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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rising to the occasion

World renowned architect sasses out Malaysia for a major project

Over the week, some of Malaysia's most prominent corporate movers and shakers were treated to the magnificent view of the Burj in Dubai - a tower building, which at 2,313 ft over reaches any other tower in the world, with a stunning swirl silhouette and shape inspired by the desert flowers that often appear as patterns in Islamic structures.

The three-hour presentation and tour by the project's main developer of the "sky-breaking-tower" must have been awe-inspiring. In fact, already, the Burj, as it stands today in its incomplete form (expected year of completion is 2009), is the tallest building in the planet and is said to be going for a whopping RM11,000 per sq feet onwards.

"I was highly impressed," says one business man, who was part of a delegation led by the Kuala Lumpur Business Club for a business mission to the United Arab Emirates. Puns aside, it's hard not to be impressed with one of the world's most magnificent structures born from the union of form and function - that which drives and inspires the world of architecture.

Mustafa Kemal Abadan, design partner in world-famous architect firm New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) which designed the Burj, bridged the gap between the stunning innovation and Malaysia recently with his visit to Kuala Lumpur.

That he was here in KL is fodder for imagination and speculation; it is believed that he is undertaking to design a unique structure in one of the city's hotspots. In an interview with BizWeek however, Mustafa is careful not to divulge and details on the project but lends his views on Malaysia's landscape and structures from his observation following an intensive two day-visit.

Mustafa joined SOM New York in 1983 and became a design partner in 1996. In terms of trade volume, SOM is one of the top three architectural firms in the world and has been involved with a "staggering number of important buildings" and has received over 800 design awards from its 10,000 jobs all over the world.

Its show stopping structures include Chicago's 110-story Sears tower (this building held the accolade as the world's tallest building until Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers took the honour), China's Pearl River Tower (ongoing) which promises to be the world's greenest skyscraper and the 7 World Trade Centre in New York. Last year, the firm celebrated its 70th anniversary.

"Malaysia is a vibrant city and I am delighted to be part of it," he says. Mustafa's work requires him to tap the sensitivities and cultural context of a country and location in making architecture to ensure that it possesses its own unique social and physical relevance. As such and understandably so, his short visit to KL was packed with visits to key spots such as museums and the Putrajaya administrative centre among many others.

Mustafa says he tries to avoid having preconceived notions when visiting a country for the first time. His recent trip, incidentally, happens to be his first to Malaysia.

" Malaysia is a mixture of many. It is vibrant. Probably the most interesting part is the active life. This is what differentiates it from Singapore which has a sort of uniformity. "

He is surprised to have discovered Malaysia's topography: "I didn't expect Malaysia to have mountains."

In Seoul for instance, there are strong mountains. This is an important aspect of a city, and I was enthused by this place. I was born in Turkey, so water, topography and history are major components of what constitutes a city," he adds.

Mustafa points out that Malaysia's skyline is not dominated by a single force; in fact, it is "multi-centred". For instance, there is one centre in KLCC, and another in KL Sentral.

"I would say Malaysia feels more real. There is a greater vibrancy that I can sense in the city. The context of the city is more differentiated. In Singapore, the concentration is going downtown. It is more controlled and planned," he says.

He adds that his real-life view of the much talked about Kuala Lumpur twin towers was rather surprising as it veered somewhat from his impression of it prior to this visit: "I actually had a preconceived notion that the twin towers would be more free standing than it actually was. I thought it was standalone, and that I would only see it once I got into the park. But there were lots of built areas around it and the place was bustling."

He adds that the twin towers was a bold and strong statement and an important point in history as it put Malaysia on the map.

"I think it would be good for Malaysia to add more towers. This could bring more positive development over time, gravitating living conditions to these centres," he says.

Scaling heights
Robust economic changes result in more widespread urbanisation as the city expands. In fact, towers are largely deemed as economic necessities that accompany growth where land is also scarce. Rapid development, more often than not, boosts the population on the back of rising migration into the city. This presents itself with a different set of infrastructure requirements, which need to be addressed as quickly and efficiently as possible, says Mustafa.

He adds that there is now a move to build homes where people can live and work in an integrated way. The reliance on cars is gradually becoming less sustainable. Nonetheless, he adds that this does not encourage architectural growth as the demand is for functional houses.

"The quest for better architecture comes when the economy settles down. It is happening in China. At the moment, the type of projects that can elevate architecture are still in the minority," he says.

Mustafa says that urban issues are hard to solve. Almost all cities in emerging markets are struggling to reorder themselves in terms of traffic, safety and cost and environment.

Cities with stronger governmental structure have an advantage in planning, as it can override the city council's decision for the betterment of the economy.

"There are advantages and disadvantages of a city being controlled. In very highly developed countries, there is much more regulation. This confines the city within certain parameters. New York for example is a very regulated city hence there is a need to think about maximising space," he says.

Mustafa feels that cities that try to create an identity for itself benefit in the long run as people may generally have similar needs but there are regional, cultural and social differences.

"In the late 80s and 90s, because of the post modernisation push, classical buildings sprung up all over the world, but these buildings had no roots. They had no links to history or culture. It was pure aesthetics! To me, this is useless."

Mustafa says that there should be a perfect balance between form and function. An important element which need to be paid due attention in the designing process is the location.

"I am interested in where the building is built. What can be around it, and what cannot. The orientation of the building, where and what it faces. We want to anchor the architecture to the sociology of the place. We want to create a context to where there is uniqueness to the place."

"That is why two buildings in two countries will be designed in completely different ways. Rules change for each country. The form that makes the building will create the context of the area," says Mustafa.

Tower as symbols
Post 9/11, it was generally perceived that the fascination over towers, given their security risk, would have fizzled somewhat.

Contrary to expectations however, Mustafa says there are in fact more skyscrapers on the drawing boards.

"9/11 was blip in how people viewed towers. People need to separate the issue of 9/11, especially when looking at a tower in a dense city. Cities can't just expand horizontally. People who stay a far distance from the city have to drive to work. You need to address this need," he says.

Mustafa adds that a city is better off when there is greater density. And contrary to popular belief, towers aren't just for abstract purposes.

It feeds the need for greater density. As the city expands, the only way for these buildings is to go up. "The taller the building, the higher the cost. Buildings that go beyond 20-30 storey have specific reasons. It is built because of symbolic reasons. For instance, the KLCC allows Malaysia to stand out and make its own statement," says Mustafa.

In the US, the Freedom Tower, which is the replacement of the World Trade Centre following the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, is more of a symbol of inspiration and an enduring beacon of the New York City skyline rather than anything else.

The Freedom Tower will soar 1,776 ft into the sky and is designed with the classic touch of typical New York skyscrapers while also taking reference from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The tower is designed by architect David Childs of SOM.

"Super tall towers are on the rise. I am surprised by how many tall buildings are being built. There's going to be a limit to it. One can even built up to 1,000m, which is going to be twice the height of KLCC, but this comes at a great cost," he says.

Artist's impression of the Burj in Dubai, the tallest building in the world when completed

For instance, the Burj Dubai, which is going to be the tallest tower in the world is a symbol of Dubai's central role in the global market. It is an icon of the new Middle East - successful, dynamic and prosperous.

"In Dubai, there is little land available. But wealth in the population needs to find an outlet.

"In the end, it always comes down to economics," he says.

By The Star (By Tee Lin Say)

More info about Burj Dubai

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