The Buildings of Kuala Lumpur for the Architecturally Ignorant

I am not an architecture buff. I'll admit a preference for a pretty or striking building over a dull concrete slab—I do have eyes, after all—but I don't know any of the lingo and I can't speak about any of the styles or periods in anything other than an interrogative way.

I am not an architecture buff. I’ll admit a preference for a pretty or striking building over a dull concrete slab—I do have eyes, after all—but I don’t know any of the lingo and I can’t speak about any of the styles or periods in anything other than an interrogative way (i.e., “Is this an example of the Gothic period? Was there a Gothic period?”) and can namedrop all of two bigwigs (Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi… pretty much the two most obvious choices). I’m ok with this blind spot and have largely accepted my laissez-faire approach where I may not know what I’m looking at, but I know whether or not I like it.

In Kuala Lumpur, there is a lot that I like. The city might be chaotic and ragged at the edges, but much like Singapore to the south, Kuala Lumpur is also a jubilant melting pot of cultures. This is reflected in the faces of the people as you dodge traffic walking down the street, in the aromas emanating from the banana leaf restaurants nestled next to the hokkien mee vendors with woks a blazing, and—perhaps most especially—in the buildings that turn the city into a dense jungle of concrete and glass.

As befits its roots, Kuala Lumpur’s buildings are a mishmash of styles…

A smattering of eastern and western influences…

A folding of the fabric of time. Centuries coalesce as crumbling old mosques and gently decaying churches sit effortlessly in the shadow of sleek modern giants. Kuala Lumpur is, for this part of the world, a relatively young city, with most of its oldest buildings having been constructed during the late 19th century. However, there are enough hints of the past that the city feels like it has an epic history that spans far beyond its actual age.

We were certainly exposed to eclectic architectural styles while in Singapore, but the diversity on display in Kuala Lumpur makes that country look downright homogenous. The buildings here are a cacophony of visual form, each structure boldly demanding that I pay attention to it.

Particularly this one. We have no fewer than 20 photos of this building, the Complex Dayabumi. Ensorceled by its dramatic elegance, I am incapable of walking by it without raising my camera and trying to capture its perfection from another vantage point. I wonder what romantic purpose this building might serve. Later I discover that it merely houses offices and some shops. I still think it’s pretty and I continue to take pictures of it every time I see it.

We visit museums and train stations and mosques and markets and temples. All are masterpieces in their own right and each one is utterly unique.

At the Islamic Arts Museum, I spend half an hour in the atrium, poring over the miniature models of Islamic structures around the world, cooing over the curves of their domes, the intricate carvings and elaborate tile work, the saturated hues. I hop from one to the next, my travel wish-list increasing with each miniature mosque.

Meanwhile, Tony channels his inner Godzilla and terrorizes one model’s denizens.

Islamic arts museum, Kuala Lumpur

We go and stand at the base of the city’s iconic Petronas towers, too. We crane our necks back until our heads are strained nearly perpendicular to our bodies and squint into the bright rays of sunlight that reflect of their shiny facade. They are as majestic as I had imagined and I do a giddy little dance before them as they hammer home that I am standing in Malaysia. I also think that they are not quite as tall as I had thought they would be, though they are tall enough that taking photos of them proves difficult. I am glad to have seen them, but I secretly think my Complex Dayabumi (because I do think of it as mine) outshines them.

Petronas towers, Kuala Lumpur

As we wander about the city, I find myself routinely trailing behind Tony or stopping dead in my tracks at the sight of some unexpected masterpiece. Our walks soon begin to feel like we are sauntering through a large-scale art gallery, one that spans and consumes an entire city rather than a single block. The buildings give a purpose to our otherwise aimless jaunts.

I can’t think of another city I’ve been to where the actual skeleton of the place excited and delighted me so much. These buildings made me stop and take notice, and made me eager to seek out more. The last thing I expected from our visit was that I’d come down with a case of monument mania, but when I think back on our time in Kuala Lumpur the first thing I immediately think of is its buildings.

I’m still not an architect aficionado, but the buildings of Kuala Lumpur showed me that perhaps one day I could be. Isn’t that one of the nicest things about travel, that it teaches us a new way of seeing the world and, by extension, ourselves as well?

Tell us: Are you an architecture buff? What city do you think has the most amazing buildings? Which of these buildings would you most like to see on a visit to Kuala Lumpur?

Popular in: Malaysia

25 comments Leave a comment

  1. I love this post! I have always been fascinated by architecture, though I can’t claim to be all that knowledgeable either. Architecture is one of my favorite parts of travel, though. When I was in Prague, I walked wayyyyy out of my way to see Gehry’s Dancing House and stood looking at it from different angles and taking photos. I’m sure people thought, what is that crazy girl doing, but I couldn’t get enough.

    Thanks for sharing all these photos. I definitely love seeing such different buildings.

    Feb. 5 2014 @ 1:11 pm
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      So glad to hear you enjoyed this one, Jenn! I remember visiting Prague and feeling like I had stepped into a fairytale—the buildings in the old town definitely give that area so much of its character. I don’t think we managed to see Dancing House, but I loved the city so much I’m sure Tony & I will be back to visit one day!

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:15 pm
    2. jenn aka the picky girl

      Prague is really something for architecture, it’s hard to believe the city is for real! The Dancing House is spectacular. Definitely a must see.

      Feb. 10 2014 @ 12:16 am
  2. I had the same thought about the Petronas Towers — awesome, cool, but somehow didn’t look as tall as I expected.

    Feb. 5 2014 @ 2:19 pm
    1. Carina author

      They really look so big in pictures and on tv, don’t they? But in real life, I remember being surprised at how short they seemed!

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:16 pm
  3. As much as I would like to discuss architecture, I must admit I’m pretty ignorant about it as well. I laughed out loud at your mention of Gaudi though, because that essentially encapsulates my knowledge of architecture. I do love cities where the influences of both east and west are evident, like Macau and Sevilla. Kuala Lumpur definitely looks like a good place to get a primer on architecture- all the buildings you described are amazing!

    Feb. 5 2014 @ 2:31 pm
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      So glad I am not alone in being architecturally clueless! 😀 We haven’t made it to either Macau or Sevilla yet, but they’re both on the list. It’s nice when you visit a place that feels pure and uninfluenced by external factors, but I think that the ethnically diverse places tend to be the more interesting in the long run.

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:19 pm
  4. Love the pics Tony, you always get some cracking shots.

    I too have no idea about architecture, but love to snap away in new towns. Currently in Campeche, Mexico, which has some beautiful colourful colonial buildings. I think I annoy Kellie with my constant stopping to take a photo of a random building 🙂

    Feb. 5 2014 @ 4:43 pm
    1. Rob author

      It’s always nice when you find yourself in a place that is ridiculously photogenic and inspires a lot of photography. We actually found many of the places in Malaysia were wonderful for those who are photographically inclined (whether they known anything about the buildings or not!). I can’t wait to visit Mexico… it looks beautiful!

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:20 pm
  5. Nice! I’ll be in KL in May and will be sure to look up!

    Feb. 6 2014 @ 1:12 am
    1. James author

      Definitely do! But keep an eye on the traffic as well—it can be a real hazard! (Though, probably no worse than HCMC.)

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:22 pm
  6. Architecturally ignorant, eh? I think you so outstandingly well!! I love Islamic architecture, and I love modern architecture, so KL is like heaven for me. Great shots too!! I haven’t been to KL in years- I must go back with my new camera. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Feb. 6 2014 @ 5:45 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      I think the biggest lesson I learned in KL is that I also really love Islamic architecture. I’m not sure I’ve come across any other style that is avoids fatigue and burnout as successfully as it does. Every mosque I see immediately captivates me, and I love seeing the little touches in other buildings as well (like Complex Dayabumi!).

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:24 pm
  7. Stunning photos. I enjoyed KL too, albeit for the extremely short and exhausting time I was there (in between climbing Rinjani on Lombok and flying to Beijing). Surprisingly, even though I didn’t do much while I was there except apply for my Chinese visa and eat a lot of curry, I caught a glimpse of a lot of these buildings. It’s funny the feeling or emotion a hunk of metal or concrete can evoke, but architecture is certainly very important to the character of a city. It kinda reminded me of Singapore in a way, with a lot of different styles (and cultures) coming together.

    Feb. 6 2014 @ 4:39 pm
    1. Sarah Somewhere author

      I think Singapore is pretty much a fancy version of KL, so I hear you on the similarities. I know S’pore will definitely have its fans and appeal to a certain type of traveler (and I liked it too), but there’s something about KL’s grittiness and lack of a veneer that I really came to like as well. It felt like a real city, whereas Singapore sometimes felt like a fantasy land!

      Feb. 6 2014 @ 10:26 pm
  8. I like cities with interesting architectural cocktail. Each design reminds of the certain period in the city’s history. I too like YOUR Dayabumi building. It’s interesting that it seems to look different in every angle. The perpective of your opening shot is stunning. It’s fascinating that as I scroll down over the photo there seem to be a movement in the building! Great post and photos as always.

    Feb. 9 2014 @ 9:53 am
    1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates author

      I’m glad you like MY building too! 😉 We can share it!

      And I agree that especially in KL, the buildings are one of the greatest markers of its history and its varied ethnic roots. As you move from one neighborhood to the next, it’s a bit like traveling through time!

      Feb. 10 2014 @ 9:41 pm
  9. Putrajaya is pretty wacky architecturally.

    For the life of me I can’t remember what blog it was but I saw such a great photo essay themed around patterns (architectural) in Malaysia, and I’m pretty sure KL, a little while ago.

    Feb. 10 2014 @ 12:15 am
    1. NZ Muse author

      Yes, Putrajaya is pretty crazy! I like that the buildings in KL form this glorious cacophony… they shouldn’t work together, but they do!

      I’d love to see that article about Malaysian architecture & patterns. I’ll poke around, but if you ever find it, please send me the details!

      Feb. 10 2014 @ 9:47 pm
  10. I am most definitely not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a pretty or interesting building! Part of the reason I liked Shanghai was its mix of old French Concession lane houses and soaring futuristic skyscrapers. Sintra, Portugal, has a special place in my heart for its whimsical and fantastical royal palace. I adore the distinctive architecture of Amsterdam. And, of course, those red roof-tops of Prague. It was pouring rain the day I sought out the Dancing House and I’d love to go back and admire it properly.

    Feb. 10 2014 @ 2:02 pm
    1. Heather author

      I did like the French Concession area in Shanghai as well—I think it was the only part of China that ever felt quaint, and it was nice to see that traffic lights were actually obeyed there… 😉

      It seems like Prague is getting a lot of architecture love here in the comments… I’m excited to go back and see if the buildings make a stronger impression now that I’m actually taking a bit of an interest in this kind of thing.

      Feb. 10 2014 @ 9:49 pm
  11. OK, I’m liking Kuala Lumpur from afar now just from looking at your photos. I spent my whole time in the city looking where I was walking instead of looking up which is clearly what I should have been doing!

    Feb. 13 2014 @ 5:25 pm
    1. Maddie author

      I think one of the nice things about traveling with a buddy/partner is one of you can be looking around at the buildings, while the other one keeps an eye out for traffic to make sure no nasty accidents happen! 🙂

      Feb. 13 2014 @ 8:00 pm
  12. I appreciate architecture, but I have zero actual knowledge about it. Well, I guess I have the tiniest bit of knowledge about it from watching the “Building Big” series of documentaries. But that’s about it. It’s nice to be able to appreciate the styles at least.

    Hope Godzilla didn’t wreak too much havoc.

    Feb. 19 2014 @ 1:27 am
    1. Carmel author

      I am pretty satisfied with my whole “oooh, pretty!” approach to architecture, though learning a few things here and there hasn’t been the worse thing either.

      Thankfully the mini models at the Islamic Arts Museum escaped Godzilla’s wrath… this time…

      Feb. 20 2014 @ 12:37 am

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