Komtar: Malaysia’s Monument to Failed Modernism

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Komtar: Malaysia’s Monument to Failed Modernism
An early model for Komtar

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Komtar: Malaysia’s Monument to Failed Modernism
An early model for Komtar

George Town’s failed future proved fruitful ground for a thriving migrant hub, but once again evictions loom with tourist-driven gentrification plans.

Envisioned as a comprehensive urban renewal project, Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (Komtar) in George Town, Malaysia has had a troubled history. Part slum clearance, part town hall, the complex was intended to provide a ‘New Urban Centre’ away from the colonial-era civic district. With a landmark office tower over a commercial podium, series of residential blocks, and a geodesic dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller, Komtar was to be a flagship example of modernist planning.

Instead, the building has ended up as a monument to the failures of modernism. Plagued by fire during construction, left incomplete, and gradually abandoned by commercial tenants, Komtar is now largely seen as an eyesore by locals and visitors alike. Yet despite these setbacks, Komtar endures with an incredible stubbornness. Beneath the tower that houses government offices, migrant workers have colonised the warren of commercial spaces, creating a lively transnational space. New multi-million ringgit plans to augment the main tower with external elevators and a rooftop restaurant promise to inject new life to the precinct. It remains to be seen whether these plans will revive the ailing complex, however, or if Komtar’s neoliberalisation will be yet another bumpy chapter in the building’s story.

Like a modernist campanile, Komtar is the landmark by which people in George Town orientate themselves. For decades, it was the only skyscraper of note on Penang Island, sailing over the terracotta roofs of the historic city below. The tower was envisioned as the crowning glory of a ‘New Urban Centre’, and for a moment, it seemed like this dream might be realised. When the main tower topped out, Komtar was among the tallest buildings in Asia. […]

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