Few countries have been more successful than Malaysia at embracing modern prosperity while conserving and protecting traditional culture. Built in the mid-1990s at the height of the Southeast Asian economic boom, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur demonstrate not only Southeast Asia’s rapid rise to economic success but also the influence of a long Islamic history.
The towers were conceived in 1991 as an office complex to be located in a new park on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The contract to design the world’s tallest building was awarded to the architectural firm Cesar Pelli and Associates, founded in 1977 by the Argentinian Pelli and already notable for its many public projects completed before the towers. A shopping and amusement area was built along with the signature towers, as well as an auditorium that seats 865 and is the home of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Petronas Towers, though decidedly modern in their monumental size and technological wonder, are deeply rooted in the traditional Muslim culture of Southeast Asia. The design of the buildings, though it includes materials such as plate glass and concrete, is based on an Islamic symbol in which two interlocking squares form an eight-pointed star. In addition, the plans incorporate more direct traditional elements, including a prayer room, or surau, and a five-foot veranda on the ground floor which reflects the façades of traditional Malaysian urban buildings.
The towers, in addition to their obvious significance as useful office and public space in a crowded urban area, are a symbol for Malaysia’s success: they reflect its remarkable pairing of economic success and preservation of cultural identity. Designed by an Argentinian architect practicing in America in the shape of a traditional Islamic symbol, the towers are a product not only of Malaysia’s remarkable rise to a global economic power, but also of the traditional culture that deeply permeates Malaysia. Although they are no longer the tallest buildings in the world, they will stand for years to come as the remarkable result of an effective pairing of technology and tradition.
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