The unrivalled symbol of modern Malaysia, they dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Towers are 1,483 feet tall but, apart from the staggering height, it is their unique, unmistakable design that astonishes. They were the outcome of the genius of César Pelli, the great Argentine-born American architect who designed some of the tallest and most admired skyscrapers in the world before his death in 2019. These twin buildings are owned by the Petronas group, the national Malaysian oil and gas company, which gave its name to the whole structure.
From 1996 to 2004, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers occupied a place on the podium of the tallest buildings in the world and still hold the record in the twin towers’ category. Their construction can be seen as the architectural symbol of the rapid economic growth of Malaysia in the nineties, as well as the firm determination of the administration to provide the country with buildings that would be the focus of international interest and attention. The Petronas Towers can therefore be seen as the manifestation of the new status of Malaysia, facing the new century as a mature country from the economic and industrial point of view.
The construction of the Petronas Twin Towers
The Petronas Towers can be seen from anywhere in Kuala Lumpur and it is now impossible to imagine the city’s skyline without these two imposing buildings. Their history began in 1991, when the city’s administration decided to build what was to become the nerve centre of the Malaysian business world. The site chosen was just outside the historic centre, near the old Kuala Lumpur racecourse.
An international competition was announced in which 8 carefully selected firms were invited to take part. It was won by the architecture firm César Pelli & Associates, who convinced the committee with a decidedly appealing concept. The project was completed with the help of Malaysian engineers and Philippine designers. The construction of the Petronas Twin Towers began the following year. The towers were completed in 1998, but the official opening was not until 31 August 1999.
Petronas Towers: numbers and specifications
The two towers each have 88 floors and a total ground floor area of 2,125,872 square feet. An unmistakable feature of the twin towers is the skybridge that connects them halfway up: it is 192 feet long and suspended 558 feet above the ground.
At first glance, the design of the Petronas Towers might look decidedly modern, not unlike those imagined in science fiction movies set in the future. But their design is rooted in pure Islamic culture. The whole idea put forward by Pelli for the Petronas Towers started from a specific Islamic symbol, that is, the Rub el Hizb: this is formed of two overlapping squares, one rotated at an angle of 45% to form an 8-point star. This symbol was used by Pelli to design the plan of both towers, refining and enriching the shape with rounded links: the result is the regular alternation of corners and rounded surfaces that gives the exterior of the Petronas Towers an unmistakable appearance.
At ground level, at the foot of the Towers, there is a 6-storey building that is dwarfed by the colossal height of the Petronas Towers. This houses a philharmonic hall, an art gallery, a library and shops. The towers soar from the sides of this building and gradually taper towards the top.
The particularly extensive foundations are another feature of the Petronas Towers: while all skyscrapers are built on very deep foundations, Kuala Lumpur’s towers are underpinned with a forest of reinforced concrete piles that, in some cases, descend 374 feet below ground. The aim was to make the towers fully resistant to the typically sustained wind that is a feature of this area.
The Petronas Towers are also unique for the material used in their construction: the option of using steel was immediately dismissed because it would cost too much to import so highly-resistant reinforced concrete was chosen, making the two towers among the heaviest buildings in the world: it is said that 300,000 tons were used for each tower. The exterior surface of the towers is covered in glass, aluminium and steel.
The Petronas Towers skybridge
An outstanding feature, as mentioned, is the skybridge that connects them: this also has some interesting aspects. There are two levels, one reserved for the regular tenants of the two towers, the other for the hundreds of people who visit the Petronas Towers every day.
It is fascinating to note that this incredibly high walkway between the 41st and 42nd floors of the two towers is not statically attached but can slide in and out of the buildings when they sway in high winds. This is an extremely safe solution that makes it possible to cross from one tower to another without having to return to the ground floor, as well as ensuring a handy escape route in an emergency. As regards vertical mobility, each of the towers is equipped with a total of 29 “double-deck” lifts (for a maximum 26 passengers) and 9 “executive” lifts.
The Petronas Towers, César Pelli’s most famous work
César Pelli designed many of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. He was responsible for the UniCredit Tower in Milan, for example, which, with its height of 758 feet (thanks to the high spire) is the tallest skyscraper in our country. The Argentine American architect also designed many other outstanding buildings, such as One Canada Square in London, 770 feet tall, the Torre de Cristal in Madrid, 817 feet tall, and the Gran Torre Santiago in Chile, which, at 980 feet, is the tallest building in South America.