Why Do Some HDB Blocks Have VIP Lobbies With Viewing Galleries?

25 October 2023 | BY

If you’ve ever wondered why some HDB blocks have strange or unusual structures at the top with tinted windows, here’s your answer.

Why Do Some HDB Blocks Have VIP Lobbies With Viewing Galleries?

The humble HDB flat and its prevalence in our lives mean that we usually do not pay them much mind as we go about our day-to-day. But every once in a while, we find ourselves gazing curiously at oddities, such unusual bunker-like boxes mounted at the top of a block of flats.

To the uninitiated, it might look like a penthouse, even though HDB flats sorely lack them. But those in the know will recognise them as VIP lobbies, areas that play a big part in the history of our public housing.

HDB VIP lobby features

VIP Lobby HDB 2Blk 856E Tampines Residential HDB.
Image credit: u/noobinsytlerz

VIP lobbies are viewing platforms that are used to showcase HDB housing developments to foreign dignitaries. They’re usually placed at the top of HDB blocks that have great views over the neighbourhood so as to portray the estate in the best possible light. The lobbies themselves though have historically always been locked away when not in use, so residents don’t get access to it.

VIP Lobby HDB 3Blk 175 Bukit Panjang Residential Elevator.
Image credit: u/GreySkyRain

Along with the VIP lobbies at the roof, these blocks will also usually come with higher capacity elevators, both in size and in weight limit. For example, the VIP lobby block above comes with a large 16-person elevator, whereas its neighbouring buildings all come with elevators that can only accommodate 10 persons. 

This is likely just so as to provide a good first impression and make the process of visiting these developments more welcoming to foreign dignitaries.

VIP Lobby HDB 4578 Pasir Ris Street 53, another example of a flat with a VIP lobby.
Image credit: Darren Soh

The first few VIP lobbies were less “lobbies” and more of an open air rooftop, but enclosed viewing platforms with tinted windows eventually became the norm for later HDB designs.

Block 81 Queenstown: Early beginnings

QueenstownCommonwealth Close Estate.
Image credit: My Queenstown

The early development of Queenstown estate is one of particular historical significance; this is where HDB’s Home Ownership scheme was introduced after all.

Faced with a housing crisis in the 60s, the estate consisted mostly of simply-designed 10-storey flats. A further 3 flats, this time 16-storeys tall, were built to help introduce variation in the landscape and create a more visually appealing look for the neighbourhood.

Located on a hill, these taller blocks – 81, 82 and 83 – became affectionately termed the Chap Lak Laos, or 16 Floors in Hokkein, due to their prominence in the area. Block 81 is especially famous, being the main VIP lobby that famous dignitaries would visit.

VIP Lobby HDB 6Prince Philip waving at residents from the rooftop of a block of HDB flat in Queenstown, 1965.
Image Credit: Blog To Express

During the year when Singapore became an independent nation, Queenstown was graced by Prince Philip, who is one of the first foreign dignitaries to be brought to these VIP lobbies. During these showcases, these dignitaries would often also interact with the locals and even pay a visit to some of the homes there.

VIP Lobby HDB 7Prince Philip with a young Yusof Ishak.
Image Credit: Blog To Express

Coverage of Prince Philip’s visit also included other historical figures, such as a young Yusof Ishak, who is seen standing right beside him when taking a photo with the family they visited. Yusof Ishak went on to become the first president of Singapore just 6 months after said photo was taken.

VIP Lobby HDB 8Left: Spiro Agnew, then U.S Vice President Right: Then Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, 1970.
Image credit: National Archives of Singapore, Roots

Other visitors include world leaders like Spiro Agnew, Vice President of the United States, as well as the then Crown Prince Akihito of Japan.

VIP Lobby HDB 9View from 16th floor of Block 81 Commonwealth Close, Queenstown.
Image credit: My Queenstown

And whilst the VIP lobby remains locked to residents today, you can still enjoy a lovely unblocked view of the verdant greenery and low-rise developments from the top floor of the HDB blocks.

Block 53 Toa Payoh: The Royals and personal stories 

Block 53Block 53, the VIP block in Toa Payoh, 1967.
Image credit: RememberingHDBEstates

Moving on from the early 60s, Toa Payoh town represents a generational departure from Queenstown. The Queenstown era saw a rush to build cookie-cutter slab-style flats to provide Singaporeans with modern homes. 

This effort was greatly successful, which meant that HDB could then afford to move away from mass production and begin exploring alternative designs to their developments. Block 53 is one such innovation attempt amongst many others in Toa Payoh town, with its distinctive Y-shaped layout.

Foreign DignitariesDignitaries that visited include the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh, Malta, Australia and our own President Henry Sheares.
Image credit: RememberingHDBEstates, The Long and Winding Road

Just like Block 81 in Queenstown before, Block 53 in Toa Payoh also received many foreign heads of state as part of Singapore’s attempt to showcase their public housing success story. These include leaders from India and Australia to as far away as Malta, which was quite the achievement for our young nation back in the 60s.

The Royal FamilyThe British Royal Family about to visit the Toa Payoh VIP block, 1972.
Image credit: RememberingHDBEstates

As mentioned earlier, the British Royal Family will have a rather prominent presence in the lives of residents in Queenstown and Toa Payoh, with multiple visits over the years. In fact, Prince Philip returned to Singapore in 1972, this time with an entourage consisting of his wife, Queen Elizabeth II as well as Princess Anne in tow.

VIP Lobby HDB 13Queen Elizabeth II, interacting with residents at Block 53 in 1972.
Image credit: British High Commission Singapore

Singapore’s Crowning Glory: VIP lobby on a record-setting flat

VIP Lobby HDB 14The Pinnacle@Duxton with its commanding presence in the Chinatown estate.
Image credit: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

In what can be seen as the culmination of Singapore’s public housing efforts, the Pinnacle@Duxton is a HDB flat that is an exercise in superlatives. After all, it currently holds the title of the tallest residential building in the world as well as home to the longest sky parks in the world.

Of course, its 50-storey height makes it conducive for its role as the current VIP lobby to host foreign diplomats at.

VIP Lobby HDB 15Image credit: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The VIP lobby itself, with its blacked out windows and curtain blinds, still remains out of bounds to most visitors. But here, you can very much still enjoy the view by paying a simple entry fee to access the 500m-long sky park.

VIP Lobby HDB 16Image credit: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The gorgeous view of the city, with its mix of modern developments and greenery stretching out to the horizon, is the perfect scene to demonstrate Singapore’s prosperity and economic success as a garden city.

HDB VIP lobbies & where to find them

HDB VIP lobbies, whilst a lot less used nowadays, were an integral part of our public housing history. And even if owning a piece of heritage is not something you are looking for, you might still want to consider these flats for their view. Being selected especially to present the world the success story that is Singapore, the views are sure to be markedly better than the usual block.

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Cover image from: u/noobinsytlerz, u/GreySkyRain


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