The intricately detailed, gleaming towers of shimmering steel known as the Petronas Twin Towers have defined the KL skyline and the country of Malaysia ever since its unveiling in the late 1990s. Current Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was also Prime Minister during the conception and construction of the Twin Towers, had explicitly aimed for the project to “put Kuala Lumpur on the world map”, and it has undeniably achieved this.
“Perhaps as meaningful to Kuala Lumpur as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Statue of Liberty is to New York, the iconic, soaring Petronas Towers are unquestionably the symbol of modern Malaysia,” Chad Merchant, the Editing Manager of ExpatGo wrote.
The iconic landmark was built on a former racehorse track and designed by the Argentine-born American architect, César Pelli. Unsurprisingly for an architect who once said that “the desire to reach for the sky runs very deep in the human psyche”, Pelli has built some of the world’s tallest buildings, and is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s top architects.
Pelli is noted for designing the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in New York City, and the Canary Wharf Tower in London. Upon completion in 1998, the Petronas Twin Towers became the tallest building in the world at the time, and today remains the tallest twin towers.
Soaring to 451.9 metres, and reaching 88-storeys’ high, each tower eventually tapers at six intervals, with the walls of the upper levels sloping inwards. A glass sky bridge connects the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floors of each tower, enabling intercommunication between the towers, and continues to be a top tourist draw twenty years on. Both towers are topped by a spire and a 73.5-metre high pinnacle, marking the zenith of its height.
Pelli is also known for his abstract, crystalline glass shapes which are shot through with lines of coloured stone or metal, as well as his diversity, site sensitivity and elegant solutions to technical problems. This is perfectly displayed in the step-tapered Petronas Towers. The tapering is meant to stabilize the towers structurally, while creating an elegant visual form, both delicate and angular.
Each building sports 16 large columns around its perimeter, which, along with the rest of the frame, are made of high-strength, steel-reinforced concrete rather than of structural steel, while the exterior sheathing is glass and stainless steel. The award-winning design updates traditional Islamic geometric motifs into a cutting-edge architectural marvel that stands the test of time.
The DNA of the design that Pelli used was the Rub el Hizb, an important symbol found in many Islamic cultures, as a way to generate the plan of a building. The Rub el Hizb is characterized by two overlapping squares, one rotated 45 degrees, with a circle inscribed in the centre.
Pelli used the symbol as the footprint to both towers resulting in two extruded eight-point towers that reflect Islamic art. The idea is to have two interlocking squares that form an eight-pointed star, supplemented by incorporating eight semicircles in the angles of the corners to create more usable floor space.
“We tried to capture the feelings of Islamic art. We wanted to transform them into something new, something contemporary. We wanted to make a building that is looking towards the future but with roots in the past,” Pelli said in an interview with the Talks.
Its interior continues the concept of refined geometric Islamic art, which is everywhere incorporated into the design of the building. The interior motifs are also a reflection of local handicrafts and weaving patterns, while stainless steel and glass combine beautifully into more universal Islamic patterns. All these elements come together to present striking geometric compositions, and represents the principles of unity within unity, harmony, stability and rationality.
The Petronas Twin Towers has become an enduring icon that expresses the sophistication of contemporary Malaysian society, and builds on the country's rich traditions to shape a world city.