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    The towers

    Most of the time since 9-11, I’ve had to remind myself that we’re up against atavists who will stop at nothing to destroy us all. I don’t take the casualties or questions about mismanagement lightly, but it’s a war, after all. Things are proceeding in fits and starts, but they do seem to be humming along.

    The last few days, my feelings have been more in the vein of, Exactly why are we wasting our citizens trying to fix these people’s problems again? Yes, that’s unfair, and no, I don’t really mean it. But I have been sorely in need of a reminder that the era when Islam and civilization could be mentioned in the same sentence isn’t past.

    So I’ve been thinking about the twin towers. Not the twin towers that were lost three years (!!!!) ago, but these:

    petronas_towers.jpg

    (The photograph is from the official Kuala Lumpur Center City website.)

    Atsushi and I went to KL the December after 9-11. When we landed at the airport, I steeled myself to enter a Civic Development theme park, with shiny public transportation and a few showy skyscrapers awkwardly jabbed into the city center. The Petronas Twin Towers, then the world’s tallest buildings, I expected to be impressed but left cold by.

    But our taxi rounded the last bend before you could see the city, and I got that jolt you get when something is so beautiful it hurts. And then I laughed. The photographs I’d seen had been no preparation at all for what the towers actually looked like in nighttime Kuala Lumpur. They were…adorable. They reminded me of the Martians on Sesame Street. They reminded me more literally of Liberty Place in Philadelphia. Their surfaces were craggy and interesting to look at, like draped cloth. They looked as if they’d risen from the ground, like ice columns through clay, rather than having been dropped on KL from on high. From the observation deck of the older KL Tower, they looked like soft-serve ice cream cones.

    I know I’m getting kind of silly here, but living in Tokyo…I love this place, but outdoor Tokyo has to be one of the most aggressively ugly cities on Earth, and the fact that so much money and crack engineering goes into all the ugliness only makes it worse. It’s as if someone had sprinkled Albert Speer spores over the bay shore. Seeing skyscrapers that looked as if they wanted humans to use them, that alluded to something besides the architect’s own ego and the commissioning company’s expense account, was an experience I hadn’t had for ages. And people in KL really did seem to love the twin towers; they positively beamed with pride when we complimented them, or the city in general. And the ground-level shopping arcade and surrounding park were always jammed with people of all kinds.

    There actually is a point to this. The Petronas towers were designed by an American firm; they’re concrete-framed to minimize vibration, and their shape in cross-section is drawn from Islamic patterns. The construction contract for one tower was awarded to a consortium led by Hazama Construction here in Japan, the other to one led by Samsung Engineering and Construction in Korea. It’s not as if old rivalries were invisible; the Samsung tower went up with far fewer hassles than the Hazama tower, and we heard about it.

    But still, at the end of a century that began with colonization and occupation and world wars, you had Americans, Japanese, and Koreans doing a massive development project for an Islamic country with prominent Buddhist and Hindu minorities. It’s important to feel the proper revulsion toward people who offer to hack off heads and blow things up because they’re still stewing over Andalusia this and Ottoman that, but we also need to remember what it is we do and what’s so great about it. Westernization is not a tradeoff-free proposition, but at its best, it gives you both monumental achievement and human-scale improvements to daily life. And they keep happening.

    3 Responses to “The towers”

    1. Kris says:

      An inspirational observation, and I enjoyed reading it. I’ve never thought of the towers as adorable. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to have to go rent ‘Entrapment’ now, just so I can check out the towers again. I think last time I was too dazzled by CZ-J’s ass to see properly.

    2. Sean says:

      I haven’t seen the movie. Does the skybridge between the towers feature prominently? I wouldn’t call myself afraid of heights, but I often, when I first walk up to a picture window on the 30th floor of a building, say, have to take a second for my stomach to adjust. The Petronas skybridge doesn’t look high, because it’s just halfway up the buildings, but that makes it 44 stories up…and man, do you know it while you’re standing on it. You can see out on both sides, ceiling to floor, and, naturally, it shakes somewhat. It was thrilling, and the day was clear, so the view was wonderful; but I got so nauseated I had to go back to the elevator after a minute or two.

    3. Kris says:

      If I’m remembering correctly (again, I have to peek beyond the memories of CTZ’s junk) but I do think there was a whole action-set piece involving the skyway. I wouldn’t want to ruin it if you’re going to rent it sometime, but I do think it’s pretty central to that part of the movie. And does indeed appear to be rather high up.