By Katie Baines
If you’ve read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels you’ll be familiar with the island of Laputa. If not, Laputa is an island about 4.5 miles across on which its inhabitants, who are obsessed with all things geometric and mathematical, levitate through a magnetic force in order to maneuver in any direction. At the center of their island are water basins to where rain gravitates and which are regulated by the sun to stop them from overflowing. Unlike other islands, though, Laputa floats high off the ground while Laputans peer down at the land below. That's what it feels like to stand at the top of Marina Bay Sands. You feel like you, the gardens and the 1.5 million liters of water in the infinity pool in front of you are somehow defying gravity.
It’s difficult to argue that Marina Bay Sands’ jewel in the crown isn't the jaw-dropping rooftop pool. It sits 55 stories up and commands staggering views over the city, so there is little wonder that it generates the amount of traffic it does on social media as a photo opportunity. Paradoxically, though – and this is the sad thing – on trawling through reviews of the hotel it is almost written off as a ‘tourist trap’ or, worse, a ‘cliché’. You can almost feel the many reviewers cringe as they sheepishly post that they had been there at all, as if facing the mighty judgment of more discerning travelers. But why?
The figures in themselves, let alone when put into context, are impressive. The entire Sky Park, all 1,100 meters of it – that’s as long as three football fields or one aircraft carrier – is cradled by over 7,000 tons of steel – heavier than the main stand of the Brooklyn Bridge – aloft three 650ft skyscrapers – or more than two Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other. Although the table top appears to be one long structure it’s actually broken down into 14 segments, six of which (weighing in at 350 tons a piece) make up the two bridges joining the three towers and the remaining eight forming the platform that juts out over nothing like a diving board.
The challenge with installing the 218-meter viewing platform – the length of a 747 airplane – was that it works in the same way as a cantilever bridge and so it moves depending on wind, the number of people on it and how they move. This section is designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, but the most dangerous threat: DJs. Two hundred people bouncing in unison on an overhang without the two 700 ton back spans (imagine two fully-laden freight trains) holding it in place would be cataclysmic. In fact, engineers were, and still are, employed to measure the frequency of certain dance tracks so that they are removed from DJ playlists due to their high risk factor.
One question remains, though: how did they get it all up there? Meticulous testing, re-testing and testing again on the ground was a given when faced with the prospect of hoisting 14 parts that weigh more than a Boeing 747 up something taller than the Seattle Space Needle. However, calculating the 30,000ft of half inch-thick cable (that’s enough to stretch the width of Manhattan) and the mechanics behind the never-before-used hydraulic strand lifts was not the greatest challenge; it was climate.
In a region of the world where typhoons are prevalent, careful weather planning was paramount; anything above a 5mph windspeed would not only mean the project would be delayed but, in the case of a sudden surge in weather, could have transformed the steel structures hanging by cables into giant wrecking balls. Once up there, it was a race against the clock to slot the joists in place, with accuracy to within a tenth of an inch, before any unpredictable gusts of wind could throw them off kilter.
Inclement weather was also a caveat for movement of the towers once the structure was complete. Testing on a prototype in a wind tunnel in Colorado showed how the whole edifice could experience a shift of up to 200mm in strong winds. This was accommodated by use of multidirectional joints and steel bearings connecting the towers and the top structure, giving a tolerance of a 250mm. However, this wasn’t the end of the issue; even if the buildings could withstand high wind power they wouldn’t be able to move without fracturing the rigid swimming pool stretching the length of the park.
The solution: breaking the pool into three individual pools joined by moveable joints on a track system covered by undetectable caps below the water, meaning that not only can each section move independently of the others, the illusion of one languid rooftop swimming pool could also be maintained. This had never been done before, let alone at 650ft.
Swift's 'Laputa' and its inhabitants are, of course, fictional and the metaphor was his satirical slur on London’s early 18th century upper classes, and their distain for the "unlearned". At the time of the novel's writing, there was an almost faddish fascination with Newtonian philosophy and it was fashionable to be discussing mathematics, geometry and physics among society. However, at surface level, it also mildly nodded towards the phenomena of ‘the extraordinary’ and how new discoveries in physics and engineering were making the impossible, possible; discoveries that we now take for granted. And yet we still strive for that level of ingenuity. Years ago, the function of a swimming pool was to cool off after basking in the sunshine while on vacation; now, it’s become something that expands into infinity on top of a 55-story hotel with a view of the financial district of one of Asia’s giant economic tigers. This is an extraordinary thing.
Photo courtesy of Marina Bay Sands
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