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Buildings that give Malaysia the 'wow' factor

Nearly two decades after it was completed in 1996, Kuala Lumpur's 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers continues to mesmerise.

THEY lord over all others, not just in Kuala Lumpur but the region as well, shimmering in the sun's rays. Visitors from the world over make it a point to capture Malaysia's best known landmark, snapping photos of themselves against the majestic 452-metre columns crowned by spires and linked by a skybridge mid-height.

Nearly two decades after its completion in 1996, the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers development remains in a class of its own, standing head and shoulders above newer buildings that have come up in Malaysia. Designed by American Cesar Pelli, the engineering marvel continues to mesmerise, a deserving winner of the prestigious 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

It is arguably Mr Pelli's greatest masterpiece, one that helped put Malaysia on the world map, its unmistakable superstructure synonymous with the country in the way the Eiffel Tower is with France or Big Ben with England.

Malaysian Institute of Architects (or Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia) president Ar Mohd Zulhemlee An said the Petronas Twin Towers made everyone sit up because not only did Malaysia suddenly boast the tallest building in the world, but a pair of them. "You would think the tallest building in the world would be in America, but it was in Malaysia - that's the power of an iconic building."

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While the country has other landmark buildings, Mr Zulhemlee said they are not international icons. Even so, they were held in high regard locally since there were few such edifices in the 1980s when they were built.

One such building is the Dayabumi Complex, which served as the headquarters of Petronas prior to the national oil company's move to the Twin Towers. Designed by local architect Nik Mohammed, it was the first modern building in Malaysia to incorporate principles of Islamic design into its architecture. Much of it is evident in the 157-metre filigree-like tower, the design of which remains unique.

About five metres shorter stands the hour-glass-shaped Tabung Haji building, which was designed by Malaysian architect Hijjas Kasturi for the Pilgrims Board.

Mr Zulhemlee said that Dayabumi and Tabung Haji marked a departure from the then archetype of sweeping Malay roofs that characterised the buildings of the 1970s including the National Museum, Bank Bumiputra and the Putra World Trade Centre.

Architectural concepts and designs began to take on a grander scale in the 1990s, reflecting Malaysia's status as one of the so-called "tiger economies" because of its stellar growth.

One project built during the exciting money-fuelled decade was the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, which was carved out of the surrounding oil palm plantations. Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa acknowledged the contribution of one of Malaysia's biggest economic sectors by assimilating the trunk of the oil palm trees and curve of the fronds into the design of KLIA's columns and ceiling.

If the Petronas Twin Towers symbolised Malaysia's aspirations in the global sphere, KLIA was seen as a 21st century gateway to the country.

But in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the economy seemed to lack the verve and energy of the mid-1990s, the oil and gas boom of 2010-2014 notwithstanding.

New buildings that sprung up did not wow. But one institutional building Mr Zulhemlee admires is another belonging to the national oil company - the Petronas University of Technology in Tronoh, Perak. "I thought this was very, very well designed. It is almost U-shaped, curvy and corridors link the main building to secondary buildings. It is all covered by a sweeping roof to protect against the elements, and the big plaza allows for interaction so that the whole place becomes lively."

Designed by Foster & Partners and GDP Associates, it was the recipient of the 2007 Aga Khan Award for architecture.

If all goes to plan, another project that is expected to bring the spotlight back to Malaysia is Permodalan Nasional Bhd's Menara Warisan Merdeka. Foundation work on the 118-storey superstructure started last year at the site of the old Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur and that phase will be completed this year.

It is safe to say the 600-metre skyscraper will dwarf everything in its surroundings when completed in 2020. PNB and its subsidiaries will occupy the monolith, part of a mixed development on 7.7 hectares close to Chinatown. Malaysia's biggest asset manager hopes Petronas' success with the Twin Towers will be replicated in this part of the city, making the area a new commercial hub.

While Kuala Lumpur is developing its iconic projects, the south of the peninsula is surprisingly quiet given the hype over Iskandar Malaysia.

Since its inception in late 2006, the economic zone has attracted tens of billions of dollars in local and foreign investments. However, activity has flagged amid an economic slowdown and building glut, and it will likely be many years before the "gateway" iconic structures emerge.

"Because of the proximity to Singapore, which has a number of (iconic) buildings, Iskandar should have something close to that - at least in terms of quality," said Mr Zulhemlee. "Maybe they are waiting to have mass and population before proceeding."

As in most cities, Malaysia's new buildings are invariably towers of concrete and steel with scant sign of a distinct Malaysian or Asian identity. However, while they are not international icons, some of Malaysia's historical monuments are considered by many to be unmatched for their innate grace and splendour.

Many were built during the colonial times. One example is Kuala Lumpur's classic Old Railway Station with its beautiful Moorish architecture, its grandeur unsurpassed over the decades. Up north, Penang's sumptuously intricate Khoo Kongsi is another architectural wonder, delighting visitors to the more than a century old Chinese clanhouse.