From the modest kampong set up in the 1820s by Malay settlers from Sumatra, Kuala Lumpur has developed into a thriving, twenty first century metropolis which can boast some of the world’s most impressive architecture. Although some buildings, like the Menara KL and the Petronas Towers, can be seen from the shopping centre or from the hotel window, it’s worth venturing into the streets and braving the rather scary and incredibly noisy traffic to get a different perspective. It’s also worthwhile taking a stroll to look at some older, less prominent, but by no means less impressive, buildings.
The Petronas Towers is KL’s most famous landmark. It was designed by the Argentine-American architect Cesare Pelli for the Malaysian oil company Perolium Nasional and was constructed between 1992 and 1998. Its twin shafts, glass curtain walls and scalloping are distinctive but its footprint; an 8 sided star with rounded nodules is a common feature of Islamic architecture. It is this blend of innovation and tradition that make the twin towers such a fitting symbol for the Malaysian nation. It has rapidly become one of the world’s most photographed buildings and its fame was increased even further by the Sean Connery/ Catherine Zeta-Jones film Entrapment. Although the Petronas towers have now been surpassed as the world’s tallest building they still remain as the world’s tallest twin towers and as an architectural icon.
The Menara KL which doubles as a communications tower and observation post is another example of the blending of modern functional architecture with traditional, Islamic decorative features. By day it is the conventional telecommunications tower with a long shaft, followed by a pod and topped with antennae. But by night it is lit by a typically Islamic checkerboard pattern of lights which shine like jewels against the sky.
The Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, on Jalan Sultan Hishamudda is as breath-takingly beautiful and extraordinary in its own way, for its own time, as the Petronas towers is, in its distinctive fashion, in this time. It was designed by the British architect, Arthur Benson Hubback, who had served in India and brought a wide knowledge of Anglo-Asian architecture to the project. The station’s style, labeled Neo-Moorish, Indo-Saracenic or Neo-Saracenic, was common at the time and incorporates typical Islamic turrets, arches, checkerboard patterns and mosaics with touches of late Victorian grandeur. Although the station no longer echoes with the whistle and hiss of steam and the clank of iron, it is preserved for posterity as a museum.
Another of KL’s landmark buildings is the Royal Selangor Club which was once the domain of the pink gin, the panama hat, the Somerset Maugham suit and the white glove. It’s a long, low, white, mock Tudor structure with a red-tiled roof, set in an expansive lawn. You can almost hear the echoes of ball on bat, cries of “Howzat!” and restrained applause. The British flag was lowered here for the last time in 1957, when independence was declared and Malaysia was born. The site, originally called Selangor Padang was re-named Merdeka Square. The old building serves as a backdrop to the new nation’s annual independence or Merdeka celebrations.
These are just four of KL’s great buildings. There are hundreds more, equally fascinating some of them large and modern, but many of them modest and ancient. They all have their own special stories and they are all part of the multi-cultural history of the city and its people.
Today, Kuala Lumpur echoes constantly with the sounds of construction as it continues to grow and its architecture continues to develop.