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ARE THE PETRONAS TOWERS AN EXPRESSION OF THINGS MALAYSIAN OR MODIFIED WESTERN ARCHITECTURE? DOES IT MATTER?

OPINION - WILL ALSOP

Malaysia has thrown off its recent history and returned to an image based on Islam.

Perhaps I should not say 'returned' as this is a modern vision which raises questions about a number of countries that are throwing off an imperial past and searching for a strong and differentiated identity from the West, which is synonymous with imperialism and an imported culture.

Are the Petronas Towers an expression of things Malaysian, or are they a modified version of Western architecture built for a market which responds to the same values as Europe and America? Does it matter?

The contradictions between the desire to be free and historic imported values abound. Differentiation and being part of a global community are difficult ambitions to marry.

Historically Malaysia was not Islamic. The craft of wood carving was originally figurative until the influence of trading with the Arabic parts of the world - which frown on such activity - caused the locals to simply cut off the heads and legs, thus rendering what they did acceptable. The Indians build temples festooned with figures both inside and out, a real exuberant celebration of life. The Chinese brought Buddhism and Islam to the region. All influences were based on trading and maintaining good relations. The culture evolved over centuries and became a strange hybrid.

Tin and rubber brought the British, and in particular the Scots, to Malaysia. These pioneers brought dreams of wealth and memories of home.

As British power became all embracing, it also brought British order. New buildings emerged which reflected the architecture not only of home, but of home tinged with India.

Civic buildings, court houses, governors' houses and railway stations stamped a confidence and authority on the main towns. Apart from the brief interruption of the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, the Brits continued. In the Cameron Highlands, where, because of altitude, the climate is more moderate and strawberries and roses thrive, the Englishmen would retire.

They reconstructed Surrey for their retirement years.

An ambience which continues today, except the new tourist industry is turning it into a high-altitude, jungle-tinged version of the Costa del Sol.

When the Brits left and independence was granted, much of what was left became rundown and in need of repair.

New buildings are of poor quality. Large swathes of housing estates are being built, which makes me think we have more to offer as architects and urbanists today by showing the country how to avoid the mistakes we made, than we did in the colonial period.

The desire to be free of a former culture and to discover and celebrate what is truly Malaysian is probably better understood by someone on the outside. There is an emerging heritage movement which, I believe, will play an important role in shaping the towns and cities. It needs better funding.

Tourism is an important part of the economy but needs access to the past. A warm climate and great beaches are not enough.

In a world community, the threads of our pluralistic culture need to become clear and not transformed into a potentially corrected version of some new sense of identity. A struggle for independence from the past is a sign of insecurity and weakness.

The past has many nuances, blips and embarrassments.

They should all be evident.

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