In pictures, the Petronas Towers looked like ornamental salt and pepper shakers, or sometimes, taking into account the skybridge halfway up, they resembled rugby goalposts.
But as the airport taxi glides into the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, dawn’s orange light on the world’s tallest buildings reveals . . . two gleaming stacks of ashtrays crowned with fencing foils.
Poking fun at the twin landmarks probably betrays an inability to comprehend their unique shape.
One popular story has it that an American architect, hard-pressed for ideas, copied the design of his retractable pencil, with the two 72-meter spires representing too much lead sticking out of the nibs of the structures.
In reality, the eight-pointed, star-shaped floor plan that is responsible for the towers’ spiky, barreled bodies is based on an Islamic pattern, with the spires mimicking minarets.
The 452-meter Petronas Towers, for now, rise farther from the ground than any other building, and I have one day — all that a stopover will allow — to get my fill of them. To be able to boast: “Yes, I stood at the top.”
A two-stage approach seems best. First take in the towers from various angles, then scale one of them — preferably in an elevator.
From their base, the Petronas can induce vertigo just looking up them, but it is impossible to appreciate the 9 extra meters they have over the next-tallest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago, which the Petronas overtook in 1996.
In fact, as the World’s Tallest Buildings Web site points out, if the skyscrapers stood side by side, the Sears would look significantly taller.
The discrepancy arises from the Petronas’ spires, the tips of which would outsoar the roof of the Sears. They are considered part of the buildings’ design and are factored into their height, while the Sears’ far loftier broadcast antennas are dubbed extras.
A sightseer soon realizes that even when the Petronas Towers are hidden behind the buildings and foliage on the undulating floor of downtown Kuala Lumpur, the towers are there: in a mural outside a shopping center, on the cover of a business directory, in an advertisement on a passing bus, on the 5-ringgit note.
To outsiders, “Petronas” means the towers. To Malaysians it is also the national oil company, a firm that looms as large as its flagship buildings, which have become Malaysia’s hood ornament and $800 million symbols of prosperity in a developing nation recovering from recession.
Unlike the anorexic Eiffel Tower (another structure synonymous with a city and a point of national pride) the Petronas Towers are not the only domineering personality in town.
Anchored to a hill 1 km away, the 421-meter Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower is the third-highest tower (not building) in the world, opened just a year before the Petronas.
On top of its windowless column sits the six-story head, from which, since it is a telecommunications tower, an antenna mast rises. At night the lit-up head, which houses the observation and restaurant decks, looks like a ballroom chandelier suspended from the black canopy.
More meaningful to my mission however, the KL Tower is the highest promontory in the city from which to take in the Petronas and get acclimatized for their heady heights.
It takes 58 ear-popping seconds in an elevator to reach the observation floor, where there is a 360-degree panorama of a surprisingly lush and spacious city.
The view reinforces what I saw from the airport taxi: that the Petronas have hijacked the skyline, standing apart rather than hidden in a Manhattan-like gaggle of skyscrapers.
An hour later, I don’t know which twin is visible through the glass roof of the shopping mall sprawled out at their feet. Is it the tower that the Japanese construction company built, or the one that the South Korean firm put together?
I forget to ask the uniformed woman at the information desk after she stuns me with her response to my first, seemingly redundant, question: “Can I go up the Petronas?”
“No,” she says, smiling.
It turns out tourists ask her this all the time.
And it isn’t simply a matter of clambering up one of the pyramids when the tour guide isn’t looking. The first-floor security stalls won’t let anybody through without a swipe card.
Every morning, presumably, the chairman of the oil company ascends to some penthouse perch. But ordinary Malaysians are denied the view and romantic rendezvous (a la “Sleepless in Seattle”) at the top of their most well-endowed buildings.
Perhaps that is the point: a Muslim design and the sobriety it entails.
It’s sour grapes of course, but there is some consolation in the knowledge that buildings in Taipei and Shanghai — with their own distinctive shapes — are slated to eclipse the Petronas Towers in the next few years.
And what if I can’t get to the top of one of them either? I’ll ring ahead first.