How clean is Malaysia

The innovative project of the Bjarke Ingels Group focuses on sustainability and resilience in order to create work and living space for 400,000 people.

Regardless of which project the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is involved in, the globally successful architecture firm develops its very own energy-charged future vision from it - be it a waste incineration plant that also produces energy and is crowned by a ski slope, a strategy to protect the Manhattan coast against floods or an intelligent city with a smart mobility concept. Last month, BIG (with offices in Copenhagen, New York, London and Barcelona) was awarded one of its most ambitious projects to date: a strip of alluvial land in the Malaysian state of Penang is to be transformed into a constellation of artificial islands. The innovative concept - named "BiodiverCity" by the design team - is intended to provide the framework for resilient development that includes business districts as well as cultural sites, recreational areas and autonomous transport networks, as well as living space for around 400,000 residents and habitats for countless native plants and animals.

The BIG concept envisages areas with mixed use, autonomous transport networks and living space for around 400,000 residents. (Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group)

Bjarke Ingels: "More diverse than anything comparable so far"

"We are literally embarking on a journey to make more of Malaysia for future generations," says company founder Bjarke Ingels in a statement. "We have decided to raise the bar as high as humanly possible by creating a new archipelago that is both culturally and biologically more diverse than any comparable previous project."

The new water town will be south of Penang Island, a turtle-shaped land area that forms half of the coastal state. In recent years, Penang has established a leading position in the technology sector, particularly in the production of semiconductors and other electronic components. In order to create housing for the growing population and to achieve the economic goals set out in a strategy paper called “Penang 2030”, the state government launched an international design competition for the construction of three new islands near an existing airport. Supported by its local architecture partner Hijjas and the engineering office Ramboll as well as an armada of economic and environmental consultants, BIG prevailed against 124 other concepts (among others, Foster + Partners and MVRDV made it onto the shortlist).

When the BIG design team began to familiarize themselves with the site, they were immediately impressed by the cultural diversity of Malaysia (Penang is a former British colony that is home to people of Malay, Indian, and Chinese descent, as well as a large British expat community). It also found an impressive tropical rainforest ecosystem, whose lush thickets of palm trees and mangroves provide a habitat for sea turtles, monkeys and herons. The mudflats in which the new archipelago is to be created is popular with local fishermen, but has been damaged in the past by both fishing and sewage. BIG's design aims to ensure that the region's rich cultural heritage and natural beauty are preserved and valued. "We wanted to resist the temptation to develop something generic that could in principle be implemented anywhere. We really wanted to incorporate all of the local wealth into our project," explains Jeremy Alain Siegel, partner in BIG's New York office.

A rendering shows one of the three islands that BIG is planning to build. The individual “petals” have a size of 0.2 to 2 square kilometers and should each accommodate around 15,000 people in mixed-use districts. (Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group)

To recreate and promote the "mosaic" of Penang Island traditions, as Siegel puts it, the designers shaped each of the three man-made land areas like a petal, each made up of a network of smaller islands radiating from a central pool of water. Each of these is between 0.2 and 2 square kilometers and is home to around 15,000 people in mixed-use districts. By including a lot of coastline (there will be at least 15 miles of accessible shore), not only are there opportunities for water sports and mobility, but the city can also provide habitats for marine animals (the design team includes marine biology experts), and it also creates an elastic buffer against rising sea levels. "Our plan provides plenty of nooks and crannies and niches at the edges, which creates a complex coastline. In addition, different water depths and protected areas should be created in the heart of each island," explains Siegel.

Living in the future: the architectural guidelines are already in place

The easternmost island will house a two square kilometer technology and research park, the second will support the city's business and event centers, while the third island will focus on residential developments around a central port. Each island will also have a landmark - a performing arts center, museum or mosque - and amenities like food markets, cultural institutions and recreational areas, including a new fishing pier.

Although it is not yet clear which specific building BIG will design, the team has already established architectural guidelines based on the traditions of Penang. Many of the typical regional buildings, according to Siegel, are "perfectly adapted to this climate, so we will try to learn from them and build on them". For example, traditional commercial buildings in nearby George Town, which were used by merchants in the 19th century, have pointed roofs that allow passive ventilation and divert rainwater. The buildings also protrude over the street and thus offer protected arcades for passers-by. In its renderings, the BIG team envisions similar buildings lining the canals and allowing pedestrians to move freely through the streets regardless of the weather conditions.

BIG's design provides for at least 15 miles of accessible coastline, which forms a resilient buffer against rising sea levels while offering opportunities for water sports and transportation. (Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group)

Different habitats are taken into account in the environmentally friendly master plan for the artificial islands

Resilience was a top priority in the plan - not a novelty for BIG: The office has already designed the "Big U", a long-term master plan for New York under the impact of Hurricane Sandy, as well as a floating city in 2019 that will respond to the rise in the Sea level reacts. Since the future island cluster is surrounded by a bay, it will be relatively protected from tsunamis, but the effects of climate change pose a great risk; Expect rising oceans to flood coastal cities in the Asia-Pacific region by 2050 if countermeasures are not taken. Therefore, instead of dykes or barriers, the planners have provided a generous strip of coastline that can be raised over time. "Our approach to the issue of resilience is not based on scourging and restricting ourselves. Instead, we want to create a win-win situation by making public space even more attractive," says Siegel. The design team also considered habitats and created sloping, flat areas so that ecosystems and wildlife can continue to migrate.

The archipelago's design is also shaped by the goal of a future without CO2. The master plan calls for the islands to generate more electricity than they use through solar panels and other renewable energy sources. The buildings are to be constructed from low-carbon materials such as bamboo, local types of wood and green concrete made from recycled raw materials. Even the land itself and its road networks are designed according to passive principles: they orient themselves to the prevailing winds in order to naturally cool the districts.

Living in the future: artificial islands as a radical proof of concept for sustainable infrastructure development

The goals of BiodiverCity may be ambitious, but the government of the state of Penang is working hard with a local developer to advance the project; land reclamation for the first island is slated to begin next year. One of the greatest challenges will be to find a sustainable way of building the land masses. Traditional forms of land reclamation such as dredging and moving sand are inherently invasive. In the coming project phases, the design team hopes to minimize the archipelago's footprint and will try other methods to do this, such as building structures on stilts or even floating them. But headwinds cannot be ruled out from politics either. Although the project is being carried out by the state of Penang, the Malaysian state government is grappling with the consequences of a money laundering scandal that has just given former Prime Minister Najib Razak a twelve-year prison sentence.

Despite all the challenges, the project marks a radical proof of concept for sustainable infrastructure development. Especially in times when the world is fighting against COVID-19 - and looking to a future in which pandemics could be the norm - innovative concepts (pedestrian-friendliness and public "quality space") that emerged from urban contexts such as BiodiverCity emerge, show a way into the future. And there is something else Jeremy Alain Siegel points out: In view of the increasing prevalence of remote work soon more and more people will be able to freely choose how and where they want to live. "For me, the best thing about the project is that we are creating a city that is permeated by water. Think about the special places Venice and Amsterdam are and how few such cities there are in the world. That is exactly what we want create here! "

First published by Architectural Digest (USA). Here you get to the original.