Sunday, 16 October 2011

4. Wonder: The Petronas Towers

(For the Petronas Towers preview, please click here.)

Petroliam Nasional Berhad isn't, you might be surprised to learn, a character in a Brazilian soap opera, it is instead the full name of the Malaysian government-owned oil and gas company, Petronas. Unlike the fictional Senhora Berhad, whose life would surely be wrought by drama and tempestuous love affairs, Petronas is a successful and stable company, that is ranked in the top 100 biggest companies of the world most profitable in Asia. But our glamorous soap opera star and Malaysia's national oil company do share one thing in common - a love of gleaming gems. Sra Berhad adorns her fictional fingers with expensive stones given to her by lovers; Petronas has built gigantic twin towers in the heart of Malaysia's capital city, that proudly illuminate the city at night. (Additionally, Petronas was founded in 1974, making it 37 years old - but I wouldn't mention this to our Brazilian diva.)

The Petronas Towers are the heart and soul of Malaysia, they are the inescapable icon. In terms of recognition, Malaysia is not an obscure nation of the world, but neither is it much thought about, at least in the West. But the towers, even if many don't recognise it by name, are very recognised by image. Twin spires reaching into the sky, and connected by a bridge midway, they are modern, attractive, and distinctive, their design borrowing from Islamic geometry. There is nothing else like them, and they dominate all of Kuala Lumpur. Almost every poster seems to have them, almost every street seems to have a view. A picture of the Petronas Towers equals a picture of Kuala Lumpur equals a picture of Malaysia. They truly are the Malaysian icon.

And they were designed to be.

The Petronas Towers are a perfect example of a plan coming together. Malaysia is not an especially wealthy country, being 37th in the world and next to the likes of Colombia and Egypt, and a much lower 65th in the world when calculated per head of population, but it is ambitious. Bold plans for Kuala Lumpur being vastly modernised to make it a competitive world city by 2020 are in full swing, and although they are going to need to fix a hell of a lot of pavements, make their stinking stream of a river more fragrant and less brown, and recognise the fact that pedestrians need to cross roads sometimes, I think that there is every chance of success. The showpiece of the whole city is KLCC - Kuala Lumpur City Centre - of which the Petronas Towers are the centrepiece. Originally this patch of land was a horse-racing track, but in the 1980s the Malaysian government decided to redevelop it as the heart of Kuala Lumpur's commercial district. They wanted it done properly, and held an international competition for a masterplan for the area. The architectural firm of Klages, Carter, Vail & Partners won, with the landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, known for his four kilometres mosaic along Copacabana Beach, doing a fine job on KLCC park.

Following this, in 1991, eight architecture firms were then invited to enter a competition. The remit? Build two towers that were unique to Kuala Lumpur, had a distinctive Malaysian style that wouldn't be mistaken with US skyscrapers or church steeples, and fitted in with Klages masterplan for the district. The winner, as said in my preview, was the Argentinian-American architect Cesar Pelli. The Petronas Towers were delivered on budget, on schedule, and were complete by 1998. As a small bonus, they also happened to be the two tallest buildings in the world.

For some future entry, I intend going into greater detail about the various races for building the tallest buildings in the world, as well as the swept-under-the-carpet fact that until the 830 metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai was complete, for many decades pretty much the top 50 tallest structures in the world were all television masts in America, most of which measured a very precise 609.6 metres. Perhaps because of masts' domination in the tallest structures category, a more specific category of tallest building was formed, defining a building as a structure designed and capable of continuous human occupancy. This the Petronas Towers clearly fell into, and when complete at 452 metres, were celebrated as the new tallest buildings in the world. But it was a cheeky victory, because in usurping the 442-metres Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower), a giant blocky skyscraper from bottom to top, they required the addition of two spires at the top to nudge the victory by a mere ten metres. The spires, they argued, were the architectural top of the building, thus qualifying it, whereas the Sears Tower's antennas didn't fall into this category. Some patriotic Americans and skyscraper purists may have stamped their feet in fury, but without effect. People love tall buildings, and the media jumped at the chance to celebrate the fact that there was a new tallest building in the world. It was this, rather than the original design, that caught the world's attention upon completion, and immediately raised the towers' profile to a world-recognised building. This, and the small matter of a bridge linking the two.

The SkyBridge, as it's called, links the two towers 170 metres up, and changes the perception of the towers. In fact, without the bridge, I'm not sure the Petronas Towers would have made it onto my list. Being linked, as though hand-in-hand, there is a change in perception from them being two separate towers to being one distinct landmark. It links them physically and, for the viewer, emotionally too. One tower cannot be thought of alone, it is inherently linked to the other.

Sadly, for my visit this time to Kuala Lumpur, access to the SkyBridge wasn't possible. In the past, there has been a limited number of free tickets available for those willing to queue up early in the morning, although in the past year a small entry fee has started to be applied. But until December, for maintenance reasons, the SkyBridge is closed to the public. This was a bit of a shame as visiting the SkyBridge is really the only thing you can do in the Petronas Towers, except for shopping at the adjoining five-storey shopping centre.

This is because, despite being the gleaming icons of Malaysia, the Petronas Towers is a functioning office block. Tower 1 is used for Petronas and Tower 2 for a mixture of other, mostly big and international, companies. They are not for public use, and those who suggest that it would be nice to visit the top to see the view are gently told that the nearby KL Menara, or KL Tower, is at a more elevated position and so at 420 metres is actually higher up than the Petronas Towers. That's all very nice, but it's like telling a child that they can't have the lovely lollipop they crave but they can eat that really big apple instead. People don't want to go to the top of the Petronas Towers to see the view of the city, they want to go to the top to see the view of the city from the Petronas Towers. Fortunately, a change appears to be in the air, and with the advent of a small fee to go up to the SkyBridge, for a slightly larger fee it is now possible to go pretty far up one of the towers to an observation deck, and for even more money to eat a meal there. Not much use for myself and Burness during our visit, but upon reopening in December I hope to squeeze in a visit.

(This was done on 1st January 2012 - the account and lots of additional photos can be found here.)

The SkyBridge and observation deck will make a visit to the Petronas Towers feel complete. But fortunately, I've already visited the SkyBridge, in 2007. It's a fun experience but nothing life-changing. After queueing for a while in the morning - and as my hotel was very near the towers, it only meant a 7am start - I was ushered into a lift with a group of other tourists, which took me up to the lower walkway of the two-tiered bridge. Everybody walked about, looked out the windows at the park below and at the towers above, and took a lot of photos. Then it was back down the lift, where giftshop purchases awaited. There was a small museum documenting the history and construction of the towers too. Definitely worthwhile doing, but not integral to the appreciation of the towers.

That's because the Petronas Towers don't demand your close attention, like Borobudur, or your active participation, like the Marina Bay Sands, but just ask for you to sit back and look at them. I expect this will be the case for many Wonders. Although functional buildings, for the general public they are more a mere visual treat, like a pretty bauble. They are designed to look nice, to look impressive, and to represent the city. Nobody thinks "what great offices to work in!", they just think "look at these big towers!" And as such, much of the enjoyment Burness and I have got from the Petronas Towers has been gazing at them or simply glimpsing them in the distance.

Being at the heart of the city, and being so distinctive and tall, the Petronas Towers can be seen everywhere in Kuala Lumpur. When at the Batu Caves, many miles distant, their unmistakable outline was clear in the distance, even on a muggy day, and nearer the centre of the city they would often suddenly appear in the gaps between blocks or peeking over a shorter building. If not in direct view, a nearby poster or picture keeps their image fresh in your mind. And so appreciate this visual element fully, rather than just catch glimpses of the towers or sit in the park and look up at them, Burness and I treated ourselves to a night of luxury in our final night Kuala Lumpur, staying at the Traders Hotel on the other side of the park from the Petronas Towers, and with an absolutely fabulous square-on view of them.

This allowed us a whole day to just sit back and have the Petronas Towers in front of us, allowing us the time to soak in the view gradually rather than staring at it for quick appreciation. The sun set, the lights came on, and the Petronas Towers looked even better. They are, quite simply, beautiful buildings. In terms of skyscrapers, they are perhaps the most beautiful in the world - they are certainly the most beautiful I've seen. There is nothing else in the world quite like them - as highlighted by the nondescript square blocks around them.

And this is where the Petronas Towers are let down - their surroundings. And remarkably, it's the city planners that are deliberately sabotaging it. The Petronas Towers should stand proud, and stand alone as Kuala Lumpur's distinct landmarks. I'm not suggesting that the rest of the city needs to be kept to under five-storeys, but I would suggest that buildings very near the Petronas Towers shouldn't be allowed to compete for the view. But that's what's happening. On one side we have the forgettable Maxis Tower, built in 1998, and on the other, even more criminally is the Petronas Tower 3, also called the Menara Carigali. This unimaginative skyscraper slab was just finished this year, is 267 metres tall and stands next to the Petronas Towers like an awkward teenage halfwit photobombing the bride and groom in a wedding photo. Who built it? KLCC Properties, the guys in charge of the whole KLCC development. I despair. The Menara Carigali threatens to detract from the spectacle. Was this in Klages redevelopment masterplan? Surround two of the most beautiful skyscrapers ever built by a bunch of architecturally-redundant office blocks? At least the park space will always allow a face-on view of the towers, but sadly it seems that their fate is to become part of a city skyline, rather than allow to exist in their own space.

And this doesn't take into account the effect of the monstrous KL Menara. This hideous towers is perhaps even more visible throughout the city, due to its vantage point on top of a hill near KLCC making if higher (though not taller, the distinction is crucial), but it shares none of the well-considered aesthetics of the Petronas Towers. It is just a tall and ugly telecommunications and observation tower. It doesn't even give a good view of the Petronas Towers - which is what everybody who goes to the top tries to look at - as its position gives an unsatisfying side-on view. I could understand it if the KL Menara had been built many years before the Petronas Towers, but it was built at the same time. At the same time as building these twin icons of the nation and tallest buildings in the world, the city also built a generic and higher tower with a terrible view of the icons. It detracts from the effect of the Petronas Towers, which should be the highest and most visible landmark of the city.

The twin towers, therefore, are beautiful and perfectly designed, the two twinkling stars of Malaysia but not necessarily helped by the rest of the city. In terms of being a Wonder, how does it fulfil my criteria?

Size: The tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2006, these are huge, soaring peaks that dominate the city.
Engineering: Two well-made modern skyscrapers, but no real new technical innovations were required for its construction.
Artistry: Built according to Islamic geometric principles, they have a quite different flavour from most skyscrapers, and look quite striking. The floorplan layout is to two overlapping squares to create an eight-pointed star design, with curved bays between each point for extra floor space. From the outside, this gives the exterior the impression of square-round-square-round. The twin buildings taper to a spire, have a bridge linking them, and the overall sight is beautiful and compelling -especially so when lit up at night
Age/Durability: Modern skyscrapers, their fate depends on the fate of the city and nation. It's hard to see them surviving the aeons of time and the falls of fortune that some of the ancient Wonders have managed.
Fame/Iconicity: They are to Kuala Lumpur what the Opera House is to Sydney, or the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Hugely iconic, even if some are unfamiliar with the name, they are familiar with the image.
Context: The centrepiece of a rapidly developing city. Unfortunately, they are let down by some bland and modern neighbouring skyscrapers, which detract from the view and impinge on the towers' space.
Back Story: Nothing very exciting. Two towers were built successfully.
Originality: The skyscraper form in itself is tried and tested, but the visual design and the SkyBridge are very novel.
Photogenicity: All across Malaysia in postcards and posters, the Petronas Towers can take a good photo from just about anywhere.

So are the Petronas Towers a Wonder? They are beautiful, amazing to behold, and stunning unique spires that define Malaysia. They are an absolute pleasure to witness, especially at night. Sitting in the Traders Hotel room, looking out at them, they make for a view I would never, ever grow tired of. But aside from the encroaching city skyline, which reduces their definition, I can't help but feel that the towers aren't that interesting. Like a supermodel, their banter is lacking. Tall and pretty and twins, for double the fun, they don't really have much more to them. Just a load of offices. But that's my only criticism, and I have to search hard to find any. They are great buildings, but in Wonders terms fall a fair bit short of Sydney Opera House and Borobudur.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Borobudur
3. Petronas Towers
4. Marina Bay Sands


  1. I go there all the time, and have taken lots of photos in all light and weather conditions and from many angles. It's great for that. But. The building doesn't really have a soul, as you say, it's kind of like a supermodel, no banter. It does have good and well lit parking though, a plus but doesn't really make it a wonder. :-)

  2. Glad you agree. I think they are terrific buildings and greatly enhance the city, but anything built for office space and shopping won't quite have the gravitas of the top Wonders out there.

    Coming back to this entry, I'm also reminded that for over a year I've been promising to add photos...


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.