Petronas Towers: The Other Twin Towers

Story by Viki Psihoyos with photos by Louie Psihoyos.

While the city of New York develops an appropriate replacement for its lost twin towers, another pair still stands. On the other side of the globe, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers, at 452 metres (1483 feet)) have remained until recently, the tallest buildings in the world. Weathering threats of terrorism and a weakened economy, these spires defiantly endure.

Completed in 1998 at a cost of 400 billion dollars, the Petronas Towers were designed as a visual punctuation to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamedís ambitious plan to place his nation on the cutting edge of technology by the year 2020. A 550-mile highway the length of the Malaysian peninsula bridges the “intelligent buildings” with a new $2.3 billion international airport, shuttling workers to the electronic business park, Cyberjaya and the pristine $5.3 billion government seat, Putrajaya. The Multimedia Super Corridor, or MSC, was designed to lure companies with attractive tax incentives and fully wired infrastructures, creating an Asian Silicon Valley. Despite the economic crisis that coincided with the towers’ opening, a healthy 70-percent occupancy rate is maintained in Tower 2, Tower 1 houses the national petroleum company for which the project is named, and its subsidiaries.

Hours after the tragic event in September of 2001, bomb threats in Malaysia led to the evacuation of the Petronas Towers in this predominantly Muslim nation. However today, high tech multi-national tenants like HPS Global Systems on the 4oth floor and Alcatel Networks on the 68th, need assurance of their safety.

All entrants to the buildings now must pass through metal detectors, bags and parcels are X-rayed. An in-house emergency response team is manned and ready at all hours, as is a central fire command room. Tenants undergo briefing and training for three types of potential disaster, they can evacuate in 32 minutes. Fire drills are practiced routinely.

Also, Charles H. Thornton, an American engineer who helped design the towers has said that the structure and materials used would prevent an occurrence similar to that of the World Trade Towers. The circular form and broad internal beams are more stable than those of a steel box. Also, the Petronas stairwells are encased in 30 inches of concrete, the dominant material used throughout these towers that were built a fortnight later than the gypsum-fortified WTC.

In 1991, an international design competition led to the awarding of the U.S.-based architectural firm, Cesar Pelli & Associates, a contract to create a landmark for this Asian nation of 19 million people. The final towers had to be graceful, yet strong with a nod towards Malaysia’s cultural past. They also had to be ready for a wired future.

The buildings feature fiber optic cable throughout. Tenants of the 88 occupied floors ride one of the 76 lifts , 58 are double-decker, which carry 26 people per deck. This maximizes the use of core building space and improves efficiency. The Twin Towers have a gross area of 341,763 square metres (3.67 million square feet). Each tower has the amount of floor space equivalent to 48 football fields. An outer curtain wall of glass and stainless steel creates shade to diffuse the harsh equatorial sun. A drum-shaped garage on the top floors houses a window-washing unit created to clean the 32,000 windows. The 192ft-long (58.4m) Skybridge at the 41st and 42nd floor creates a passage between two sky lobbies, allowing easy access to meeting rooms, an executive dining room and a Surau (prayer room) in the towers. Expansion joints and sliding bearings at each end of the bridge adjust to accommodate various wind loads. From a distance, the silhouette of the Skybridge linking the slender towers suggests a welcoming gateway to the city. From within, it resembles a utopian workplace.

Also evident, from all aspects, are the Islamic motifs, reflecting Malaysiaís dominant culture. The spires, which taper in towards the top to reduce wind exposure, evoke minarets glistening on the horizon. The floor plan indicates an eight-pointed star drawn from traditional Islamic art. The faceted outer walls repeat this pattern, scalloping up.

The towers have been noted on several fronts; The American Institute of Architects awarded the buildings its AIA 2000 Honour Award for best architecture in the world. Hollywood featured the sleek structures in the action film, “Entrapment,” starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

And despite some controversy over what constitutes the record, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat to be the tallest buildings in the world acknowledges the two towers. The U.S.-based organization decided in 1996 to grant the Malaysian structure the designation, basing its criteria on measurements from the ground to the top, Later confusion was caused by the revision of categories for tall; height from ground to highest occupied floor (this record goes to the Sears Tower in Chicago at 110 stories, and height to tip of antenna which was held by One World Trade Tower). The record will be held until the completion, in 2007, of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which will rise to 492 metres.

The Petronas Towers stand within a $2 billion, 100-acre “city within a city” where developer, Kuala Lumpur City Centre has built a shopping mall, a five-star hotel, an 864-seat concert hall for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and an enormous mosque hand decorated by Uzbekistan craftsmen.

Yet, for its spending vast sums of money on Malaysiaís thrust to the future, the government has been criticized for ignoring the basic needs of the disadvantaged. Not all businesses can afford the $200 square-foot price of the glitzy address. Also, in the shadow of the towers, undeveloped areas remain, offering unskilled workers no advances in housing or education, let alone connectivity.