A Tale of Towers and Pagodas

Between the late sixties and mid-seventies, four lookout towers, including one pagoda, were built in Singapore. Two of them are located at the western side of Singapore (Jurong Hill and Chinese Garden), while the other two are at Toa Payoh and Upper Seletar Reservoir.

The towers were not only aesthetic additions to the designated parks and their landscaping. In the seventies, they also came with a little known purpose – to allow foreign VIPs to ascend to the highest points at the vicinity so they could have a clear view of the rapid development of the country and its infrastructures since independence. This helped to boost their confidence and attracted foreign investments to Singapore.

Upper Seletar Reservoir Lookout Tower (since 1969)

The iconic lookout tower at Upper Seletar Reservoir, designed in a futuristic rocket shape, was built in 1969 by the Public Works Department (PWD). Coincidentally, that year was marked by the remarkable achievement of Apollo 11 spaceflight. It was the first time human beings landed on the Moon.

The reservoir, originally named Seletar Reservoir, was first constructed in 1940 as Singapore’s third reservoir, but it had only a maximum impounding capacity of 150 million gallons of water.

In 1967, the Public Utility Board (PUB) launched a $27-million project to expand the reservoir with dams and ancillary works, which would increase its impounding capacity to almost 5,300 million gallons – more than 35 times its previous capacity.

Upon its completion in 1969, Princess Alexandra (born 1936), cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, who was in Singapore for its 150th anniversary celebrations, was invited for the reservoir’s inauguration. The Seletar Reservoir and Sungei Seletar Reservoir were renamed Upper and Lower Seletar Reservoir in 1992 respectively.

At 18m tall, the lookout tower, designed with a circular stairway for visitors to climb to the top, offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the reservoir and its luscious surrounding greenery. In the seventies, the reservoir and its tower were favourite venues for dates and picnics. They remain popular today, functioning as stopovers for breaks among joggers and photo-takings for the newly-weds.

Jurong Hill Observatory Tower (since 1970)

The 18m-tall three-storey spiral Jurong Hill Tower was of the same height as the Upper Seletar Reservoir’s tower. Built on top of the 60m-tall Jurong Hill, it was part of the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) projects that were launched in the late sixties.

The project, costing more than $200,000, aimed to turn Jurong Hill, originally known as Bukit Peropok, into a lush garden for visiting VIPs, Jurong workers and the public to have a panoramic view of the rapidly developing Jurong industrial area.

Due to the visits of many heads of state, foreign dignitaries, investors and other VIPs – many of them were also invited to plant trees at the “Garden of Fame” beside the tower – Jurong Hill became popularly known as the VIP Hill in the early seventies.

The notable foreign VIPs to Jurong Hill included Queen Elizabeth II, Japanese Crown Prince Akihito, US Vice President Spiro Agnew and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

In May 1970, the Jurong Hilltop Restaurant was opened, becoming the new Jurong Town’s first restaurant. The luxury restaurant, fully conditioned and equipped with a bar counter, was situated at the mezzanine floor of the tower and had a seating capacity of 200.

The restaurant was later converted into one that specialised in Indonesian and Japanese cuisines.

Toa Payoh Town Gardens Viewing Tower (since 1974)

The Toa Payoh Town Garden, now known as Toa Payoh Town Park, and its 26.8m-tall, eight-storey tower were first constructed in 1972. The $1.4 million project was made up of impressive landscaping, with pavilion platform, stone bridges and several terrazzo tables and stools by the ponds. In the early days, it also had a children’s playground and even a tea kiosk providing light refreshment.

The garden and tower were built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Although it was officially opened in the mid-seventies, the garden was completed earlier, in time for the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (SEAP), in 1973. During the mega event, the athletes were living in the SEAP Games Village (HDB point blocks) just opposite the garden.

Occupying a size of 4.8 hectares along Toa Payoh Lorong 6, the Toa Payoh Town Garden was, in the seventies and eighties, a popular venue for family picnics and wedding photoshoots. When it was completed, it was the largest single landscape area within a HDB new town.

Like the Upper Seletar Reservoir Tower, the design of the Toa Payoh Town Gardens Tower was influenced by the excitement of man’s landing on the moon and space exploration in the late sixties and early seventies. With its top shaped like a spacecraft, the tower was once the tallest viewing point at Toa Payoh. However, the public can no longer access to the top of the tower today.

Chinese Garden Cloud-Piercing Pagoda (since 1975)

The massive Chinese Garden project was the brainchild of former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010). Built at the former site of large swampy marshes, the project was kicked off by JTC in 1968, and took almost seven years in completion.

One of the landmarks at Chinese Garden is the seven-tier hexagonal-shaped Ru Yun Ta (Cloud-Piercing Pagoda), modeled after the Lingku Pagoda at China’s Nanjing.

At the start of the pagoda’s construction, the workers faced several difficulties. For example, the base hill’s height had to be reduced to 10m for stabilisation without expensive piling. The space for the construction works was also limited, and verticality of the pagoda had to be constantly checked.

Pagodas in ancient China were often built in Buddhist temples for the storage of human bones and ashes.

There are other pagodas in Singapore – the Tang Dynasty City pagoda was demolished after its closure in 1999, while the pagoda at Mount Vernon is used as a columbarium.

As for the Chinese Garden Pagoda, its 44m height allows visitors to have a full 360-degree view of Chinese Garden and its other features, such as the iconic 13-arch White Rainbow Bridge. At the top of the pagoda, one can also see the Japanese Garden, Jurong Lake and Jurong Town.

In 2015, the National Heritage Board launched its research studies on the four above-mentioned heritage lookout towers, in order to understand and record the historical and architectural significance of these landmarks in accordance with the development of Singapore during the sixties and seventies.

Other Towers, Pagodas

Other towers in Singapore include the lookout towers at Tanjong Rhu (since 1990s) and Yishun Pond Park (since 2011). The Tanjong Rhu Lookout Tower, in particular, was popular in the early 2000s with its Cosy Bay restaurant and bar. The eatery, however, was closed in 2008, but the lookout tower remains.

The Jelutong Tower at MacRitchie Reservoir has been frequently used by nature lovers as one of their trekking stopovers. The 7-storey tall observation tower, largely made of steel and wood, allows visitors to have an unimpeded view of the vast areas of forests at the reservoir. It also comes with information plaques introducing the different types of birds living at the vicinity.

Named after one of the tallest trees at MacRitchie Reservoir, the Jelutong Tower was constructed in 2003 at a cost of $190,000.

The eight-storey, green-roofed Mount Vernon pagoda was built in 1987 by PWD. Functioning as a vertical columbarium at the Mount Vernon sanctuary, it was later taken over and managed by the Ministry of The Environment. Climbing to the top of the pagoda allows one to have a bird’s eye view of the tranquil Mount Vernon-Bidadari area.

Tallest Tower

At a height of 110m, the Tiger Sky Tower, located at Sentosa’s Imbiah zone, is currently Singapore’s tallest observatory tower. Introduced in 2004, the tower, initially called Calsberg Sky Tower, has an enclosed gondola that can fetch up to 72 passengers to the tower top, offering them a breathtaking panoramic view of Sentosa, Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Published: 19 February 2018

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