Building an Identity
Nationalism - Cultural Icons - Architecture & The Petronas Towers

Jonathan Bykowski
Fall 2001


Fortune cookies, the Eiffel Tower, and lederhosen all share at least one important distinction, they each signify a particular culture. These symbols, however, typically represent a particular culture to people not of that culture. For example, there is far more to Chinese culture then cookies, however, availability and exposure has led to the fortune cookie as a defining cultural icon in the eyes of other nations. In fact, the fortune cookie is an entirely American phenomenon. A visitor to China won’t find any fortune cookies. Few Chinese would like to be known to the rest of the world for a cookie that they didn’t even create. The fortune cookie is a cultural icon. Cultural icons are those aspects of a culture seen as representative of it by people of a different culture. Often the icons, as in the example of the fortune cookie, were never intended to become symbols by the country itself.
While cookies and leather overalls are examples of icons associated over time, some icons gain instantaneous acclaim and are purposefully designed to do so by a nation. Cultural icons are becoming a favorite means to express nationalism in the light of a growing homogenization among people. Benjamin Barber, a political science professor at Rutgers University compares the concept of globalization to the idea of a “McWorld” seeing the planet as moving to one culture (Barber 1). For Barber, the increased sharing of information and trade in the world today will lead, he sadly concludes, to one international culture. In the face of McWorld, countries are asserting their individual assets as a means to increase awareness of their specific nation.
In this view, monuments and buildings have been symbolic of a culture since the dawn of architecture. The first human beings are known as the “Cave man” for the dwellings they made famous. Notre Dame and the Arc de Triumph in Paris are structures known internationally as French. As the world becomes smaller and smaller, in terms of Barber’s McWorld, nations are turning to structures as opportunities for creating cultural icons. The race for the tallest building has made some Asian cities household words. By building a particularly special building, specifically one, which is taller, more expensive, or more amazing than any other becomes internationally famous instantly. Countries looking to assert themselves as modern powers and shed any past negative stereotypes, such as “third world” or “developing” are turning to architecture to build cultural icons.
The practice of designing cultural icons now falls in the hands of architects. As a result, they grapple with conflicting ideas about how to design spaces that will represent a particular culture. It is often mistaken that architects must infuse some aspect of a culture into one of its building in order for that structure to be considered a cultural icon. In the wake of tall building races and booming technology, today’s most recent icons have little or nothing to do with their cultures and make them famous by association only.
The Petronas Towers recently constructed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia are an example of a cultural icon constructed to give an image to the world. The culturally specific aspects of the towers can be questioned, but their international presence cannot, thus making them successful in their goal to create an icon. Icons do not need to be of a culture to necessarily represent it. Time honored traditional icons such as Inuit igloos have become famous over time, while the fast paced world today can make a glitzy building an instant icon overnight regardless of its design. Size does matter when you are in the business of making icons.

Nationalism and Cultural Icons

As the Internet and new information technology brings peoples closer together and lessens the vast geographic rifts between countries, societies are becoming more and more aware of each other. School children in Germany studying Africa can speak to a class of their peers in Kenya live with a few clicks of a button. Flying around the globe for a weeks vacation is no longer an unfathomable dream. With these luxuries comes the growing importance of an ancient global trend. Establishing nationalism through cultural icons exists deep into the history books. The Egyptian Pyramids as temples to the Pharaohs have long since come to symbolize the advanced desert civilization. The practice of making monuments to culture continues strong today. Countries in the 21st century are expending mass amounts of time and resources to ensure that their society creates a cultural icon.
Nationalism is an individual’s feeling of identity with an ethnic group based on several shared characteristics, such as language, history, and religion (Kelleher 197). Expressing nationalism allows a culture to show itself to another culture different from itself. Causing others to recognize that a people is different from another is particularly important to countries whose very sovereignty may have been in question at a particular time in history. Countries who broke free of imperialist ties during the twentieth century feel a need to assert their identities as different from that seen by the world while they were under colonial rule. Nicholas Kristof describes the nationalism in India that led to the end of British rule and the beginning of a need to create a different identity Kristof 252).
Expressing this nationalism gives way to various creative opportunities. Nations select symbols, songs, and monuments to define their cultures as they see fit. A cultural icon could be a monument such as the White House in America, or a dance such as the American Indian Ghost Dance, or a costume such as the Iranian Chador. By contrast, however, this definition is not always seen as intended by other cultures. Other cultures tend to select icons that they see as indicative of a people. These icons are not necessarily items by which cultures identify themselves; they are items by which other cultures identify them. Modern day Egyptians may not see the Sphinx as representative of Egypt as a country, however members of other cultures might see it as a symbol regardless of its place in history. Cultural icons are deemed so by cultures other then the icon’s own.
Nations attempt to overcome this misidentification by creating icons using carefully prescribed ideas and images. These images can range from political banners, to large-scale cultural performances. North Korea’s Pyongyang Moranbong Circus is a popular venue for entertainment in the socialist country (Sims 1). The 500-member troupe performs daily at a 620-seat dome near the border of South and North Korea (Sims 2). The Circus has achieved international status and is a destination for many Asian travelers. The small performance dome near Mount Kumgang is the only place that non-North Korean tourists are permitted (Sims 2). The performances have become cultural icons for North Korea. Visitors from other Asian countries travel to see the circus perform their internationally award winning show (Sims 3).
The government of North Korea takes great pride in their performers and develops rigorous training programs for them, which can be seen in their performance (Sims 3). Unlike the bull running in Spain, the Pyongyang Moranbong Circus is the only glimpse of North Korea that outsiders see. It has become a cultural icon in part because others have deemed it so, but also because it is the only public glimpse of North Korea to be seen or identified by foreigners. In this case, a government has purposefully prescribed how it will be known by other cultures by limiting exposure it the many facets of its culture. Either way, the circus has come to symbolize North Korea.
North Korea worked with a definitive plan to create its circus cultural icon. For some countries, holding onto the meaning and rights of a time honored traditional icon can require an equally definitive plan. Unlike North Korea, Hawaii did not work to establish one of its major cultural icons, however it has had to work to maintain it. The aloha shirt was developed in the 1930’s and 40’s by silk manufactures in Hawaii (Essoyan 1). Susan Essoyan interviews Dale Hope, president of a textile company in Hawaii. Hope explains that there is more to the aloha shirt then the tacky tourist in black dress shoes and a loud button down shirt. A new wave of popularity has led to the copying of designs by foreign companies looking to compete in the market for the sought after shirts (Essoyan 2). Hope describes how the shirts have come to symbolize the free spirit and individualism of Hawaii (Essoyan 2). “Aloha shirts are no longer limited to Hawaiian themes. They’ve gone way beyond the hibiscus to sports motifs and taro farmers,” Essoyan 2). What Hope is describing is the very concept of a cultural icon. The aloha shirt was seen by others as a wild expression of lazy relaxing and surfing, though that has little to do with its origin. Today people identify any loud print shirt with Hawaii even though only some are actually the authentic variety. For Hope, it is important to understand what makes a real aloha shirt, but for the rest of the globe it has been simplified to outrageously colored flowery shirts, which represent fun in the sun. This cultural icon has transcended a real representation of Hawaiians to represent an idea with little origin in the culture of Hawaii.
Whether a country sets out to establish an icon, or it is highlighted by other peoples, nations are identified by these icons in a world growing closer and closer through the McWorld of information sharing and trade. As the globe becomes smaller and available to more people, countries are beginning to use cultural icons as a means to identify themselves as unique nations. Creating cultural icons spreads nationalism and controls the views of a country seen by others. By creating a specific icon, like the circus in North Korea, a government can help to define how others will perceive it while spreading its national identity.

Architecture and Cultural Icons

One of the three original fine arts according to the Greeks, architecture has been a revered profession for several thousand years. Based on principles of composition, form, and structure, architecture strives to accomplish simple goals. According to Rob Krier, author of Architectural Composition, a text often given to architecture students early in their studies, “Architecture has to provide us with physical shelter from our environment, create a framework for our activities, and above all, express symbolic and ethical values,” (Krier 11). Resting in between the lines of this seemingly straightforward definition is the catch phrase ‘express…values’. Architecture must express a set of values extrapolated from the client and realized by the designer.
A designer might create a building based on the values of expressing the architecture of a building that used to rest on the site. Conversely he might design a building for a historical district which was so modern that visitors could not, even for a moment, think that it had been built at the same time as the others. Both of these examples assign a value system to a building before the design begins. The architect trying to preserve some of the architectural dialogue of the prior building is working toward historic preservation. The architect designing the purely modern building is as well. He aims to preserve the history of the older structures surrounding his site by not trying to make his new building look like them. While one can imagine the end result of these two examples looking quite different, the value system employed to solve the problem was the same.
Societies are not building stone temples or great walls anymore, but they are giving architects the opportunity to shape a nation’s image through other large-scale projects. The tall office building has come to replace the temples to the Greek Gods as the iconographic archetype of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with the birth of Louis Sullivan’s first cast iron tall building in Chicago in the late nineteenth century skyscrapers have been revolutionizing city skylines for over one hundred years (Beedle 3). Since the advent of steel and high strength concrete, up to ten times stronger then traditional concrete, in the 1930’s and 40’s, tall buildings have been rising steadily. As their height became grander so did their symbolism. In America structures like the Chrysler and Empire State buildings rose out of a depressed economy to signify a triumphant strength present in the country (Beedle 5). These buildings became symbols of democracy, capitalism and endurance. Today tall office buildings continue to grow and symbolize the cultures that create them as today’s opportunity for cultural icons.
As architects find themselves wearing the hat of icon creator, one important issue arises. In the design of cultural icons how much of a particular culture should the average person be able to see in the icon? Two varying schools of thought have come to light as a result of this problem. Some architects feel a balance of culture, site (i.e. integration of a new building in an existing urban fabric) and modern techniques must meld together to form a culturally specific building. Other designers call for an end to false cultural objects that resemble old buildings around them in favor of new designs not misguided by what was appropriate for a culture in another time period.
John Hoskin, writing for Architectural Record, argues that site and culture gestures must be made by architects for buildings to function in his article (Hoskin 1). Referring to the building boom now underway in Thailand, Hoskin criticizes past urban planners for not being sensitive to cultural as well as environmental issues. He cites the example of western tall buildings dropped into a tropical climate as indicative of the universal, cultureless architecture being built today (Hoskin 2). The tropical climate in Thailand makes some modern western design invalid. The hot sun and wet air renders the glass curtain wall (a system for covering the exterior of a tall building in the west) totally inappropriate (Hoskin 2). The glass curtain wall offers no shade or protection from the hot sun and is susceptible to leaks against driving monsoons (Hoskin 2). It is a system that yields energy and comfort inefficient buildings. Even though Hoskin admits that many Asian countries are turning to tall buildings that look more western and express modernity and progress, their systems don’t necessarily yield efficiency in a tropical environment (Hoskin 2). According to Hoskin, many Asian countries associate these archetypes with prosperity and strength despite their total lack of function in an Asian environment.
While Hoskin argues for greater cultural expression in buildings, Rem Koolhaas, an architect practicing currently, whose lecture which addressed architects from Asia was summarized by A. Clifford in Architectural Record, feels designers must assign a value system of autonomy to their radical structures and allow them to be radical. Clifford characterizes the group as concerned about maintaining their Asian identity in the face of “rapid globalization,” (Clifford 1). Clifford summarizes the group’s fears as they watch western firms brought in to deign tall buildings in Asia with little or no understanding of traditional building customs or traditions (Clifford 1). Koolhaas was little comfort to the group as he told them to give in. “The driving forces behind the globalization of their cities were just too big for architects to resist in any meaningful way,” (Clifford 1).
Koolhaas denounced historic preservation and what he condescendingly called the devising of ingenious ways of infusing local character into modern buildings (Clifford 1). He told the group that they could design 50 story buildings with pagoda roofs if they wanted, but resistance to the standardization of the cityscape was futile (Clifford 2). Koolhaas was trying to explain a theory of architecture that places modern tall buildings as a movement independent of cultural specifics or vernacular architecture. Tall buildings are not vernacular by their very nature. Rather they are the products of modern engineering and materials, neither of which is culturally specific. “Perhaps we have to shed our identities. Perhaps identity is constricting us,” Koolhaas questioned (Clifford 2).
Koolhaas is speaking about the notion that cultural icons or buildings that represent a certain culture do not need to be made up of a kit of that culture’s parts to be successful. To design a building that is new and modern with revolutionary materials and then give it a hokey historical decoration would be ridiculous. If a culture can afford to build a new and modern building, then it should look new and modern as a celebration of that fact. Architects’ responsibilities are to provide new icons of identity for cultures, not to summarize past identities into a new collage according to Koolhaas (Clifford 2).
Whether one chooses to take culture into account or design using the blank slate approach, architects must assign specific values to their building in order to reconcile these differences. Tall office buildings will by the nature of their like materials always appear somewhat similar. Architects must realize that creating a cultural icon means simply a design that is unique to the world and worthy of international attention despite its coordination or not with the actual culture of the nation.

Case Study: Petronas Towers as Cultural Icons

Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur looks much different now then it did only 50 years ago when the country was still a colony of Great Britain. Sporting a new airport, several new office buildings, then new Multimedia Super Corridor, and modern urban planning, the city and its government have been working hard to modernize the landscape (Paranoid 1). Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is well on his way to achieving his goal of showcasing Malaysia as a developed country by the year 2020 (Paranoid 1). The most recent project spearheaded by Mohamad includes the leveling of the city’s central racetrack to clear room for the new Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC) (Pearson 1). Planned in phases, the new KLCC will include office space, a concert hall, shopping mall, hotels, and an enormous outdoor park and garden space equal in square footage to the buildings (Pearson 1). The first phase of the new city center was finished in 1997. The Petronas Towers office, hotel, and shopping complex greet visitors as the new gates to the city.
Malaysia’s newest cultural icon was elevated to international status when designers decided to increase the height of the building for a more slender look. This mid-design change put the towers over the height mark set by Chicago’s Sears Tower, which had held the rank of world’s tallest building for several years (Pearson 2). On April 15, 1996, the Council on Tall Buildings named the Petronas Towers the world’s tallest building putting it instantly on the map of modern development (Petronas Towers 1).
The towers reach their amazing height through the employment of several technological advances. Each of the 88 story towers soars 542 meters above the ground along a 75 foot square concrete core (Toronto 1). Rings of super columns spaces around the perimeter tied together by arched ring supports allows the cantilevering of each floor deck (Pearson 3). Special high strength concrete, ten times as strong as concrete used in the United States, was necessary to support the giant buildings and resist their tendency to sway in the wind (Pearson 3). The towers are linked as Siamese twins by a glass and steel sky bridge that connects the 41st and 42nd floors. The bridge serves not only to ease travel congestion up and down the towers, but also to structurally tie the systems together making the slender towers more ridged in the face of wind and seismic activity (Pearson 4). The sum total cost for the towers, surpassing that of the Sears Tower by 33 feet, measured in the US dollar, was $1.2 billion (Petronas Twin Towers 1). There is much more, however, to the towers then their super engineering and sophisticated structural components.
Hailed as a symbol to the national pride and the economic progress that Malaysia holds dear, the towers dominate the world of architecture (Pearson 1). Arguably the towers have put Malaysia “on the map”. To achieve their function as a new headquarters for the national oil company Petronas, the buildings are much larger and grander then necessary. They speak to much more then a utilitarian functionality, they speak to the purposeful creation of a cultural icon. Designed by American architect Cesar Pelli, the project represents an attempt by a western architect to symbolize a culture and define a new identity (Pearson 1).
“They are the talk of the town…They stand out for more than just their height,” (Bowie 1). Author Paddy Bowie, writing for the New Straits Times, describes the towers effects on the city. For Bowie the most important aspect of the Petronas project is not the statistical achievements in architecture or engineering, but rather the pure fact that the tallest building in the world currently is in Malaysia (Bowie 1). In the race among modern nations to build the tallest monument to their prosperity and success, there is something to be said for a developing country who is not only in the running, but has won, at least until another tall building takes the lead. New projects include The Shanghai Financial Centre, expected to weigh in at 463 meters and finish by 2004 (Susskind 1) as well as a recent plan to build a 468.5 meter high vertical city in Chicago in the next few years (Us versus China 1). The race continues, and it is a race for prestige, progress and presence.
What makes the Petronas towers and icon over other structures in the country? To locals and architecture connoisseurs, the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur is among the most contemporary and sleek examples of Islamic traditional architecture (Bowie 1). The stylish concrete and glass sparkling gems of the IKIM headquarters and the Menara Kuala Lumpur are among the candidates for most exquisite building in the city (Bowie 1). Why then do the towers seem to be gaining the international press?
The concept of status helps shed light on the mystery of cultural icon design. To create the most beautiful building is a distinction vulnerable to cultural value systems, which may place emphasis on varying attributes. The Petronas towers now assume the distinction of the tallest buildings. A press statement by Prim Minister Mahathir sums Malaysia’s perspective on their newest buildings, “We are not a big country nor a very rich one. But we build what we can afford, and we can afford the Twin towers,” (A Symbol 1). For Malaysians, the towers signify national pride and accomplishment in the race among nations to develop and compete globally.
Beyond the theoretical symbolism of cultural accomplishment seen in the eyes of the government, the towers’ sheer size has made them famous and that is enough for some Malaysians. Bowie cites a recurring frustration for Malaysians that will, in part, by eased by the towers.
Nothing irritates Malaysians more than when others don’t even know where this country is. Well, they will now. We can rely on the ubiquitous modern predilection for quiz games. The question will increasing be asked, ‘Where are the tallest buildings in the world?’ And word gets around. (Bowie 2).

Bowie feels that just as the seven wonders of the world, all of which are architectural, have evolved into cultural symbols of great civilizations, so will their Petronas Towers (Bowie 3). In the case of the Petronas Towers, Malaysia sees itself as being positively represented by the modern buildings it has erected using progressive materials and strong resources.
For the Towers to function as a cultural icon, however, they must represent Malaysia not only to the Malaysians, but also in the eyes of other nations. S. Jayasankaran gives readers of Far Eastern Economic Review a flavor of one perspective on the towers from other Asian countries. Jayasankaran refers to the towers as symbols of Malaysian self-confidence (Jayasankaran 36). While admitting the towers speak about economic stability and modernization, Jayasankaran criticizes what he calls an emphasis on outward appearances rather then efficiency. A leading Malaysian executive tentatively admits to Jayasankaran during an interview that a smaller tower on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur would certainly have met the program at a far lesser cost (Jayasankaran 36). Even a Malaysian news source is quick to point out that the towers received priority and resources over other infrastructure improvements such as a new hydroelectric dam (A Symbol 2). This is a perfect example of the true goal of projects like the Petronas towers, that is, to create a cultural icon and establish a certain identity to other nations. Jayasankaran sees the towers as a flashy and functionless yet purposeful creation of a supposed image of prosperity and development.
Building a cultural icon with the prestige of the world’s tallest building is very effective at getting other nations to notice one. An Australian news paper, The Bulletin, when reporting on Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, referred to the developing country as “Joining an elite group of countries with the tallest buildings,” (Susskind 1). The article describes the strong economy needed to build such a project and cites the likelihood of boosted tourism and investment by other countries as a result. In this case the cultural icon designed to foster a positive image about a nations economic growth might contribute to that growth. Investment can come as a result of cultural icons in money and in exposure.
In 1998, Twentieth-Century Fox Productions Ltd. decided to film the climax of their Sean Connery film at the top of the Petronas Towers (Climax 1). Entrapment, an action thriller centering on the theft of a priceless painting brought more to Kuala Lumpur then Connery, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta Jones and other Hollywood big names (Climax 1). The production company stressed that Malaysia would gain from the filming. Many jobs would be created including the necessary 500 extras, not to mention the added tourism revenues (Climax 1). The films producer, Rhonda Tollefson, told reporters that, “Kuala Lumpur is the most beautiful, architecturally exciting modern city,” (Climax 1). Culturally specific or not, the Petronas towers are attracting international attention and gaining recognition for Malaysia.
Exposure and attention go a long way in a world of information sharing and name recognition. A recent advertising campaign for the Multinational Corporation HSBC, cultural icons determined opportunities at valuable free press. The company ran a series of commercials depicting its many world city locations (Bowman 1). The primarily non-verbal ad used images of cultural icons to impress on views the vast extends of HSBC (Bowman 1). London’s Big Ben, Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro and the Petronas Towers were among the images of world cities (Bowman 1). While Hong Kong was home to one of the company’s first major offices, it was not represented in the ad. Hong Kong officials lashed out at HSBC for not including their city among the important World metropolises in their ad. HSBC executives responded, “If you’re looking at Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, it’s different, isn’t it? I don’t think there are symbols in Hong Kong that are on the same scale,” (Bowman 1).
In the end it came to scale. The world today is interested in bigger and sometimes better versions of what it already has, faster computers, more powerful cars, and taller office buildings. Cultural icons do not necessarily need to represent a specific culture; they merely have to make it known. The Petronas Towers have accomplished that goal, they have placed Malaysia in the ring of architecturally developed countries. As Prime Minister Mahathir said to a group of press, “a country needs something to look up to,” (A Symbol 1).


Airplane travel, instant message chats, real time video conferencing, and satellite television are all working to break the geographic barriers of the globe. As the world grows closer through trade and information sharing, Barber’s McWorld is an ever-growing threat to small countries feeling threatened by large developed nations. Nationalism continues to be a means to express and assert identity in the face of global homogenization. The creation of cultural icons is an opportunity for a nation to control the image it present to other countries. Architecture finds itself constantly charged with transforming words into forms. The very notion of a concept in design is the abstraction of words into spaces. In the case of cultural icons, the words are a powerful message from the country to the rest of the world. It is imperative that architects, regardless of their nationalities, be able to understand the goals of a country and design an appropriate building.
In the case of the Petronas Towers, Cesar Pelli took the goals of international recognition and transformed them into a revolutionary new building reaching new feats of engineering and most importantly new heights. His towers may not be the most efficient building for the people who use it, but it attainted the goal of cultural icon. The value system employed by Pelli placed status above function and cost. For Kuala Lumpur, identity was the first priority and Pelli understood that.
Architecture must always balance the many variables of a project. The site and environment of a particular geographic location can be limiting. Budget and function often play a key role in the design of buildings. These must all be placed in a hierarchy of values by the designer. Additionally, this hierarchy comes from the client and should be expressed architecturally by the designer. The design of cultural icons obviously lends itself to a different set of values from most projects. In the case of national identity, the building as object can outweigh the building as space. The Petronas towers are seen as a monument more then a compilation of spaces and experiences.
Cultural icons remain a favorite platform for expressing national identity. Architects must recognize these projects and understand the ways in which they alter the traditional architectural value system. The design must evoke the ideas set forth by the culture to other nations. These sensitive abstractions are the responsibility of architects as they shape the cultural icons of developing and developed nations.

Works Cited

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