How the Petronas Towers put Malaysia on the world map

 —  Article by Amirsaufi Nozin
Petronas Towers at dusk in Kuala Lumpur
Image credit: Shutterstock

“The Petronas Twin Towers symbolized the desire and aspiration of all Malaysians to be featured prominently on the international stage and as a major player in globalized economy.”

For Y.Y. Lau, Managing Director of JLL Malaysia, the Petronas Twin Towers achieve that ambition. The centerpiece of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline and a favorite backdrop for visitor photos, the towers held the title of the tallest building in the world for six years after being completed in 1996. Now other structures may have surpassed them in height but they remain the record holder for the tallest twin towers in the world and a glittering symbol of modern Malaysia.

“There is nothing more iconic when talking about Malaysia than the Twin Towers,” says Lau. “People in the streets of New York, London or Tokyo may not now where Malaysia is geographically, but show them the picture of The Twin Towers and immediately they will know where it is.”

A new building for a new era

Constructed from reinforced concrete with a steel and glass façade, the building has a uniquely Malaysian design that nods to its Islamic culture and the country’s own architectural heritage, Lau notes. “The structure itself was based on Rub El Hizb, a Muslim symbol comprised of two overlapping squares which is commonly found in Islamic design. The soaring towers taper in six stages to as they soar into the sky giving the building a distinctly Malaysian feel against the regular form of neighboring skyscrapers.”

Designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, the Malaysian government made the unorthodox decision to appoint two construction consortiums to build the two 88-storey towers separately to meet tight deadlines; Tower 1 was built by a Japanese consortium and Tower 2 by a South Korean consortium. Unlike other twin towers in the world which commonly stood independently from each other, the two were linked by a connecting double decker skybridge – the highest in the world – that slides in and out of either tower to prevent it from fracturing as they sway in high winds.

It was far from being the only construction challenge. During excavation work, irregularities in the bedrock suggested the original site for the towers wouldn’t be able to support their mammoth weight and the entire project was moved 60 meters (200 ft) southeast. Drilling down 21 meters – more than the height of a five story building – gave the towers the deepest foundations of any building at the time.

Reshaping the city landscape

Four years in the making, the Petronas Twin Towers had an immediate impact on Kuala Lumpur – beyond dramatically transforming its skyline. “At the time of its completion, it was used as a cultural landmark for all Malaysians to showcase the country. It became the heart of the city for both locals and visitors,” Lau says.

Company offices already based in Kuala Lumpur also felt its influence. “The center of gravity for business activities was moved from the older parts of the city to the recently built Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) area where the twin towers are located,” Lau explains. Today, the Twin Towers are used as an office building and house the headquarters for the national oil company, Petronas, which give the Towers their name.

While more than 20 years have passed since the Towers made their mark on Malaysia and the wider world, they still stand the test of time. “Its modern look has become the benchmark of the contemporary mega skyscraper,” says Lau. “Despite evolving architectural techniques and construction methods, the Twin Towers remain, as the former Prime Ministers put it, a modern symbol for the courage, ingenuity, initiative, determination, energy, confidence, optimism, advancement and zest of a nation.”

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