With its stacked, biophilic design, this new hotel provides a vision for sustainable high-rise hospitality.
When discussing architecture, Wong Mun Summ likes to reference “systems thinking”—a holistic form of organizational analysis that asks how systems act and influence one another within a larger system. It’s an approach that informs much of the work produced by WOHA, the much-laureled Singapore-based architectural studio Wong cofounded with Richard Hassell in 1994. His latest project, the 347-room Pan Pacific Orchard (doubles from US$340), is no exception in the way systems thinking is folded deep into the design.
Looking for all the world like the love child of a one-night stand between an Escher print and a Jenga block, the hotel rises 23 stories above the western end of the Orchard Road neighborhood, its perspective-defying silhouette a stark contrast to the more staid skyscrapers around it. And yet, despite its bulk and its room count, the hotel feels intimate, almost cloistered. Standing on a balcony of one of the admittedly compact guest rooms—most of which weigh in at either 25 or 30 square meters—there is the sensation that you’ve just checked in to a much smaller, cozier boutique property rather than one that caters to a broader market.
This sleight of hand is achieved by the novel act of breaking the height of the skyscraper into four stacked volumes, carving out an enormous 26-meter-high void within each L-shaped stack that’s open to the elements, and then inserting guest rooms and other facilities along the interior edges.
This interlocking system, Wong explains, “domesticates the scale” of a large skyscraper hotel, allowing the individual volumes to create the illusion of a more intimate setting. “You wouldn’t know that there are floors and rooms above or below you,” he says.
Each stack features a vast terrace measuring almost 1,350 square meters. They are anchored by a reception area and cascading water plaza on the ground floor; a swimming pool on the fifth story; gardens and fountains on the 11th; and a ballroom, decorative pools, and boxed garden on the 18th. Even more remarkable are the terrace ceilings, which have been entirely clad in polished stainless steel panels. Instantly, the spaces are converted into giant mirrors that reveal their landscapes and activities to the street below and that, by extension, allow the external community to interact with the hotel’s occupants. “This humanizes a skyscraper,” Wong says.
The voids also serve a less obvious, but equally crucial role: their open-air, cross-ventilated yet sheltered spaces provide passive cooling for the building and shade to the guest rooms, reducing the air-conditioning load. This feature is part of Wong’s larger concern—another instance of systems thinking at work—which is to reduce the hotel’s energy consumption, a bête noire of most modern buildings. In turn, the roof is sheathed with photovoltaic cell panels that generate clean energy to power the common areas. Rainwater is harvested to irrigate the gardens, while low-energy dry mist fans cool the air. And in the guest rooms—dressed in light woods, 400-thread count sheets, and attractive furnishings—a built-in water filter does away with single-use plastic bottles.
Meanwhile, the massive support columns at the outer corner of each terrace are lushly entwined with Javanese treebines that, over the coming years, will drop dense strands of vivid red vines like tropical maypoles. Elsewhere, the landscapers have been busy seeding the gardens with an Edenesque bounty of Norfolk Island pine, sweetly scented tabernaemontana, umbrella trees, sea hibiscus, angel wings, satin pothos, and figworts. Besides being a boon for the eyes, the dense foliage, along with the pool and water features, helps regulate the ambient air quality while absorbing carbon dioxide.
Not that Wong bashes you on the head with his greening evangelism. The architect is far too subtle for that. Instead, the Pan Pacific Orchard’s mechanical, environmental, and sustainability features are largely invisible. Most guests will only see the surface aesthetics without ever realizing the deeper functions and the systems thinking underlying the whole experience of their stay.
“When designing hotels, we are very aware that guests are looking for experiences, rather than just a place to spend the night,” Wong says. “Other hotels focus on the gold and marble lobby, but this building proposes new and better ways of living.”
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Open Plan”).