Undoubtedly, architecture is a field that can neither be understood nor interpreted in an ambiguous and one-sided manner. On a similar note, explication of a building’s meaning seems a good option in cognition of the essence of a building in itself and veiled factual knowledge it is likely to incorporate within its walls, though this approach is debated from the perspective of actual architectural design. Specifically, an architectural site should be perceived as “a self-contained sign system” embodied in “a series of transpositions” and these features allow attributing a specified dynamic and evolving meaning to the building and reading it. In order to test the validity of this method as proposed by Whyte, the representation of intertextuality of Petronas Twin Towers in the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, is used as a centerpiece of the analysis. Specifically, the essay aims to explicate the building’s meaning based on the photography of this architectural setting retrieved from the online media resource, namely the site called Paradise in the World, which is a tourist destination website. In this respect, the paper traces the cumulative meaning of the building through the discussion of its discursive characteristics and their interrelation. In addition, an attempt is made to understand how these elements make the site an object of architecture. Finally, a conclusion is drawn in terms of the actual meaning conveyed by the building.
To start with, the initial element for smooth and comprehensive reading the architecture involves understanding of such characteristics of a building as “instrumental”, “ornamental and symbolic,” functional, being a “subject to the world of physics” and “an art form”. At first glance, the photograph from the aforementioned site shows Petronas Twin Towers from the down-to-top aspect that seemingly emphasizes the power of the twin towers as compared to powerlessness, or at least, small size of the audience.
With regard to the presented comparative features, the meaningfulness of the discussed building can be considered rather explicitly. Foremost, given the fact that the type of the building is a skyscraper, the instrumental components of the site involve the usage of materials and instruments to ensure that the structure is high and steady both in terms of capability to accommodate individuals and relevant artifacts and keeping the balance of the verticality of construction. From the visual representation of Petronal Twin Towers, it is evident that the neighboring towers should be rather stable being united by a rounded hall on the ground part and the bridge between 41 and 42 floors with supportive constructions linked to the opposing buildings. The latter looks like a person with widely spread hands and legs that help the two towers do not fall on one another, similarly to Da Vinci’s vitruvian man vector. Thus, the above aspects resemble the nature of the building as a skyscraper.
In addition, the factors of ornaments and symbolism are inevitably united in the building. The picture shows that it is not a simple construction decision. On the contrary, the building has incorporated a variety of forms. Regardless of that the exterior does not reveal specific ornaments, the geometric motif is accurately traced within its constraints. The hall is of rounded shape, similarly to the columns that are parts of the towers rather than mere decorations. The towers themselves look like polygonal stars. In fact, these are “8-pointed stars into whose re-entrant angles 8 semi-circles are then inserted”. Apart from that, windows are arranged as 16 continuous protrusions having “horizontal sun-shading devices”. If to observe the photo closer, it is possible to see a series of steps on the buildings. At the same time, mosques often have columns that specifically frame the places of prayer though as part of the interior rather than exterior. Moreover, while in Islamic temples columns are used as support for the roof, Petronas Twin Towers applied these modes as supporters for its steady balance. In any case, these features altogether allow identifying the symbolic characteristics of the towers as resembling to Islamic mosques. In accordance with the rationale by Guan, these traits are similar to those in Melaka mosque and the towers in Penang’s Acheen Street. Hence, geometry of the skyscraper is used not only for instrumental but also symbolic purpose.
In this light, symbolism can be explicated as another tool that extends the meaning of the analyzed building, to a sufficient degree. Loo has aptly noted that Petronas Twin Towers was meant to rewrite the post-colonial landscape of Kuala Lumpur by preserving “a new version of Islam”. Indeed, as indicated in a previous part of the analysis, instrumental features of West-origin skyscrapers have clear implications of Orient religion-mediated design. Apart from the aforementioned elements, the foundation of the towers is two interlocking squares which are the core symbols of Islamic traditional architecture that has been considered as a symbol of “unity within unity, harmony, stability and rationality”. Simultaneously, designers have alleged the pinnacles to resemble Islamic minarets. Therefore, while Western skyscrapers are mostly stereotyped as business centers, this Malaysian architectural site has embedded religious symbolism of the East as a unique constituent of association of an office building with a place of prayer.
As a result, this factor entices one to specify the functionality of Petronas Twin Towers as a notable aspect of its cultivated meaning. With 88 floors above the ground, the building is operating as an office for numerous companies. Thus, the primary functional role of twin towers is duplicated from the Occident world. On a similar note, based on the earlier explicated factor of religious symbolism of this skyscraper, there is a need to emphasize that, most likely, its functional role is twofold. On the one hand, the place is a common office area as relevant for determination of such architectural sites. On the other hand, its symbolist functionality within a nationwide and global context as the first tallest skyscraper beyond the western borders should not be underestimated.
In addition, a functional significance of a place is inseparable from observation of its physical characteristics, especially when considering a complex skyscraper structure. The photograph depicted Petronas Twin Towers as a sky-reaching object, thus, potentially vulnerable to the wind force along with a possibility of unfavorable seismic characteristics as parts of the meaning-making. Drawing upon Thornton, Hundspruke and Joseph (1997), taking into account the structural balance loading of the twin towers, the studies showed that “force-balance and ANSI/ ASCE [wind standard and seismic ground] values were very close”. By the same token, while aeroelastic indices demonstrated “slightly reduced base forces at one tower and slightly increased base forces at the other,” the research evidenced favorable results of force-balance tests in terms of occupant response. Thus, overall, the picture also evidenced strong architectural positioning of the building that is supported with scholarly evidence and makes the site capable of performing all its functions.
In terms of considering the analyzed skyscraper as an art work, the set of aforementioned features allows defining this fact explicitly as well. Specifically, art implies an embodiment of the use of imagination in order to express artist’s feelings or ideas. Indeed, the discourse characteristics in the scope of intertextuality are unified into a single idea, namely, showing a symbolic magnificence of the whole Malaysia nation, with its deep-rooted religious beliefs and eagerness to be relevant for contemporary time simultaneously. In this regard, Petronas Twin Towers has become an artwork of a new, Malaysian Islamic architecture that was both “globalist and modernist”, as opposed to common Indo-Saracenic style that was dominant previously, with no outside decorations.
One more important aspect of meaning-making in an architectural sense, as introduced by Whyte, is a capacity of a building to involve a variety of media and genres while interpreting its meaning. Based on the findings of the paper, the analysis and subsequent construction of the building’s meaning mostly derives from the context of scholarly evidence on the topic. However, the angle of interpretation of Petronas Twin Towers in these textual analyses varies. To illustrate, Guan along with Roth and Clark have tended to emphasize the symbolism of the building as an architectural site that combined Orient traditions and background with modernist capacities of the Occident part of the world. Similarly, Loo has considered symbolic implications from the perspective of post-colonial Malaysia as its attempt to globalize the perception of the country in the world. In contrast, Thornton et al. have specifically focused on physical characteristics of the building to understand its ‘survival’ implications. Referring to the website which was a source of the analyzed picture, one can trace the intertwined patterns of physical powers, symbolism, ornaments, functionality, socio-cultural and history-specific interpretations. Thus, reference to a variety of media and genres allows one constructing a more objective and well-reasoned position with regard to the meaning of this skyscraper. In this way, it can be deduced that a holistic composition of an actual meaning depends on multidimensional consideration of the building on the grounds of multifactorial sources.
At the same time, Whyte has aptly noted that, “as a structure evolves from conception to construction and then to interpretation, both the intention of the creator and the meaning comprehended by the interpreter may change”. The statement is valid with respect to the discussed building. Specifically, it is commonly known that “skyscrapers are a primary symbol of a nation’s modernity and economic progress” and “even more powerful symbol for a nation to possess would be the world’s tallest skyscrapers”. Undoubtedly, such a purpose of conceptualizing the meaning of Petronas Twin Towers can be explicitly traced as an initial goal of the company that initiated the project. Being positioned as a developing post-colonized state at the early 1990s, Malaysia wished to conduct a leap of fate and shift from Third to First-World ranking in an instant pace. Hence, the initial meaning of the building was as stated above.
On the other hand, in the process of planning, the primary idea has substantially evolved. Following the other photograph on the same site, the conception of the Malaysian skyscraper experienced a paradigm shift from an implication of impressive and self-sustained economic and political statement to understanding that this place is not a densely accommodated office space but minarets at the final stage of its construction. Indeed, figure 2 below shows Petronas Twin Towers as a part of the urban landscape and reveals its dominant positioning with respect to other buildings. While it looks like an integral element of the overall landscape due to repeated design patterns of the building (e.g. windows’ arrangement and shapes of facade), the towers are above all other sites. Similarly, Islamic mosques are traditionally the highest buildings in the areas that emphasize their traditional significance and superiority over other architectural sites. In this way, it is possible to assume that the analyzed building has incorporated the multilayer meaning in the context of “a visible past, a visible continuum, and a visible myth of origin”.
This transition has been accurately explicated by Hays, when he stated that, “if in an earlier historical moment it was the economy that was dominant in ‘the last instance’, . . . then in our present social formation, it is a very particular cultural-esthetic region and set of esthetic practices that have spread their weight and their influence over all others”. Therefore, Petronas Twin Towers has demonstrated smooth evolution from a politico-economic meaning to that of socio-cultural context.
With a reference to Althusser, the actual meaning of the analyzed architectural site can be considered on the grounds of “tenacious obviousnesses (ideological obviousnesses of an empiricist type) of the point of view of production alone, or even of that of mere productive practice (itself abstract in relation to the process of production)” “integrated into our everyday ‘consciousness’” (n. pag.). In other words, the building of Petronas Twin Towers has rather explicitly manifested the intended and initially conceptualized meaning of its architectural sense discussed from different perspectives. To the most part, these twin-towers have managed to precisely represent the “centrality of Malay Islam identity, tropical representation and the notion of the progressive/ modern” as ordered by the local authorities to the American architect company. Thus, the building can be regarded as an evolutionary manifestation of alignment of political, cultural, socio-economic, planning and design characteristics for the purpose of creation of an architectural site as representative of nation’s blended traditional and newly acquired values. This was the situation of the skyscraper’s interpretation given the evidence from the context and discourse of the 1990s’ perspective.
On the other hand, contemporary world dictates the trends of sustainability as common and, eventually, most important meaning-making drivers. As aptly noted by Yusoff, Noor and Ghazali, “a desire by certain parties to attract new tall buildings as new tangible symbols and landmarks trigger the concern over the impact of such buildings on existing city skyline and its image and character”. Indeed, observing the pictures clearly shows that Petronas Twin Towers has impacted the skyline of Kuala Lumpur and, probably, somehow imbalanced the overall rather smooth and cohesive urban landscape. Nonetheless, this position can become the starting point for another aspect of interpretation of the skyscraper’s meaning that would have extended Whyte’s framework to inclusion of design elements in making the meaning of the building. As for now, the actual meaning of the site is embedded in its capability to connect global and local, along with socio-economic and political features of Malaysian society in a flawless and esthetic manner.