Far too often, Malaysia lands itself in global news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Recently, however, the country was splashed across international media outlets for an altogether different achievement: the official topping-out of what is now the second-tallest structure on Earth.
Though the top and final floor was fitted into place back in October, earning Merdeka 118 its bona fides by the official arbiter of such things, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), the latest milestone – the completion of the 160-m spire atop the building – was enough to make the world’s media sit up and take notice.
The soaring tower, rising to a jaw-dropping 678.9 m (2,227 ft) dwarfs everything else in the already-skyscraping Kuala Lumpur cityscape. The most recent completed addition, the 445.5-m (1,462-ft) Exchange 106 tower, looks like little more than the runner-up in a sibling rivalry that was never close to start with. The icon of modern Malaysia, meanwhile, the still-impressive Petronas Towers, slightly edge out Exchange 106, each rising to 452 m (1,483 ft).
Though Merdeka 118, with its RM5 billion price tag, has been roundly criticised by plenty of Malaysians as unnecessary and wasteful, the megatall structure has at least avoided the taint of scandal and corruption that plagues the 1MDB-tethered Exchange 106, a pet project of now-disgraced and convicted former Prime Minister Najib Razak. And if you’ve walked or driven by Merdeka 118 at just the right distance – neither too close nor too far away – it’s hard not to be awed by not just the building’s stupendous height, but by its striking architectural design and dark mirrored façade, too.
WHEN ELEVATION MEETS INSPIRATION
Many skyscrapers of the past have achieved height without vision, setting numerical records without any groundbreaking design. But those which have done both – think the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York City, the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, the World Financial Building in Shanghai, Taipei 101, and of course KL’s own Petronas Twin Towers, just to name a handful – become evergreen icons of their home cities. The 320-m Chrysler Building, for example, was completed in 1930 (it held the title of world’s tallest for a mere 11 months before being bested by the Empire State Building), but the beauty of the tower’s art deco design still stuns and earns praise to this day, nearly a full century later.
Merdeka 118 will doubtlessly achieve such lofty heights literally, but will it do so figuratively, as well? It seems likely, as the design of the skyscraper is genuinely breathtaking. Politicians of the day are certainly beating their chests over it. At a recent ceremony marking the spire’s completion, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob described the project as an “iconic tower for the future.”
Addressing reporters, he said, “This is not only a great achievement in the field of engineering, but it also further strengthens Malaysia’s position as a modern and developed country.” He also explained that the sculptural design of the off-centred spire “reflects the image” of Tunku Abdul Rahman famously raising his hand to shout “Merdeka!” more than six decades ago as then-Malaya claimed its independence.
The Australian architectural firm behind the project, Fender Katsalidis, said in a press release that the triangular and diamond-shaped glass planes on the building’s facade were inspired by patterns found in Malaysian arts and crafts, adding that the design also “symbolically [reflects] the rich cultural mix that defines the people of the country.”
Though Merdeka 118 was expected to be completed this year, work was temporarily halted in March 2020 when the pandemic spurred the first of a series of lockdown measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.
According to a CNN report, Kuala Lumpur’s skyline “has been transformed by skyscrapers in recent decades.” Furthermore, CTBUH names the Malaysian capital as the 13th-tallest city in the world (presumably based on the average height of all tall buildings in the city).
The latest showstopping addition to the KL skyline will be, at least for a time, one of only four megatall skyscrapers on Earth – defined as a building over 600 m in height – joining the Burj Khalifa (828 m) in Dubai, Shanghai Tower (632 m), and the just-barely-squeaked-onto-the-list Abraj al-Bait Clock Tower (601 m) in Mecca.
The mixed-use skyscraper will be serviced by an astounding 87 elevators, and the exterior will ultimately boast 18,144 glass panels comprising over 114,000 sq m (1.227 million sq ft). The building’s exterior will feature 8.4 km of LED lighting strips.
The tower will comprise 118 floors, with another five underground. There will be a Park Hyatt hotel on floors 97 to 111, with the hotel’s swimming pool located on level 99. Even higher up, there will be a restaurant on level 113, an observation deck on level 114, a Skydeck just above that, and on the topmost floor, a VIP lounge. Closer to the ground, there will (of course) be an expansive shopping mall, rather unimaginatively named ‘118 Mall.’
If published plans are accurate, Merdeka 118 will follow in the footsteps of virtually every other major building or mall in the Malaysian capital in not having enough parking available. Plans call for some 8,500 parking spaces under the world’s second-tallest building. That may seem like a lot of cars (and it is), but for comparison, Mid Valley Megamall has over 11,000 spaces, and if you’ve ever fruitlessly wandered the carpark there for half an hour desperately looking for a space – any space – nothing more needs to be said about this.
Regardless of what’s going on under Merdeka 118, though, it’s hard to argue with the sheer dominance of the building over the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The first and only building in Malaysia to earn a triple platinum rating under global sustainability certification standards, Southeast Asia’s tallest building will be at once an icon, a landmark, and a tourist magnet. And at least for a while, Kuala Lumpur will be able to boast being the home of not only what are still the world’s tallest twin towers, but now, also the second-tallest structure of any kind anywhere on Earth.
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