a sea of green just as the other three do.
According to Bernard Lee, one of the architects of the project, deliberate care was taken in the design process to make sure the hotel would give back the green spaces to the city—even more green than if the entire footprint of property was a tended garden. Indeed, ParkRoyal’s plant installations are no token amenities. In certain areas, the garden balconies extend a good number of meters off the building to deliver an authentic garden feel. One wonders, in the profit-driven world of the hospitality industry, where this green luxury falls in the tightly woven budget matrix of a hotel development. Lee speculates that the returns are in the form of a heightened sense of well-being, a higher perceived value, a satisfied conscience for patronizing an establishment that shows it cares for the environment, and therefore, repeat guests and word-of-mouth endorsements.
For a pragmatic designer like myself, this “well-being” is a lot of air, so we surrendered to a sampling of the ParkRoyal experience so that we might prove the worth of the pudding. The BluPrint team stayed a couple of nights. I did not stop myself from enjoying the amenities like the pool, which affords an excellent view of the city from ten floors high, and the private lounge at the top floor called the Orchid Club. Bernard Lee delighted us with a glimpse of the presidential suite as well.
Before concluding that you are about to be subjected to a sappy review of the hotel, let me deliver the punch. I found certain design expressions, most particularly in the lobby interiors, to be wanting in deeper design processing, follow-through and refinement, like the jungle pattern on the carpet, the reflective plastic ceiling that
tries to mimic pond water, and the undulating and striated wall cladding that the hotel spent a fortune on. The last was supposed to express rice paddies, a reference far removed from the city-state’s current context. All these had fallen victim to value engineering, apparently.
Looking at the total experience, however, I sensed the designer’s concern for the delivery of feeling and experience. I espied the fingerprints of Design Thinking. Against the backdrop of Singapore, once notoriously infamous for its highly efficient but characterless and gray urbanscape, an impression that the country has been reversing in leaps and bounds in the past two decades, this hotel brings the literal “living” experience within the city. This is delivered not only by the leaves, water and soil that surround guests at almost every turn, but also by the sensitivity of the architectural planning and interior design. At the lobby, in the midst of the costly kitschiness are unique pockets of waiting places with finely selected furniture, in a layout that ensures guest interaction. They are departures from the tired four-sofa quadrant layout so far from each other that talking to one another is impractical. If you are not the talkative type, a squad of high-back, cocoon-like lounge chairs facing the three-story glass window of the lobby is there for guests to contemplate the view of the infinity pool and garden with the city as backdrop.
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Corridors going from one block to another are outdoor, open to the hanging gardens with an unusual guardrail design. To those with a fear of heights, the rail design will probably induce more feelings of vertigo, but for me, it is just excellent as an expression of playfulness, and a unique design processing of safety. The pool deck is a favorite place with birdcages of various colors that appear to be suspended from the face of the podium. Here we see better follow-through of the playfulness expressed in certain parts of the project, which, by the way, are presented in a more human and personal, rather than monumental, scale. The entire hotel, in fact, delivers this message of “human-ness” in design. The design tries to redefine the hotel experience with a further reinvention of city living, an experience that is human, unhurried and fresh.
In conclusion, I realized that this hotel was able to make me feel that I, my feelings, and my experience of living, are most important. If these were valuated in the hotel’s profit and loss sheet, I am certain the bottom line would green—lame pun intended.