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The Petronas Towers

Combining the cultural beauty of Malaysia with hopes for its future.

When you look at Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers today, you see a technological marvel — once the world’s tallest buildings. But what isn’t obvious to the naked eye is that the 452-meter*(roughly 1,480-foot) buildings almost didn’t get off the ground.

The towers’ history is as dramatic as their outline. During the three years of their actual construction (1993–1996), numerous setbacks and challenges had Malaysians betting that the buildings would never rise.

The towering structures were the vision of a former Malaysian prime minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and the project of the national oil company, Petronas. Determined to not only see them built but also create some competition and reduce costs, Dr. Mahathir awarded the building contract to two different companies from two different countries: Samsung Engineering & Construction from Korea and Hazama Corporation from Japan.

The companies entered a race against time — and each other — to see who could build the tower fastest. If either company fell behind the crazy two-year deadline, it would have to pay a delay cost of roughly US$700,000 per day. The pressure was immense, and the competition provided viewers with the ultimate reality show.

Every day, the public watched with fascination the progress (or lack thereof) on what would become their national icons. The staff of each tower spied on its competition with binoculars in either panic or relief, to see whether it was behind or ahead. Malaysians pored over photographs, shared gossip and generally followed every whiff of drama or disaster as a floor went up every four days — a record anywhere.

Ultimately, the Korean company finished its tower one month earlier, despite the disadvantage of having started one month later than Hazama. Samsung had been secretly assembling its spire inside its tower, unseen; in the wee hours of one morning in 1996, they placed the completed spire atop the East tower and so won the race.

Kuala Lumpur’s race to finish its mammoth towers would serve as a fitting symbol of the country’s race to establish itself as a powerful global force.


One man’s vision

Malaysia is a young nation, having risen from colonial rule in 1957. After the British pulled out, the country’s three main groups — Malay, Indian and Chinese — had to find a way forward without an external force pulling the strings. The country, then as now, is a predominantly Malay population with a Muslim majority.

When Dr. Mahathir became prime minister in 1981, he wanted to put Malaysia on the map — not as a sleepy, primarily agricultural country producing palm oil and other products, but as an industrialized Asian tiger. To do this, he needed a landmark.

Dr. Mahathir hadn’t initially set out to build the world’s tallest buildings. Back then, the tallest building in the federal capital was only 36 stories and the Sears Tower in Chicago (now known as the Willis Tower) held the world title.

Yet as confidence in the project grew, it seemed that the entire country wanted to knock the United States off its perch.

Dr. Mahathir wanted a design that was distinctly Malaysian — one that would reflect the country’s Islamic heritage. So the country staged a competition for the best design, from which emerged Cesar Pelli, an Argentinian-American architect.

Pelli’s design, with a symbolic and elegant double-tower structure, embodied the Malaysia the country wanted to portray to the world. In the Lifestyle Network’s “Vertical City” series, the architect said, “One very key thing in my mind was that the building should not look as if it could have been built in the U.S. or anywhere in Europe.”

The original design was considered a standout, according to Dr. Mahathir. “Together,” he said in his memoir, the two towers joined together by a sky bridge would “form a great arch that might suggest a gateway not just to Kuala Lumpur but to Malaysia’s proud, modern future.”

After poring over dozens of books on Islamic architecture for inspiration, Pelli designed the towers’ bases to be shaped as eight-pointed stars, with each successive level tapering off slightly — evoking the many great historic buildings of the classical Islamic world. Dr. Mahathir wanted the buildings to create an arrow pointing skyward, depicting progress and the country’s path to growth.

The inside of the buildings also reflect the country’s heritage. Intricately carved wooden panels inside the lobby windows were inspired by hardwood carvings from the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The swooping floor patterns emanating from a central point “are based on intricate patterns of pandan weaving and bertam palm wall matting,” Dr. Mahathir explained.

Punctured-steel wall decorations even mimic traditional handicrafts. No detail was left out. Connecting the towers with a bridge 58.4 meters in the air “made them more clearly into a portal — a portal to the infinite,” Pelli told the Discovery Channel in an interview aired in 2006.

But this “portal” seemed, at first, impossible to execute. Pelli quickly realized that the towers would sway with strong winds, so most bridges connecting them would shatter. The ingenious solution was to “float” the sky bridge on huge ball bearings using an arch, so that it might literally sway in the wind.  

At their completion, and for many years after, the towers ranked as the world’s tallest skyscrapers. Today, they come in fifth at 452 meters, with 88 stories. (The current record holder is Dubai’s 828-meter Burj Khalifa.)


An icon for Kuala Lumpur

At the opening ceremony in 1999, Dr. Mahathir told the gathered crowd: “When people are short, they need a soapbox in order to be seen and heard. We . . . were little known and figuratively we were short, not players of tall stature in the international game.

“The towers were Malaysia’s soapbox, but they have since also become the country’s landmark, a part of our internationally recognized and admired brand image.”

Kuala Lumpur’s identity seems divided into two parts: before and after the Petronas Towers. With their construction, a quiet city of low-rises became, virtually overnight, a global player. Had you looked out from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 1992, you would have seen a large expanse of green and just a few buildings. Today, the view consists of a modern metropolis full of grandiose skyscrapers.

In effect, the towers showed Malaysia what was possible for itself. It was no accident that after construction was complete, the country declared its goal of reaching developed-nation status by 2020. If Malaysia could build the towers, it was reasoned, Malaysia could do anything.

Indeed, Pelli and the teams who raced to construct the Petronas Towers have created an icon for Kuala Lumpur that combines the beauty of its culture with hopes for its future.

* This includes the height of each building plus its spire. With four floors of basement and a five-floored parking garage beneath each building, the height of each tower is 494 meters.