Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Making Sense of Putrajaya (and other similar capital city developments)

I am not an architect or urban planner by profession but have involved directly, professionally with several urban mega city developments in Dubai. It is something that I cherish for being able to expand my horizon and enrich my own experience in areas that used to be my childhood dream.

At one time I was given the role as 'Development Manager' for a city project A long way from my 'IT or computer science' academic background.

Currently, I am currently involved with certain mixed development projects in two distinctive up-and-coming 'cities' in new Dubai. One billed as 'The new business capital .' There was one time another mega project that claimed to be the new Dubai capital, it was aborted due to the global financial crisis. Abu Dhabi has a new capital city as well, which will span an area of 4,900 hectares and be located about 15km from Abu Dhabi city and would be able to accommodate three million people by 2028...that's a long way to go.

The word capital reminds me the used-to-be-called new capital of Malaysia, which is now coined as the administrative capital, Putrajaya. Does it mean the business capital is still Kuala Lumpur?

However, I do not really like Putrajaya for some personal reasons. It is nice city, awesome (aloof) architecture but for common people to deal with government departments and agencies, it would be very much desired to have better transportation links to other parts of old cities. Parking in certain areas of Putrajaya is also a problem. I could be wrong as there could be some improvements.

Building democracy

Architecture Inside Out

WHEN I first laid eyes on the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya, and when I first looked over the country’s new administrative capital, I said to myself that this building and the city it is in will be emulated in other states, even in local municipalities, if on a lesser scale.

Needless to say, I was right: Penang announced its own version of Putrajaya a while back; and the word “Putrajaya” itself now seems synonymous with the ideal architecture of statehood, domes and all.

The Skudai municipality (in Johor) where I live has embellished its streets with ornamented roadways, Art Nouveau lampposts and expensive sculptural landscaping. Everyone seems to be competing to see who can be the biggest, the most lavish and the most grandiose in following in the footsteps of the shiny new city of Putrajaya.

Meanwhile, there is little effort to lay pedestrian-friendly pavements in the streets, make proper crossings for school children, and provide enough libraries, temples, community centres and useable public furniture. The first lesson of democratic architecture has been lost when what is discernable is architecture for the few and not for the many.

This building speaks of aloof imperialism

Single ethnic references

For an example of what I mean by architecture for the many, one has only to look at the building in which Parliament sits, in Kuala Lumpur. The Parliament building makes no specific ethnic reference, which is one aspect of democratic architecture. Such architecture either uses all ethnic references or none at all.

To emphasise one particular ethnic reference is quite out of sync with a Constitution that guarantees equal rights to all. Granted that Malaysia is, historically, a country of the Malays, but need one shout that message so loudly that one risks breaking eardrums?

The PM’s office in Putrajaya attempts to claim a Muslim heritage with its domes and emphasises its Malay ethnic origins. The Parliament building, on the other hand, sports an international style that makes no ethnic references; instead, it uses this country’s tropical heritage as its dominating theme.

And the ribbed prism on its podium speaks universally of a traditional roof heritage common to most ethnic groups in this region.

Though some architects may frown at my idea of a multi-ethnic, eclectic approach, the fathers of architectural semantics say that such an approach is viable. Of course, to subscribe to this approach, architects have to stretch their minds a little to do some thinking rather than sticking to their usual modus operandi of “typological copying”.

Regionalism and accountability

The Parliment building is more democratic.
Next, let us venture into the realm of architectural regionalism. Regionalism as an approach found favour among architects looking to conserve energy.

In Malaysia, experiments with regionalism produced some marvellous buildings, such as the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur with its use of generous serambi (veranda) areas, air wells and light courts with ventilated wall assembly.

The Parliament building did not go as far as the National Mosque but it does display the famous “pineapple skin” that some say functions as a sun shading device.

It matters not whether there is a great saving of energy in relation to the tower’s cooling load; what matters is that the message of democracy is clear: elected leaders simply cannot mess around with public money held in trust. The money belongs to the people who are the true “bosses” in a democracy.

What does Putrajaya show in reference to minding public funds? There is no discernable attempt to create any kind of shading device or serambi that would act not only to cool the building but also to welcome the people. Its palatial French architecture is clearly an out and out imitation since palaces in temperate climes don’t need shading devices.

Undemocratic language

The architectural language used in Putrajaya is very “imperial” as opposed to the “business as usual” architecture of the Parliament building.

In his writings and speeches, renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) always criticised “palatial” architecture (as exemplified by the federal buildings in Washington DC). He was, in fact, imprisoned for a day when he refused to retract his cutting comments.

Wright felt that by emulating the architecture of aristocratic or autocratic regimes of the past, Washington’s architects did not attempt to portray the new ideals of democracy, which lays the reins of governance in the people’s hands.

Wright’s architecture always chose asymmetrical massing over symmetry, the use of the horizontal expression as a symbol of humility to the “Earth as the Nurturer”, and the celebration of local materials as economic products of weathered quality.

Palace-like architectural characteristics of strong hierarchical symmetry and expensive materials and ornamentation amidst deep setbacks of lavishly landscaped gardens is truly in stark contrast to, say, Parliament House in London.

I feel a sense of a sure and strong nation when I look at this building in London because of its easy accessibility to the public. The building is a stone’s throw from where people walk every day and that speaks volumes about the idea of a democratic nation.

To those who expound the virtues of security in the palatial French format, I wish to say that, in a democracy, the best security is not walls, setbacks and electronic surveillance but simply the idea that if one leader dies, there are many others who can easily take over – unlike in a monarchy, whose very survival depends entirely on the survival of offspring.

Democratic architecture should not hide behind thick walls and setbacks. It should be on the street where the people walk. This would be a true testament to the fact that this is a government of the people for the people and by those very same people. Though the location of Malaysia’s Parliament building is somewhat elitist, set as it is in the midst of much landscaping, the building clearly does not pretend to be a palace behind high walls.

The designers of state architecture would do well to keep this in mind and create buildings that “meet” the people rather than hide behind grand landscaping or walls.

The National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur is a fine example of energy-saving modernist architecture.

The spirit has been lost

There are so many more issues surrounding the idea of democratic architecture in Malaysia.

In our book, Konsep Perbandaran Islam: Suatu Gagasan Alternatif, Rosdan Abdul Manan and I toy with the idea of a public square in the middle of the country’s capital that is completely accessible to the public – the medan, or public square, is a powerful symbol of a true democracy.

State and federal buildings and mosques are relegated to the perimeter in an asymmetrical layout. We also suggest placing a cemetery adjacent to the square within view of the executive structures. This is to remind the leaders of their mortality and, hence, that the power vested in their persons is but fleeting.

Malaysia’s Parliament was built during the heyday of modernism when metaphorical references were frowned upon. It could not help but be what it is. So, in the absence of a serious study on what influenced its design, I would attribute its democratic architecture to an accident.

Putrajaya, however, was a deliberate act. In one sense, the imperial message it broadcasts does indeed exemplify the nature of “democracy” in Malaysia where many citizens are completely apathetic about the idea of “power to the people”. Yet, as a Malay, a Muslim and as a Malaysian, I cannot bring myself to accept this language as the ideal embodiment of the original spirit of the Malaysian Constitution.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lecturer Prof Dr Mohamad Tajuddin passionately believes that architectural design that respects cultural values, religious sensitivities and the ideals of democracy is vital to nation-building and harmony. Share your thoughts about his monthly column at

‘Konsep Perbandaran Islam: Suatu Gagasan Alternatif’ (2001, ISBN: 9-835-20235-4) is available from the publisher’s website,


David said...

I like your way of looking at things, and very much agree with what you said. I work on race theory in relation to film and literature. Let's collaborate on a book project that looks at race and power in all cultural aspects - architecture, film, literature, visual art, etc!

BrightEyes said...

Two links you may be interested in...
(Hishamuddin Rais critique of Putrajaya, the architecture, and its unfriendliness to public transport & pedestrians...)

Judy said...

As a teacher, I tell students to learn world capitals by going over them many times. Now, I also made these flashcards for them to try and learn them easier. Its quite simple to create these flashcards even for a technology newbie like me!

crazy said...

as someone in the building industry im most happy to see that many malaysians even the common laymen can't make sense out of putrajaya.

looks like there's still some hope for malaysia..