I was visiting Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, a multicultural country with the majority population being Muslim. I assumed Kuala Lumpur would be a conservative city, one that would keep its assets under cover, but when I saw its much-heralded landmark, the Petronas Towers, I started to rethink my assumptions.
The Petronas Towers are twin skyscrapers, 88-stories high and connected halfway up by a sky bridge. They are among the tallest buildings in the world. They are also dazzling in design, not boxy at all in appearance but tapered at six intervals. Each tower is capped by a conical spire, which is topped by a pinnacle 73.4m (241 ft) tall.
The vision behind the design was to showcase Malaysia as a global power. It was to symbolize the nation’s “courage, ingenuity, initiative, determination, energy, confidence, optimism, advancement and zest,” said the prime minister of the time. Whew, those were high expectations! But the Petronas Towers went on to win the international Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004.
A travelling exhibition on Islamic architecture happened to be on display at the Museum of Art when I was there. Interestingly, it was from the Aga Khan Museum so there was a connection between that and the Petronas Towers. The Aga Khan himself had opened the exhibit and in his remarks said that while the architectural heritage in the Muslim world was rich and diverse it was often neglected; he wanted to change that through his organization’s awards.
The Aga Khan exhibition was a crash course on Islamic architecture, explaining, for example, that although figurative images are restricted in the Muslim religion, other high art forms were developed, particularly calligraphy and geometry.
There are exhibits showing the introduction of miniature paintings, the widespread use of geometric patterns, and the reproduction of aspects of nature such as light and water.
Islamic art and architecture has not stood still. In its formative years, the architecture was characterized by its “simplicity and humility”. When Arab traders started travelling along the Silk Road towards China, they brought not only their goods but also their religion. When they reached the Indian subcontinent, they encountered an already complex and well developed Hindu culture and so adapted Islamic architecture to local styles and materials. Similarly in China there was a blending between functional Islamic requirements and existing local architecture.
The goal of the architecture, however, was always to “complement the architect’s eagerness to reach the ultimate perfection and to transform every artistic activity into an act of piety”.
The Aga Khan jury said that while the design of the Petronas Towers stimulated and responded to cultural expectations, it also represented a “new direction in skyscraper design, featuring advanced technology while symbolizing local and national aspirations”.
The exhibition “Architecture in Islamic Arts: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum” moved on to Singapore and will find a permanent home in Toronto in 2014.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013