Thursday, May 6, 2010

KL Twin Towers vs. Taipei 101

Before moving to Asia I recall acknowledging the battle for the world’s tallest building between these two Asian emerging powers in a kind of re-enactment of New York back in the day when the Empire State nudged out the Chrysler for top honours (image from here). 

In this 21st Century equivalent scenario it was Taipei 101 that emerged as ‘The Empire State’, taking over from KL’s Twin Towers the brief accolade as world’s tallest building, until the completion of the Burj Khalifa earlier this year. We’re now in a position where these buildings make an interesting comparison as reflections of their respective country’s socio-economic prospects and aspirations, especially since it now doesn’t really matter if you’re the 2nd, 3rd or 4th tallest- 1st is the only number that matters in that battle. So, leaving the issue of who is tallest aside for a moment, and seeing as I’ve visited both buildings within brief timescales I thought they’d make an interesting subject for comparison.


Both buildings are visible from miles around and stand head and shoulders above anything else out there. They emerge from the skyline in the unlikeliest of places and dominate as you enter both cities from the airport. I’ll leave judgment of their respective forms for later but in terms of impression on sky line you’d have to call it a dead heat.

Tourist Attraction

101 is quite a remarkable tourist experience. There are queues for the lift that even at 11am on a Monday morning lasted 20 minutes. And what a lift is- the world’s fastest, taking you up half a kilometer in 30 seconds! When you get up there the views are spectacular and the sense of height is quite remarkable. Living in Hong Kong I’m used to being 30 or 40 stories up and height doesn’t bother me so much, but being on the 92nd floor is the highest I’ve even been and whatever you think of the building, it is amazing to be up there. 

What is perhaps equally remarkable is that they have marketed everything, from the stabilizing damper (Damper Baby) to the Jade ornaments on sale and the ubiquitous gift shop junk.

I’d like to say I had the equivalent experience in KL, but didn’t get there early enough to make the ticket give away (you need to be there before 8am and well, I was on holiday).

Besides, they only take you up to the sky bridge on the 40th floor, so we agreed that a much better option was evening cocktails on the 33rd floor of a nearby hotel overlooking the Twin Towers. A tough call given the circumstances but I think 101 has to get the nod in this respect.

Contribution to City

View Tapei in a larger map

It is here that the two buildings suddenly become world’s apart. Taipei 101 stands as an isolated monolith with no connection to it’s surrounding area. It is what it is, but in terms of contribution to city I couldn’t see what it offered beyond another expensive mall. If I lived in Taipei I can’t see myself spending much time mixing it in the mall with the coach loads of mainland tourist who visit.

KL’s Twin Towers on the other hand really surprised me in terms of what they offered. Yes, there is another expensive mall- which is the Asian way, but there was a complete change in terms of clientele and ground floor experience. Locals and tourists alike seemed to love the place, soaking up the shopping and, most importantly, the relationship to KLCC park. There were nice coffee shops where you could stop, watch the world go by and enjoy this little bit of calm green oasis. 

View Kuala Lumpur in a larger map

The area seemed to have been masterplanned coherently around the towers and this was obviously their new modern civic hub, with the shops, offices, hotels, restaurants and a concert hall linked to the tower’s base. If there’s a criticism it is that it would have been nice if the very formal axial relationship between park and city, via tower base led to something more coherent than the busy highways surrounding. But, this is Kuala Lumpur and to achieve what they have done must be considered a success.


Of course, things like cityscape and contribution to city define a building’s architectural success in a much more fundamental way than any stylistic niceties, that ultimately come down to personal preference. I think it’s established that KL wins already on the count of it actually working as a nice bit of city. But hey, I’ve got opinions too, so why not go for it! 

As I say, before coming to Asia, I’d watched these buildings go up from afar and dismissed them both as cynical Americanised interpretations of Eastern culture that were pure kitsch, and not serious Architecture (with a capital ‘A’) per se. Taipei 101 lived up to this expectation- it’s a horrid and obvious take on the stacked temple with ornamentation of the ugliest form that gets even worse as you get up close. The cladding is cheap and the building looks old already. It’s everything nasty about modern day China- throwaway culture and built to fall apart.

KL’s Twin Towers had never captured my imagination either. I never felt so strongly against them but I certainly thought they looked rather ornamental and not in keeping with the dictum ‘a building should be what it wants to be’. Actually seeing it within it’s context of Kuala Lumpur I have to say I reconsider. The plan is generated off two squares, one rotated 45 degrees, with arcs built around a radius off these square’s intersections. It’s a very Islamic formal move that references in quite a subtle way the surrounding mosques and the end result is actually quite a nice modern interpretation of this historical architecture. 

I wasn’t expecting to like them, but I thought these towers were very contextual and considered. They’re obviously modern, and sure, they’re a bit kitsch, but it’s in a likeable way. Furthermore, the cladding is of a remarkable standard for SE Asia and it still looks good. The gleaming stainless steel (a la Cheung Kong Centre in Hong Kong) is a bit of a Cesar Pelli trademark and it’s something that really comes to life when you see it in the flesh. Again it comes down to the Architecture forming part of the contribution to city- these towers gleam and reflect from miles around. There is a sense locals are proud, and they look to these towers as a sign of a prosperous future. I went to KL with no expectations, but I came back pleasantly surprised.

Gratuitous KL photos below:

KL 10

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