Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Preview: The Petronas Towers

About four years ago, I fell in love with a city.

That city was Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. I had spent the previous week somewhere on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia (i.e. the bit connected to Thailand), preparing for a job that was eventually cancelled. With that cancellation came a flight back to the UK, which naturally had to go via Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and so I requested a couple of days stopover in Kuala Lumpur, which my work granted. I had heard good things about the city, so felt I should give it a quick hello while I was in the area.

Like gazing at a divine frock-clad goddess poised elegantly on the other side of the room, it was love at first sight. Except unlike the goddess, who would keep moving away nervously before finally having me arrested (honestly, love, I was just trying be friendly), Kuala Lumpur embraced me. It was two days of heaven, ambling about in a daze simply enjoying the friendly atmosphere, and staying in an affordable but wonderful hotel.

The hotel - the Hotel Maya: I strongly recommend it - overlooked KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre), a development in the heart of the city's commercial district, the Golden Triangle. This landscaped area, with paths and ponds and green and grassy areas was the very model of a bustling but relaxed urban centre, with families and tourists and businesspeople all merging into a wholesome utopian society blur; and right in the middle were the two massive 452 metre spires of the Petronas Twin Towers.

The Petronas Towers were the clear centrepiece of the development, and indeed, of the city. They shared the title of the world's tallest building for six years between 1998 and 2004, and these days still cling on with battered pride to the title of tallest twin buildings. Instantly identifiable, they were built to be icons of a keenly developing city and nation - and succeeded. And then, because sometimes it's not enough to just build two very tall buildings, they built a bridge between them too.

It's the little details that can make the difference, and in an earlier entry I suggested that one common feature of all Wonders was the je ne sais quoi factor. Well, to directly contradict the meaning of je ne sais quoi, I would suggest that it is the bridge that gives the Petronas Towers that additional element that raises it above normal super-tall skyscrapers. Sure, it's big, and the floorplan's eight-cornered "star"geometry which reflects Malaysia's Islamic heritage give it a distinct identity, but it is the bridge that adds an eye-catching memorability to the Towers. Less than halfway up, at 170m, and only 58m across, the bridge is not especially high or big, and at 750 tons is positively lightweight - the 2000-year-old Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon has individual stones heavier than this. But it gives an elegance to the Towers, and rather than having them seen as two identical-but-separate towers side-by-side, it makes them appear as true twins, hand-in-hand. Plus, it makes things a hell of a lot more convenient if you've just sat down in your 53rd floor office in Tower 1 and remember you've left your stapler behind in Tower 2.

The architect behind the design and structure was a naturalised US citizen originally from Argentina called Cesar Pelli, who won an invited competition between eight different firms. He is also another who owe a debt of thanks to Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect on the competition panel who gave Jorn Utzon's ambitious sketches a chance to become the Sydney Opera House. In this instance, Saarinen was cited as a primary influence by Pelli, at whose firm he worked as a designer when in his 30s. It was a formative time for him, and Saarinen's belief that architecture should not be about one fixed style but rather have an adaptable approach depending on location and circumstance proved to be one Pelli himself adopted. This was not necessarily a fashionable approach in the 1960s, where concrete and glass boxes was the ghastly contemporary solution to all architectural questions.

Saarinen died unexpectedly of a brain tumour in 1963, and Pelli left the company shortly after, but he continued this ethos of adaptability, and indeed his firm continues to thrive today. Years before the Petronas Towers were built he had a long list of American skyscrapers to his name, and was also the architect behind London's Canary Wharf (actual name, One Canada Square), Britain's tallest building until two years ago. He had also been listed as one of America's ten most influential living architects. Therefore by the time his designs for the Petronas Towers were chosen, he was already a thoroughly established and respected architect. This professionalism ensured the towers both rose quickly and efficiently, with the masterstroke being having each tower built by different contractors. This added a competitive edge to the construction. Even better, one tower was by Japanese contractors and the other by South Korean. Having lived in South Korea for a couple of years, I can vouch for their ferocious competitive streak, especially in anything against their oldest rival Japan, and am not at all surprised that it was their tower - Tower 2 - that was completed first. Whether or not it will also be first to fall in an earthquake is a different matter...

Having already visited the Petronas Towers, I already know what to expect, but am looking forward to it. This goes double for visiting the surrounding city, and seeing if the old feelings return and my heart is set aflutter as I remember our time together in the spring of 2007. Like the best love, it made me somewhat irrational, and for some months after I plotted how I might move to the city and imagined the fabulous life I would live there, becoming fluent in both Malay and Chinese, and charming one and all. I even looked into apartment costs, and asked my work about the feasibility of living abroad, to which (possibly drunk) they gave positive murmurs. But like all good holidays romances, the grinding reality of my normal life soon set in and took over, and I forgot about my short rose-tinted fling.

I'll be visiting the Petronas Towers likely in early October, and will give a fuller account of it then, possibly along with a more graphic account of our love affair.

Reviewed 16th October 2011.


  1. Petronas Twin Tower is an iconic view! Hope to take a glimpse on this tower real soon..


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