Temple Design Concepts & Challenges

Whilst developing this unique temple building in Chinatown, we had to constantly address the numerous challenges arising from using modern construction methods and systems to deliver a traditional Chinese temple outlook. The traditional look of the temple was designed with the ‘Mandala’ as the central concept for the placement of facilities and building layout. Ven Shi Fa Zhao chose the Tang Dynasty period’s arts and culture for all the external and internal features, including the Buddha statues and accessories, as it was a very important epoch in Chinese Buddhism history.

This very unique Tang Dynasty, Mandala design temple challenges the creativity, resourcefulness, patience, co-operation and dedication of our consultants and contractors. We are very fortunate and grateful for the temple designers; building consultants team; main construction contractor and their sub-contractors; the numerous nominated sub-contractors; and many local and overseas specialist suppliers for their tremendous and tireless effort, professional expertise and dedicated teamwork.


The Buddhist Mandala is the representation of the Buddhist Universe. Mandalas are amongst the best known Buddhist icons in the world. The Sanskrit noun ‘Mandala’ means ‘any circle or discoid object’, which signifies a sacred enclosure. Mandalas are often described as cosmoplans in both the external sense, as diagrams of the Buddhist cosmos; and in the internal sense, as guides to the psycho-physical practices of Buddhist practitioners.

There are many types of mandalas, varying according to the particular Buddha or Bodhisattva occupying the center. Each has its own accompanying rituals, performed for the attainment of some specific purpose. Thangkas are one dimensional and are commonly used to display such mandalas and are used for veneration.

Diamond Realm Mandala

Pigment on Canvas Painting
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Museum (BTRTM), Relic Chamber, Level 3



Diamond Womb Realm Mandala

Pigment on Canvas Painting
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Museum (BTRTM), Relic Chamber, Level 3



The ancient Borobudur temple, near Jogjarkata, Indonesia is such an example of a three-dimensional mandala.

Borobudur temple in Indonesia (婆罗浮屠寺庙, 印尼)

Sand mandalas are two dimensional and used by the Sangha in various Buddhist ceremonies.

The World’s Largest Sand Mandala of the Medicine Buddha (13m by 13m)

Coloured Sand (Grinded from Stones)
19 - 23 May 2004
'Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic & 500 Arhat Enchanting Buddhist Treasures' Exhibition, Singapore Expo

世界最大的彩沙堆制药师佛曼陀罗 (13米 x 13米)

彩沙 (由宝石磨成)

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty is a very important era in Chinese history. It was regarded by historians as the strongest empire in the world, during the eighth century. Its capital, Chang’an was the center of trade and culture. Tang was the golden age of politics, economics, military affairs, literature and arts, and foreign relations. It lasted more than 300 years and was one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese history.

Buddhism flourished during the Tang period, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. Many Indian Buddhist Sangha and scholars translated many sutras enabling many people to learn about Buddhism. The most famous was Ven. Xuan Zang, who translated a number of important Mahayana sutras like the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra.

A portrait of Xuan Zang

Color on Silk Painting
Kamakura period, 14th century
Tokyo National Museum



Often characterized as the golden age of Buddhist art, the Tang Dynasty saw the full flowering of Chinese Buddhist arts, both in sculpture and in painting. Tang artefacts have been rediscovered in many parts of the world, attesting to the reach and high standards of artistry achieved.

A Pair of Lokapalas

Sancai-glazed Pottery
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
Sold in Sotheby’s, London, July 2006, lot no. 219, to BTRTM


唐朝(618 年 – 907 年)

Buddhist Altar Finial

Gilt-Bronze Sculpture
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
Sold in Christie’s, New York, March 2006, lot no. 175, to BTRTM


唐朝(618 年 – 907 年)
佳士得,纽约,2006年3月, 编号175,新加坡佛牙寺标得

The architecture of Tang Dynasty was majestic, methodical and at the same time vibrant; they have outstretched eaves, bright colours, outspread and even-leveled roofs, simple and unadorned doors and windows; and they present an earnest and elegant image to the viewers.

Tōshōdai-ji in Nara (唐招提寺, 奈良)

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an (大雁塔, 西安)

Besides the building, all other aspects of the temple’s Buddha and Bodhisattva statues, interior decorations, accessories and signage incorporate Tang Dynasty motifs and designs where appropriate.

Temple Design Challenges

Based on the LACC design and the above design concepts, the building consultants’ team had to translate these into construction plans to meet Singapore’s stringent building and safety regulations.


The raw China LACC architectural drawings do not meet the local Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Building Control Authority (BCA) requirements, as the Chinese architects and contractors were not familiar with our Singapore building code requirements. Our architect team had to understand and redevelop these Chinese designs and fill the many gaps and voids - a challenge in creativity. Several meetings were held with URA to ensure that we meet the building requirements and achieve the desired town planning look for Chinatown.

The unique requirements for other building services, contractors and suppliers to meet the intended interior look also posed challenges for the architect team. A great deal of negotiations and sacrifices had to be made in order to achieve the desired outcomes - a challenge in patience and perseverance.

Other architectural challenges include:

  1. accommodating the expected crowds and yet isolating the visitors’ noise at some of the key areas;
  2. the various main Buddhist sculptures had to be vertically aligned and special platforms provided; and
  3. the traditional look and yet incorporating modern facilities and conveniences.


From the study and site investigation, the Sago site is situated at a very busy and tight location. It sits on reclaimed land from the 1800s and is surrounded by pre-war shop houses which did not have strong building foundations. Hence, the existing ground is very sensitive to soil settlement, if deep basement excavation is carried out, a major concern to the structural engineers.

By assessing and understanding the surrounding constraints & conditions, the ‘top-down’ construction method was proposed. This would require the simultaneous excavation and construction of the basements, whilst we construct the upper floors of the super structure. The main advantage of this system is to minimize the subsidence of existing ground and disturbance to existing shop houses. This is a more costly, but faster construction method requiring close co-ordination and project management.

We have carefully analysed the suitability of different construction methods. After overviewing the analysis & the site geotechnical condition, finally the diaphragm wall system was chosen to act as soil retaining key elements from 1st storey to 3rd basement to provide structural integrity for basement construction.

Other structural challenges included:

  1. the high double volume main hall; and
  2. accommodating the traditional roof, dougongs and columns.

Mechanical & Electrical (M & E)

The main task of the M&E consultant is to design the M&E system such as air-conditioning, fire protection, audio/video, etc… to meet the exacting requirements of the user, as well as to make it transparent to visitors of the temple. This requires a huge effort in co-ordination with architect, structural engineer and especially interior designers.

The brief was to have 'light but we did not want to see lights', to 'hear sounds but not to see sound'. The ambience of the interior required the selection of quiet equipment and sound proofing where needed. The noise level has to be kept to an absolute minimum to achieve the serene ambience of the temple.

The air filtration system must be able to remove the dust, vapor, etc… (due to the burning of oil lamps and incense) so that the rich and colourful fixtures and finishes are not stained or harmed. Also, the design had to ensure that the various costly and beautiful Buddhist artifacts would not be adversely affected by the M & E equipment.

To add to the difficulty faced by the M&E engineer, the M&E system must meet the strict criteria of the local building codes and regulations.

Many of the M & E equipment were the latest technology available and had to be integrated with the Building Automation System and Fire Protection System.

Other M & E challenges include:

  1. accommodating the wide range in usage, ie from low off-peak requirements to high festive levels; and
  2. visually camouflaging these large M & E services.

Interior Design (ID)

The choice of Tang Dynasty posed a challenge to the interior design team as we had to research and develop the various aspects of the interior and to search far and wide for the needed artifacts. Everything had to be visually accurate with the Tang Dynasty period look and yet be able to synergise with the modern environment and equipment. The search took us away for weeks each time to China, Japan, Taiwan and Nepal. The trips to seek out the craftsmen in rural China was both physically exhausting but then rewarding when we finally found our right partners.

The interior designs for the various halls and chambers went through numerous iterations from our visits to temples and meetings with the craftsmen. It was constantly revised with every new insights gained, thereby requiring new computer graphic perspectives to be generated to ascertain the visual impact of the changes.

The various Buddhist statues and accessories were closely monitored during conceptualization, design, production and installation, as many were special and costly works of art. It was a challenge to collaborate and direct so many talented artists and craftsmen.

It was also a challenge to camouflage the many modern M & E and lighting equipment without losing their purpose and functions. A different sort of creativity required.

Other ID challenges include:

  1. incorporating the installation and maintenance requirements of individual artefacts; and
  2. coordinating the shipments of the various artefacts;


The BTRTM is very different, located in the heart of a major city, with many competing distractions. This introduces the first lighting requirement – to establish the temple as a night time landmark which radiates like a beacon in the midst of the urban bustle – a visual magnet to draw all comers to its wondrous and peaceful interiors.

Light within the temple plays two roles. The first is the visual – the revelation of the form, architecture, decoration and art that makes the temple a unique contemporary example of the richness and celebration of the Buddhist faith. The lighting design job is to use discreetly located lighting technology to provide appropriate levels of light for the many and varied activities that will take place and also place gentle emphasis on the Buddha figures, wall paintings, decorated ceilings and numerous areas of intricate decoration.

The second role for lighting is to create a reminder of the inner light that dwells within all mankind – to create a visual quality that resonates with peace, contemplation, meditation and inner reflection.

Whilst this is the big challenge for all the design team, it is the way in which light connects the mind of the devotee or visitor to their surroundings, that becomes a major contributor to the unique experience that the new temple will bestow on those who enter.

Base on the traditional temple design, this did not allow the maximum use of natural light. Thus, much planning was required to provide the right light ambience at each specific location, whilst offering flexibility. There were 3 lighting levels required: basic maintenance and security, normal operations and special festive lighting. Extra attention was given to the external lighting to highlight the main features of the building in the night. Effort was also taken to camouflage the light fixtures to minimize their unsightliness.

Special lighting was also required to highlight and accentuate the various Buddhist statues and artifacts, without causing any discoloration and deterioration to the artifacts.

Other lighting challenges were:

  1. life span of fixtures on roofs, external and Buddha niches; and
  2. durability and accessibility of light fixtures for maintenance;


This project is unique as the security provision needs to blend in very closely with interior design so as not to impose a restricted feeling to the devotees and yet achieve a high level of security protection.

We believed that project security is generated by three elements, all of which are dependent upon each other and must therefore be compatible with one another. These three elements that generate security are Management, Planning and Design, and Technology.

With the expected crowds and close proximity of our Buddhist artifacts, we had to make sure that we were able to monitor all activities within our premises, whilst facilitating the access to the various halls and chambers for both visitors and staff.

The design had to balance between the tight security required and the convenience of staff and visitors. The technologies utilised are carefully investigated and selected to complement the intended function of the building and spaces. Integrating the different security equipment into a coherent system took some time.

Other security challenges include:

  1. Training of the security staff; and
  2. locating the equipment for accessibility and maintenance.

Quantity Surveyor

The QS has to be able to provide a high level of professional service in collaboration with other professional practices, working hand in hand with the clients and the professional builders with the stated aim of seeing the development of projects to successful completion within the clients’ budget, to the desired quality and within the planned time.

The QS’s contribution to this team effort was in regard to accuracy in costing, timely payments & cost control and managing claims in finalising project accounts.

Information Technology

BTRTM introduced computerization and web technologies to achieve the following goals:

  1. Reaching out and maintaining close relationships with the large number of devotees and volunteers;
  2. Facilitating the many fund raising activities that are carried out in various locations and on the web; and
  3. Controlling daily operations and ensuring accountability in use of resources.

To expeditiously process the various transactions in the temple, an elaborate network of computer servers, workstations and point-of-sale machines were provided in the design. The BTRTM ‘Nagasys’ computer system has been in operations since June 2005. It was continuously being upgraded and expanded all the time. The design of the system relies heavily on the ideas from the management and feedbacks from the staff. Its smooth introduction was due in no small part to the willingness of the BTRTM team to try out new ideas and technologies. The backend accounting system was modified for frontline customer service and web-enabled to allow donors to check the status of their adoptions. Since January 2020, BTRTM has migrated to a new cloud-based system application called ‘Microsoft Dynamics 365’, to replace ‘Nagasys’. With this new integrated system built on modular components, BTRTM seeks to continually improve the service experience for our devotees and visitors.

Our website was also revised and constantly updated with the different stages of the construction and fund-raising opportunities. This was expanded to include donor card management; with email and sms broadcasting to our donors. We have now included live video streaming and our state-of-the-art virtual temple. With the provision of self-help services, our devotees and visitors can register for ceremonies and events on the website. The live streaming capabilities are further enhanced to allow viewing of ceremonies and events online.

Computerisation also included the various electronic plasma signages throughout the temple to inform, guide and update visitors of the many attractions and events happening within the temple.

Bibliography & Websites



  1. Mandala The Architecture of Enlightment, Denise Patry Leidy and Robert A F Thurman, Thames & Hudson, 1998, ISBN 0 87848 088 9
  2. Buddha Radiant Awakening Jackie Menzies, Art Gallery of New South Wales and VisAsia, 2002, ISBN 0734763220, pages 130 - 139

Tang Dynasty

  1. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 978 0 52166 991 7, pages 108 – 135
  2. Splendours of Ancient China, Maurizio Scarpari, Thames & Hudson, 2000, ISBN 0-500-51024-5
  3. Buddhist Art An Historical and Cultural Journey, Gilles Beguin, River Books, 2009, ISBN 978-974-9863-87-9


  1. Buddhist Art and Architecture, Robert E Fisher, Thames & Hudson, World of Art, 1993, ISBN 978 0 500 20265 4, pages 110 – 103
  2. Japanese Architecture and Gardens, Hirotaro Ota, Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1966



  1. Mandala - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  2. The Buddhist Mandala - Sacred Geometry and Art
  3. Mandala, The Mandala, Mandala Design, Largest Mandala, Buddha's Life Stages in Mandala, Mandala Paintings, Thanka Paintings, Work of Art, Asian art, Asian Paintings, Volunteer Work, Philanthropy, Donation for Preservation of Buddhist Religion

Tang Dynasty

  1. Tang Dynasty - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  2. Tang Dynasty (618–906) | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


  1. Buddhist architecture - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  2. Chinese architecture - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  3. Buddhist temples in Japan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  4. Category:Buddhist temples in China - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  5. List of Buddhist architecture in China - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia