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Dare to dream
IT READS like a modern-day saga - one of high powered meetings set against the fast-paced worlds of the petroleum and construction industries. The lead characters include a publicity-shy billionaire and a charismatic politician.
Throw in feats of engineering wizardry, staggering amounts of money, controversy and salacious rumor and what you have is a runaway bestseller.
Or the construction of the RM1.8bn Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest buildings at 452m.
One of the thousands of models of the Petronas Twin Towers that were built in the planning phase
So entrenched in the Malaysian psyche are these mirror edifices, it's difficult to imagine a time when the Twin Towers weren't part of the Kuala Lumpur skyline.
They've become a national and cultural icon, so much so that their image keeps popping up in the most unlikely places - on a made-in-Japan jigsaw puzzle and the back of a London bus to name a few quixotic examples.
Commercials also love using them as a backdrop for their products, no doubt with the hope of getting a free ride on the towers' afterglow.
But horse racing fans will recall the 80s when the present site of the RM4bil Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), of which the towers form a significant part, was home to the Selangor Turf Club, and the scene of jodphur-clad jockeys astride gleaming thoroughbreds.
Then, the weekend traffic jams along Jalan Ampang were legendary.
It was with the intention of easing the traffic congestion in the area that the government, in the early 80s, directed the Selangor Turf Club to move out of the city.
That decision was akin to opening a Pandora's box.
Suddenly, a prime 40ha piece of land, worth hundreds of millions of ringgit, in the heart of KL was now free for redevelopment.
The possibilities of what to do with it seemed endless...
The first proposal was to turn it into a park, a green lung in the middle of traffic-choked KL and a respite from city life.
That was what the authorities promised. Which is why when word got out that the park would be part of a larger commercial development instead, nature lovers kicked up a fuss.
The government was accused of going back on its word, of favoring big business over public interest.
Furthermore, many wondered how the infamous traffic snarls in Jalan Ampang could be solved if more buildings were going to be built in the area.
The government's answer was simply that it would cost too much to develop a 40ha park, much less maintain the park in the years to come.
Introducing a commercial element into the development, it said, would help pay for a scaled-down park.
Assurances were also given that the surrounding roads would be widened and the Light Railway Transit system in place by the time the project was ready.
Artist's impression of the Twin Towers
When the business dimension entered the picture, so did one of Malaysia's most successful tycoons, T. Ananda Krishnan.
Not much is known about this Harvard-educated businessman who likes to keep a low profile. (A request for an interview for this story was declined.)
But it's a well-known fact that his global business empire spans from satellites, telecommunications, broadcasting, gaming to oil and gas.
It was his company, MAI Holdings, that got the green light to develop the area vacated by the Turf Club.
And it was his company that was pivotal in coming up with the master plan for KLCC.
The plan involved turning the site into an integrated mixed-use development; a place, according to the promotional literature, "where people can work, live, visit, shop and enjoy leisure and cultural activities."
Twenty-two plots in the area were earmarked for office buildings, a mosque, a shopping complex, condominiums and hotels - all of them encircling a 20ha landscaped park complete with a children's playground and jogging track.
At one point there was talk that the park would have a huge lake to allow for boating and other water sports. But safety concerns nipped that idea in the bud.
In the process of thrashing out the master plan, it was also decided that the development would be staggered, as a way to ward off a property glut in KL.
And the first stage would be the "Northwest Wing" undoubtedly the choicest location in the development, facing the junction of Jalan Ampang and Jalan P. Ramlee.
It was about this time, in early 1991, that Petroliam Nasional Berhad, better known as Petronas, was approached to come in as a partner and co-developer of KLCC and in Sept 1992, Kuala Lumpur City Centre Berhad was officially formed, with Petronas holding a 49.5% stake, MAI Holdings 48% and minority shareholders the remaining 2.5%.
Petronas' involvement further fuelled an already growing interest in the development, particularly when it was revealed that its new headquarters would be located at KLCC.
With the financing of the development secure, the scene was now set for the building of a "world class landmark".
Right from the time the KLCC project was first mooted, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad had maintained a keen interest in its development.
"For the Petronas headquarters he wanted a building that would be identifiably Malaysian, that was of world class standards and which Malaysians could be proud of," says Petronas Chairman Tan Sri Azizan Zainul Abidin.
Artist's impression of KLCC
Thus when an international design competition for the northwest development of KLCC (which included The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, KLCC Suria, Maxis Tower and Esso Tower) was held in mid-1991, a similar brief went out to architectural firms.
It was a "by invitation" competition - meaning only architectural firms with proven track records in designing developments of this scope and complexity were invited to participate.
Eight international firms presented their designs to an audience comprising the board of Petronas and KLCC.
Their designs of the Petronas headquarters not only had to fit the PM's criteria of being uniquely Malaysian and aesthetically pleasing, they also had to be functional, with optimal maximisation of space.
It was a tall order for many reasons, not the least being Malaysia has no home-grown architectural style that can be easily translated when designing a skyscraper.
Towers with a Minangkabau roof? Or a crescent moon and a star on the pinnacles perhaps? Such representations were deemed too literal, besides failing the functional test.
In the end, the design that impressed was by an American firm based in New Haven, Connecticut.
A former Yale don who went on to start his own architectural firm when he was in his 50s, Cesar Pelli came into the project with a formidable curriculum vitae.
He'd designed the World Financial Center in New York City and the Canary Wharf in London. In 1995, he received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal.
For the Petronas Headquarters, Pelli envisioned two slim 88-storey tower, each with a 44-storey bustle or annex.
With the towers' circumference gradually decreasing, the impression was that of two elegant buildings spiraling heavenwards.
The floor pattern was based on a 12-pointed star - a recurring motif in Islamic architecture. (This was later changed to an eight-point star on Dr Mahathir's suggestion, as being more representative of Islamic design.)
Strengthening the Malaysian touch, local materials and designs would adorn the interior of the two towers.
But the design's piece de resistance was quite possibly the skybridge linking the two buildings.
The bridge was not only meant to serve the functional purpose of facilitating human traffic between the two towers, it also had a symbolic dimension - a sky portal and the gateway to Vision 2020.
Map showing the Kuala Lumpur City Centre
Petronas Towers I & II
Suria KLCC Retail Complex
Office Tower (Menara Maxis, Menara Esso)
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Suffice to say Pelli's design went down extremely well with all concerned, not just because of the Islamic element and inherent symbolism of the sky bridge, but also the 76% efficiency in terms of the space it promised - not easy given the building's large core.
In the beginning, there were no plans to upstage the Sears Tower in Chicago, then the world's tallest building at 443m.
The twin towers were supposed to be distinctive and unique but not the tallest. The original design had the height of the towers at 427m - 16m short of Sears.
In fact, construction was already well underway when one afternoon in 1994, in a meeting over tea, a question was casually put to Pelli by Dr Mahathir.
According to Azizan, who was present at the meeting with Ananda and Abdul Rahim, the Prime Minister asked how many more metres would it take for the Petronas Twin Towers to get the "tallest building in the world" tag.
It was back to the drawing boards, and after some frantic mathematical recalculation, it was deemed doable.
Not by increasing the number of floors, however, but by raising the height of the pinnacles which were originally designed to be much flatter.
To test the viability, another wind tunnel study was carried out to ensure the building could withstand the added height and accompanying stress.
KLCC's Chief Operating Officer Abdul Rahim Naim credits the relative ease with which Pelli's design was adopted and consensus achieved for such an ambitious undertaking to the architect's working style.
His extraordinary attention to detail impressed as did his story-telling presentation style and collaborative attitude he took with the client.
"The way Cesar designs buildings, it takes a long time before you can fully appreciate all the details involved.
"Which was why Pelli had thousands of models built. For instance, several mock-ups were done for the windows alone, one to show how it would look facing direct sunlight and one in the shade," says Abdul Rahim.
Pelli also made a point of presenting alternatives for materials, such as for the windows and cladding.
"His design works not only because it's unique, but because it blends in with the KL landscape. Imagine the twin towers against the Tokyo or New York skyline, it just wouldn't work. Conversely, a building as large as New York's World Trade Centre would have been an eyesore here but it's perfectly suited to that city," says Abdul Rahim.
Planning for the construction of the twin towers took place throughout 1992.
The last race at the Selangor Turf Club before making way for the KLCC was in 1992
During this period, the design for the Northwest Wing underwent several reviews to make it more user-friendly.
One of the major changes made included moving the car park to the basement, which was originally designed to be in the upper levels.
This was in reaction to studies which showed that car owners generally don't like going up to park their cars.
Because construction for the twin towers was going to be done on a fast track basis, there was also an inherent set of problems which had to be worked out in the planning phase.
"We were issuing tenders based on only 60% of the design, which is one of the reasons why we had to have strong contractors and why the contract for the construction of the towers was given to two consortiums," says Arlida Ariff, who was KLCC planning manager.
Fast track construction also meant buying systems and equipment for the towers, even before construction had started.
Intent on getting the project off the ground with a minimum of glitches, a zealous attitude towards planning prevailed during the pre-construction phase.
Five to seven per cent of the total budget allocated for the twin towers was spent on planning alone.
"We had to build in a very systematic way to control the budget," explains Abdul Rahim. "It was RM3mil for every day's delay and at the height of the construction, RM10mil, so we couldn't afford any slip-ups.
"Also, because we were working in the city centre, there were safety concerns. We couldn't have too many people working on the building."
(At the peak of construction, there were 7,000 working on the site.)
All in all, the project management team spent eight months figuring out everything on the drawing boards - right down to the position of the cranes on the site.
Meetings with all the various contractors and specialists working on the project were also held every two or three weeks.
With so many of the core team originally from a petroleum company, it was inevitable that construction standards in the oil and gas industry, (which are more exacting than conventional construction standards) were adopted in the building of the towers.
In 1992, several of the project managers were posted to the United States to work with design consultants there.
In addition, soil tests, which went down an amazing 100m, were done.
By early 1993, with the two project teams for the Towers in place, work on the foundation began.
While a lot of time had been spent trying to project every conceivable problem that could crop up during construction, with the world's experts weighing in with their advice, for the team of local and foreign architects, engineers, contractors and builders, the real challenges were just beginning.
They knew they were in the process of creating twin skyscrapers like no other in the world, but what lay ahead no one quite knew.
Timeline of the site development
1896 - Selangor Turf Club is established with Sir Frank Swettenham as president and the first races are held at the Jalan Ampang race course.
1957 - The "Great Floods" prevent visiting horses from reaching the club by land. Ferries were used to bring them in.
1960 - Sunday racing replaces Wednesday races.
1981 - Government decides the turf club has to relocate to ease the infamous traffic jams.
1988 - The STC buys 255 acres (102ha) of disused mining land in Sungai Besi for its relocation.
1989 - The STC hosts the prestigious Queen Elizabth II Commonwealth Cup to commemorate her visit to Malaysia.
1990 - MAI Holdings gets the go-ahead to turn the 40ha into mixed used commercial development, including a 20ha landscaped park.
Early 1991 - Petronas is invited to become a partner in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre development.
Mid-1991 - International "by invitation only" design competition is held. Eight firms submit proposals.
Aug 1991 - Cesar Pelli's design is declared the winner.
Aug 1992 - Last race is held at the Turf Club and the land vacated.
Sept 1992 - Kuala Lumpur City Centre Berhad, a joint venture between Petroliam Nasional Berhad and MAI Holdings, is officially launched.
March 1993 - Excavation for the twin towers foundations begins.
IMPORTANT: This article was part of the Merdeka/Independence Day celebration in Malaysia by The Star Online (www.thestar.com.my). Excerpts are shown here for relevance.