A weekday morning at Dr Visvesvaraya Park (or the Anna Nagar Tower Park as locals lovingly call it) lends a soothing sight to this summer-weary writer, as motivated joggers, college students on a break, and families in need of a mid-week day out, gather under canopies despite the odd time and soaring sun. They seem intrigued by the unusual activity around the ‘thermos flask’- shaped structure that was once an infamous Anna Nagar haunt. Today, for good reason, all eyes are on this 45-metre-tall watch tower which reopened to the public on Monday after 12 years, with the promise of safety and hygiene measures in place.
After its reopening, it did not take long for this 1968-built Tower to become a selfie point. A flurry of family pictures, Reel videos and group selfies characterise the zenith. But the view is as excellent as ever: a carpet of green, aesthetically dotted by yellowcopper pod flowers signalling the onset of summer, dominate the view as burgeoning high-rise buildings stand tall, afar: a cross-section of an Anna Nagar at the cusp of change. And interestingly, this is perhaps the only unusual structure — watch tower at that — that truly belongs to West Chennai.
The building was designed by the celebrated architect Yahya Merchant and was meant to be part of the Indian International Trade and Industries Fair of 1968, the first of its kind in the city and perhaps even the country. The preparations for this fair began as early as the 1950s. The watch tower was meant to provide a view of all the different pavilions which were part of the fair.
Thirupurasundari Sevvel, Chennai-based researcher, who is currently working on a project on nostalgia and memory on post-independence settlements, says, “It was not even built to be a permanent structure. It was meant as a watch tower for this particular exhibition. It is one of the few things remaining from the fair, apart from two elephants at the entrance, and the Anna Nagar Tower Club housed inside the Kerala pavilion of the fair.” The architecture is reminiscent of its place in an industrial site. This was also the time Madras was expanding, and the Western side needed infrastructure. And following Jawaharlal Nehru’s five-point policy, the onus was on attracting foreign investors into the country, says Thirupurasundari. The trade fair was designed for that.
The importance of this structure rests on the fact that it was also a landmark that attracted people to move into Anna Nagar which was previously the suburban village Naduvakkarai, before it was developed by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board in the ‘60s.
Cut to 2023, and a first look at the tower trains light on fresh coats of paint: a pop of peach, along the spiral ascend. Balcony grilles (which was previously two ft high) that extend all the way up to the top in a curve, instated to prevent accidents and suicides — reportedly the reason why the tower was shut down in the first place — makes for a safe walkway, especially for children. Skid-free mats are also laid out on the floor. Fountains surround the tower. “We are also planning to let creepers grow on the tower grills, to give it some green cover,” says P Murugesan, Zonal Officer - Anna Nagar, Greater Chennai Corporation.
In its early days, the tower had an elevator for senior citizens and the differently-abled to get to the watch point. Murugesan says that an elevator will be provided soon enough and funds are awaited for the same. “Until announced otherwise, entry to the tower will remain free,” says Murugesan. He promises full-time security and constant vigil to keep the space safe for visitors.
“The tower carries a lot of visual and tactile memory. When we think of the architectural history of Madras, this is perhaps the youngest: a post-Independence structure; something that we made for ourselves,” concludes Thirupurasundari.