25 February 2013

An Ode to Looking Up - The Petronas Towers

  My first glimpse.

"There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers' battle with the heavens that cover them. Snow, rain, and mist highlight, drench, or conceal the vast towers, but those towers, hostile to mystery and blind to any sort of play, shear off the rain's tresses and shine their three thousand swords through the soft swan of the fog." - Federico Garcia Lorca, A Poet in New York

I love buildings. 

Buildings make me feel intense rushes of passion; I form weird attachments to them. In Vancouver I have special buildings that I go out of my way to 'visit' - a few 19th century houses in Strathcona, crumbling art nouveau facades in the Downtown Eastside, a forgotten art deco temple on West 10th, a mid-century modern car dealership along Kingsway. Simply being near these buildings satisfies some kind of childlike yearning that I have for fantasy and a fascination with the past.

I tend to form attachments to unlikely structures - I prefer them battered, beaten up and clinging to life. While I love to see a building revitalized and given a new purpose (and of course, as a heritage activist, that is always the goal) there is a part of me that prefers my architectural crushes to be ravaged old beauties; hulking Grey Gardenseque tragedies on the brink of madness and decay. (No comparison to yours truly needed, kthx.) 

 I'm committed to my hobbies. I'm getting a boarding pass tramp stamp next.

The 1930 Marine Building in Vancouver is a perfect example of this fuckery, a whimsical old art deco brute that I love so much I have its stained glass and facade tattooed on my forearm. I'm a bit of a fatalistic, impulsive creature, but I don't regret my choice one bit.

I remember the first time I saw a picture of the Battersea Power Station in a Lonely Planet guide to London. It was like seeing an old friend, or more accurately, like my old and slightly menacing landlady who lived in an apartment stuffed with taxidermy and broken mirrors. She was comforting, yet unsettling.

I took the tube far out of my way to go and see the power station in person. The neighbourhood was eerily empty for the middle of a weekday, and I had to walk through a series of housing projects to get to the river, across which was the huge brick structure. I knew that I was drawing closer, but row houses impeded my view and I remember my pulse quickening as I grew closer. I looked up, and there it was. It felt like my vision rippled a little bit, and I found myself kind of scared -  unnerved by this yawing, monolithic monster. A David Lynch soundtrack played in my head and I wanted to just look up and  stare and stare and stare.

I told you. I love buildings.

By now, with the way I just waxed rhapsodic about early twentieth century industrial structures, you probably think that, like many heritage nerds, I abhor modern architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the brutalism of the the '70s, I love the idealistic pomposity of the '80s and I love post modern skyscrapers, the kind that dot the skies of the newly monied Asian capitals: Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai. The beauty and twisted grace of a tall slab of concrete fills me with delight, and after growing up in a city with a near-universal 40 story limit when I have the opportunity to crane my neck upwards I eagerly take advantage.

Yet after many trips to the low cost airport in Kuala Lumpur, I had never managed to make it to the city itself and to see one of its most tantalizing attractions - the Petronas Twin Towers.

Now I will be honest - I don't particularly love the towers, the tallest buildings in the world from 1996 to 2004 (until they were usurped by Taipei 101) but there is something about their sheer scale that makes my knees a bit weak. As an dedicated 20th century architecture nerd, I wanted to just be near them and look up. Looking up when I am in a city is such a simple action, an action that makes my life so fucking rich and interesting, but it is one that so, so many people forget to do.

                                                The Marine Building in the '50s. It's now surrounded by tall towers.

I have up to 30 visitors with me when I guide tours through the bustling downtown core of Vancouver, and we all stop and stare up - and then something amazing happens. Locals - businessmen in their professional-guy drag, gaggles of office ladies sneaking clandestine cigarettes, food truck avowees waiting for their tacos - they all stop too and curiously point their gaze to match mine. And then I hear them recite my battlecry: "I never noticed that before!" I have had seasoned downtown office workers tell me that they had never actually seen the details on the Marine Building until they saw me nudging a group to love its form as much as I do.

That's the magic of a weird building. A strange, unexpected design forces people to look up, drags their attention from their antfarm day to day paths and reminds them that there is something beautiful and special and bizarre in their lives. That someone had magic in their brain, they put it on drafting paper and then they conducted an orchestra of details to produce something so organic yet so very alien in the centre of a city.

The last time I was in Kuala Lumpur I made sure to go and see the Towers. As I wandered through the gridlock of traffic and tropical heat my pulse quickened, and when I saw the geometric skyscrapers a giddy smile spread across my face. While they do seem a little dated and I am not the biggest fan of their design, their power and their grace was undeniable.

Art. Skyscrapers are art. To quote my favourite poet, Lorca they are "poetic and terrible."

My favourite combination. 

Nerding out like a building groupie.

No comments: