15 - 21 June 2000
Issue No. 486
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The architecture of the global medinaBy Marc Munro
The architecture of Malaysia is going through a period of national self-assertion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cityscape of Kuala Lumpur. Once a minor colonial centre, it is now in the process of transforming itself into a major capitalist metropolis. Above the urban remnants of its colonial past, a new city of towering steel and glass is being erected. The centrepiece of this development is the corporate headquarters of Petronas, the national oil company. Completed in 1996, the 452-metre twin towers of this complex are now the tallest buildings in the world, surpassing Chicago's 442-metre Sears Tower, which had held the world height championship since 1973. Officially inaugurated on 17 August last year, the complex was finally opened to the public on 30 May and the world turned its attention to this oft-forgotten corner of the globe. Pictures of the monumental structure made their way through the news wires and CNN covered the estimated 800 souls who flocked to the towers to take in the view.
In the CNN report, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is quoted justifying the $1 billion project, by stating that these towers add to the pride of a small nation like Malaysia "because small people always like to appear tall." Height, however, is not the only interesting thing about this structure, and Mahathir knows it. Its design is a conscious attempt to merge the ultimate symbol of capitalist power with the religious symbolism of the Islamic aesthetic. The eight-point star of the Islamic arabesque forms the basic ground plan of the towers, which are linked by a bridge at the 41st floor, creating a vast open gateway to the city. Grounded in a regional Islamic aesthetic, nevertheless, the design is syncretic in its inspiration and cosmopolitan in its outlook. This type of cultural synthesis is typical of new architectural thinking. The once sacred universal ideals of high modernism are currently being abandoned in favour of more vernacular forms. Grand development projects are no longer intended to dominate and transform the cultural environment; rather, environment is now shaping project design. The goal is not simply to resurrect past forms, but to refer to the heritage of a place in order to position a structure within the continuum of a cultural past, present and future. The Petronas Towers are very much an attempt to realise this type of synthesis and it is presented on a monumental scale. Cesar Pelli, the architect, has described his work as an effort "to respond to the climate, to the dominant Islamic culture, and to the sense of form and patterning that I could perceive in traditional Malaysian building."
High above, the minarets of Al-Ahzar mark a 1,000 years of religious authority. The photo below, depicts the Petronas Twin Towers, the design of which is a conscious attempt to merge the ultimate symbol of capitalist power with the Islamic aesthetic. The photography of Lewis Wickes Hine documents the heroic efforts of Depression era workers constructing the Empire State Building
The structure, however, is unique. Although it was inspired by the intricate geometric patterns of Islamic art, it is not within that tradition. The building seems to be beyond tradition. These towers are designed to capture the essential spirit of a culture, but they exist as a novelty within it. The design is presented as the architecture of authenticity, but it lacks the roots of cultural heritage. Its purpose is to dominate the architectural remains of the former colonial city, thereby proclaiming the rebirth of traditional Malay culture; but the design was envisioned by an Argentinean artist based in New York.
Thus, what is intended to be a powerful statement of a regional renaissance is in actuality more the product of a world within which the particularity of place no longer seems to exist. The fact that an outsider could create a national monument in an Islamic idiom graphically demonstrates how schizophrenic cultural symbolism has become. Yet, on closer inspection, the contradictions may be more superficial than fundamental. The Algerian social thinker Mohammad Arkoun has recently argued that even in mosque design, "Whether or not the architects themselves have an Islamic background is not a priority issue; what matters more is the content and the function they give to spirituality." Indeed, Pelli's cultural origins should have precluded him from becoming the signature artist of Malaysia's national monument, but they did not. According to Abdul Rahim Naim, chief operating officer of the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, the design selection committee "wanted something extraordinary and that is what Mr Pelli gave us. His design has elements of Islamic architecture identifiable with our country. The other architects' designs looked as if they could be built anywhere. Mr Pelli's design could be no other place but Kuala Lumpur." Authenticity is obviously a very nebulous notion. The contradictions apparent with the Petronas Towers complex, therefore, present an interesting philosophical challenge for the future of Islamic identity and Muslim social development.
The importance of architecture is not an abstract theoretical issue. Its cost is too great, its symbolism too profound. Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian architect and vice-president of the World Bank, has argued for the motivating power of architectural construction. He believes that "the need to assert identity in the face of the forces of anomie and globalisation has never been greater. The challenge for architecture is to transcend the conventional and create the new. This is not a search for innovation for its own sake, but a search for a language that responds to new needs and aspirations and is sufficiently authentic to allow the users to identify with it today and cherish it tomorrow."
Yet reconciling a singular Malaysian national identity with the urban environment of the capital city is very much a work in progress. The city fabric is a complicated cultural nexus held together by the legacy of British colonial relationships. Originally, it was purely a commercial centre, established by the Chinese dominated tin industry. Subsequently, it came to be governed by the British colonial administration based in Singapore. Political prominence grew with the British effort to bind the various peninsular Malay sultanates into a federated union. The Malay cultural presence, therefore, had to accommodate a preexisting urban environment built to suit the economic and political needs of a world empire. Although this had certain political benefits for the Rajas, the Malays themselves tended to adhere to their long established Kampung (village) life. Thus, upon independence the Malays were left with a national metropolis constructed by others. This has created an awkward situation, which they have been trying to come to terms with ever since.
Confronted with a lacuna, Pelli was forced to invent his own vision of a national architectural style, since "no one knew what it meant for a building to be 'Malaysian.' We were flying blind." Thus, he adopted the arabesque as his totem for all things Islamic. The eight-pointed star became the ground plan and Pelli piled one on top of the other, reaching for the sky. The result is a unique architectural achievement and he fully recognises that the artistic vision of this national monument is a personal construct. Pelli argues, however, that "because they will appear for the first time in Kuala Lumpur they will be forever identified with the place -- the same way the Eiffel Tower is identified with Paris, although its structure and form were not derived from Parisian or French architecture."
Only time will tell if the Petronas Towers will strike a resonant cord in the minds of the Malaysians as the Eiffel Tower did for the French; or be seen simply as a monumental curiosity. The pure size and power of the structure, however, would indicate that some form of culture accommodation is inevitable. This is perhaps precisely the point. The primary function of the building is not to house the national oil company. Functionality is a secondary consideration. This building is a political statement about the future direction of the Malaysian nation. The project was the brainchild of Prime Minister Mahathir himself. He wanted a monument in the heart of the capital that would symbolise the country's modernisation and rising international profile. He was actively engaged in all stages of the design process and the final scheme is well marked by his personal fingerprints. It shows the direction in which he wishes his country to travel. The skyscraper is the marker of the international capitalist way, par excellence.
This urban aesthetic originated in the capitalist explosion that rocketed Chicago onto the world stage and the form is now the standardised home of financial activity. The architect credited with having created the skyscraper, Louis Henry Sullivan, described Chicago as having, "an intoxicating rawness, a sense of big things to be done. For 'big' was the word." Sullivan would provide this city with an architecture that would challenge the cultural primacy of the Old World. The skyscrapers have now replaced cathedral spires and grand mosque minarets. After Sullivan, no major urban centre could make a serious claim upon the world without first constructing these requisite temples to capital. This is the claim Mahathir Mohamed is now making upon the world markets. Inspired by the didactic example of the Chicago aesthetic, Malaysia is now reconstructing Kuala Lumpur. It is an announcement to the world: Malaysia is a culture of greatness. It has raised itself out of international obscurity to Promethean heights. The position of the architect as an outsider makes this declaration all the more profound. It is simultaneously both the presentation of a proud Malaysia to the world and the recognition of its arrival.
International awareness of a distinctly Malaysian identity is an important issue for the Malay. Foreign domination had made them a minority upon their native soil. First the Europeans, and then the Chinese and Indians, had colonised their land and pushed aside the native Bumiputra way of life. The sons of the soil lost their birthright and they refused to accommodate or even engage these strangers. Consequently, modernity developed around them, but did not include them. As the Chinese and Indians became citizens of empire, the Malay communities remained loyal to their sultans. Malaysian social critic Chandra Muzaffar believes that "this submission to the will of the monarch... perpetuated as a supreme cultural value, had such an iron grip upon the Malay mind that it paralysed the ability to act in variance with the ruler's will and want."
By 1969, however, the social disparity between the rural Malaysian villagers and the upwardly mobile urban immigrant communities had become an insult too great to endure. This frustration exploded with violence. In order to restore peace to the nation, the state gave up all pretence of balancing the competing needs of its diverse society. Malaysia is the land of the Malay. The New Economic Policy was designed to return to the Bumiputra the patrimony they believe to have been stolen. The native sons would claim the new economy for themselves. A new Malaysian technocratic elite began to assert its dominance. Government bureaucracy became the new sultanate and the old rulers were placed under its control. The future required a vibrant national civil society and this necessitated an end to the provincialism of the ancien régime.
The religious symbolism utilised by Pelli within the design of the Petronas Towers is recognition that Malaysia is not only an Asian tiger, it is a distinctly Malay tiger. It is through the idiom of Islam that the Malay find their most effective nationalist cultural expression. Chandra Muzaffar maintains that, "more than language or any other facet of culture, Islam expresses Bumiputra or more accurately Malay identity in a manner that has no parallel." The subtle distinction being made here is the important separation that needs to be maintained between the concept of cultural authenticity and the reality of its elusiveness. Malaysia itself is a construct of colonialism. It didn't exist before 1957. Many of the "sons of the soil" are actually from Sumatra. Most within the immigrant communities are not actually immigrants. Their roots stretch back for generations. Consequently, neither origin nor language can sufficiently determine the boundaries separating the self from the other. Islam, however, is a province of identity that links the Malay to a great imperial culture that is distinct from both their former British colonial masters and their current ethnic Chinese social rivals.
The strategic connection between national development and Islamic identity can be seen in the figure of Anwar Ibrahim. Formerly an Islamic student activist, he was brought into the government by Prime Minister Mahathir in 1982 to serve as minister of finance. Thereafter, fiscal bodies began adopting religious adjectives. Ibrahim's recent downfall, however, is indicative of the real place of Islam in the halls of power. It is to serve. Shortly after Suharto had been ousted in Indonesia, Ibrahim made the mistake of thinking he was powerful enough to call for the "creative destruction" of the old political order in Malaysia. He was not, and now sits in jail. Religion is an aspect of Malay identity and the state is the guardian of all things Malaysian. This relationship is beyond challenge. The arabesques of the Petronas Towers are decorative, not fundamental. The Mahathir regime is a technocratic sultanate. The proper channels of authority must be respected. Any questioning of the regime is an act of subversion. There will be no destruction, only construction.
The will to build is at the core of Mahathir's Vision 2020 development programme. The goal of this programme is to transform Malaysia into a fully developed modern society by the second decade of the millennium. In the 1991 inaugural speech for this programme, "Malaysia: The Way Forward," Mahathir explained: "Malaysia should not develop only in the economic sense. It must be a nation that is fully developed along all the dimensions: economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally." Then he called on all Malaysians to foster a greater sense of "national pride and confidence." Five years later, Kuala Lumpur has become the tallest city in the world. This is a declaration of independence. It has nothing to do with economics. Skyscrapers have never made economic sense. The costs of soaring verticality far out weigh those of humbler structures, but the construction of tall buildings has nothing to do with company ledgers. When architecture reaches for the sky, it is to touch the heavens.
The Empire State Building was a bid for immortality in an era of desperation. It was a messianic act. Built during the darkest days of the depression, it was presented as a graphic display of awe-inspiring technical virtuosity and unfaltering economic virility. Alfred Emmanuel Smith, its chief visionary, was originally the target of ridicule. Rather than a symbol of potency, the massive tower was dismissed as his last erection. The pure size and power of the construction, however, commanded respect and the building is now a monument of human achievement. The black and white stills by Lewis Wickes Hine of workers suspended in the sky, defying gravity's deadly pull, have become icons of the modern age. Out of poverty, the workers raised themselves to the status of heroes. The construction of the Petronas Towers is a similar claim upon immortality.
Construction on a monumental scale is intrinsic to the Promethean urge within the human psyche. The quest for greatness requires concrete displays of prowess and power. This is the medium though which majesty is recognised. Skyscrapers are ziggurats and pyramids. Their construction is an act of devotion. It is the recognition of grandeur. Monumental architecture expresses the dominant social conception of the self and any transformation in social self-perception necessitates the construction of new forms that claim the didactic content of past monuments in the name of a more glorious future. Consequently, Mahathir was not content with one Promethean tower. Two were required to achieve the recognition he desired. Along side the Petronas centrepiece, nine other buildings are planned, each the equal of the Empire State Building. One of these monster buildings, the Plaza Rakyat complex, will itself be the largest single architectural work in Asia. The grammar of scale remains constant. The will to power creates an insatiable desire to reach greater and greater heights.
Yet, it must be remembered that the archetypal ziggurat was also the progenitor of the Tower of Babel. Malaysia, in 1997, suffered from a fall of biblical proportions. It had firmly believed that it was entering the Promised Land and the new fetish for all things big and grand reflected this optimism. After years of frustration, labouring under the weight of debt and suffering the indignity of structural adjustment, it seemed to be at the promised point of economic departure. Over the past several years, this emerging economic powerhouse has celebrated its long awaited coming of age in architecture. The will of Mahathir has been set upon building a triumphant city of awe and wonder. Only time will tell if the current economic quagmire will infuse Malaysia with the same type of bloody-minded determination that created the Manhattan skyline or the dormant cranes of unrealised dreams will act as a cruel reminder of reach falling short of grasp.