Some of the finest examples of modern Islamic architecture stand proud in Malaysia’s capital. We put the spotlight on the loftiest landmarks
From the Taj Mahal in India to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Turkey and the Alhambra in Spain, some of the world’s most magnificent buildings are products of the Islamic world. Its unforgettable architecture is so distinctive that visitors might be inspired to ask what it took to erect such stunning structures: Who dreamed them up? How many hands were required? How many years did it take to complete them? The exquisite, symmetrical structures catch the eye from afar and, owing to the intricacy and craftsmanship of their mosaics and stone carvings, are just as inspiring up close.
Few cities in the world boast architecture as varied as that of Kuala Lumpur. Dotting Malaysia’s capital is an eclectic range of buildings, an apt reflection of the many cultures that have played a part in the city’s development. Visitors with sharp eyes for architectural styles will note influences ranging from Tudor, Victorian and Gothic to Chinese, Malay, Dravidian and Grecian-Spanish.
Also read: Kuala Lumpur city guide
However, given that Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, it’s the Islamic architecture that best defines the cityscape. Unlike in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, where many of the most significant Islamic-style buildings are ancient, Kuala Lumpur’s tend to date from the past 100 years or so. This despite the fact that Islam arrived in Malaysia in the early 1300s, where it flourished for the next century under the Malay Sultanate of Malacca.
Islam’s place in Malay society, however, took a big step back when the sultanate fell in 1511 to the invading Portuguese, the precursor to 450 years of colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Most of the mosques erected during this period were smaller than their modern-day counterparts. Made of wood and raised on stilts in the style of traditional Malay homes, they also differed markedly from mosques found elsewhere in the Islamic world.
When Malaysia gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, the government launched a campaign of constructing grand Islamic-style buildings. By far the best-known of these is the Petronas Twin Towers (Kuala Lumpur City Center; +60 3 2331 8080; www.petronastwintowers.com.my). In designing this 452m-tall skyscraper, Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli incorporated a host of Islamic symbols. Pelli made the footprint of both towers an eight-point star resembling the Rub el Hizb, a celebrated motif in Islamic art. This symbol, which in Arabic calligraphy denotes the end of a chapter, is most famously employed in Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.
The former headquarters of Petronas in Kuala Lumpur, the Kompleks Dayabumi (Kuala Lumpur City Center), makes even more striking use of the Rub el Hizb. The motif is repeated thousands of times across the towering office building’s exterior walls. Also adorning the Twin Towers and the 35-story Kompleks Dayabumi are a raft of other geometrical designs and calligraphy, which are two of the three key elements of Islamic art. The other element is arabesque style, which refers to intricate, ornamental designs that include interweaving lines or linear motifs.
Motifs are central to Islamic art and thus to Kuala Lumpur’s Muslim-style architecture. Throughout the city, geometric designs, Arabesque and calligraphy adorn mosques, palaces, places of business, homes and public buildings. Qur’anic verses are typically etched or inlaid on the walls of these structures in beautiful, precise calligraphy.
Ultra-modern structures like the Twin Towers and Dayabumi Complex certainly have their place but no building is more central to life in Malaysia, or to life in the Muslim world generally, than the mosque. Whereas older, Malay-style mosques had been limited in size owing to the fact they were built of wood, many of Kuala Lumpur’s new masjids (the Arabic word for “mosque”) are gigantic, capable of accommodating thousands of worshippers.
The city’s two most noteworthy mosques, Masjid Negara (Jalan Perdana; www.masjidnegara.gov.my) and Masjid Wilayah (Jalan Duta; www.masjidwilayah.gov.my), are modern structures with very different looks. The design of each building draws on a number of Islamic architectural styles. While mosques across the globe tend to share a few common design traits — among them the presence of domes, minarets, courtyards, mimbars (prayer pulpits) and mihrabs (prayer niches) — there are a number of distinct branches of Islamic architecture. The most dominant of these are Ottoman (Turkish), Persian (Iranian), Mughal (Indian) and Moorish, the last of which is most commonly seen in Spain and North Africa.
The Masjid Wilayah displays a blend of Malay and Middle Eastern design influences. However, it borrows especially heavily from the Ottoman style, which is regarded as the most grandiose of the major branches of Islamic architecture. Also known as the Federal Territory Mosque, the Masjid Wilayah was built 15 years ago and bears a strong resemblance to Istanbul’s gorgeous Sultan Ahmed Mosque. The 44th of KL’s government-built mosques, it’s adorned by 22 blue, Ottoman-style domes and flanked by two towering minarets that are strikingly similar to those that embellish Saudi Arabia’s renowned Masjid Nabawi. The high, curved arches found throughout the mosque’s grounds reflect the influence of the Persian branch of Islamic architecture.
A giant minaret is also a central element of the Masjid Negara’s design. Built shortly after Malaysia’s independence in 1965 and also known as the National Mosque of Malaysia, the Masjid Negara boasts an even more eclectic architectural style than the Masjid Wilayah. Fusing elements of art and architecture from Spain, India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it’s an enchantingly complex structure. Topped by a 73m-tall minaret, the mosque’s 16-point green-and-blue concrete dome is meant to resemble a royal umbrella, thus highlighting the building’s significance as a national monument.
The umbrella pattern is particularly captivating when viewed from the middle of the giant main prayer hall, whose ceiling is engraved with Qur’anic verses. Outside the hall, on the mosque’s wide, marble-floored verandas, sunlight filters in through the eight-pointed star symbols of the Rub el Hizb, thousands of which are connected in a grid on the exterior walls. The Masjid Negara is arguably Malaysia’s most stunning architectural landmark. Its style reflects the many different branches of Islamic architecture that together make the Kuala Lumpur cityscape so compelling.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Smile magazine.