Around the World with the Aga Khan: Journal Entries from Kuala Lumpur
Arrive in KL for the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture, a triennial event, after 20-hour flight via Stockholm. Bleary-eyed, check into the business-chic Traveler’s Hotel, so new the furnishings still have scraps of wrapping tacked on. Run into old publishing and architectural friends on elevators, in the restaurant, at every turn—French publisher of l’Architecture d’Aujourdhui, Jean-Michel Place, Architectural Review editor Paul Finch, Netherlands Architecture Institute Director Ole Boumon, among others.
Hit the ground running with tour of city, which is ultra-clean, but missing texture. Reminds you of Honolulu without the beach--a mixture of new towers in semi-suburban settings, parks, rain trees in a humid broth you can smell and almost drink. Around a corner, a little house with a tin roof sheltered from the tropical sun and raised off the ground sings its own local song to days as a tin-mining town in the jungle. Wood doesn’t last long in this climate, unless it’s ironwood.
That night, while locals play gamelan music, reception with the Aga Khan, and visit with guests from literally around the world (Kenya, Iran, South Africa, England, Egypt, France, Tajikistan, and on and on) meet and dine over architecture, a universal language that overcomes politics, custom, polarities. And there’s Nader Tehrani from Boston. And over there, Ken Yeang and Norman Foster from London. The tropical rains beat on the tent, erected for the evening, like a bass drum.
Visit the Petronas Towers, which leap up beyond the imagination, huge, reiterated, polished, secure. Take an elevator to 43rd floor and walk across the fabled dual-level bridge, then cram in two more elevators to 85th floor to see Cesar Pelli’s lustrous models of the complex. Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe’s two sons have their own visit to the skybridge while we continue the ascent.
As we already knew, and seeing the twin towers confirm, Pelli has long-mastered the skyscraper form, articulating its rise at every turn, every floor, and the materials (green glass, stainless steel) refract and reflect the sunlight out into the surrounding park. You can’t miss these assertive buildings that anchor the city, whose organization has eluded me, despite multiple trips out in a bus or car. Architecture becomes defining artifact of a new place and an evolving culture.
That night, Aga Khan presents the winners in the philharmonic hall of the Petronas complex, with Prime Minister of Malaysia as co-speaker. Awards recognize a range of projects, from highly complex new work to restoration of existing and forgotten built fabric. As always characterizes the awards, the process is celebrated as much as the artifact, and the complex interweaving of social, economic, geographic, topological, even mythic elements of the projects find resolution in the lives of real clients, real architects, real places.
A series of seminars explores the context, the challenges, the people, and the ideas behind the awards. Nine projects represent almost 300 entries from around the world, and speakers include not only architects but also philosophers, cultural historians, landscape theorists. Three projects, in particular, outline the ongoing, critical nature of the awards—the restoration of two projects in Yemen and the Rehabilitation of the walled city in Nicosia, Cyprus, where opposing sides literally bridged over political boundaries to insure the future life of a shared urban heritage. We will leave Kuala Lumpur exhausted from a long journey, but powered by the possibilities of architecture to alter contemporary life.