A Tale of Two Cities:

Monuments to Misplaced Pride

By Dr Maznah Mohamad

Putrajaya, a celestial palace to 'The Prince': Will it be remembered as a symbol of someone's delusions of heavenly power?
Brasilia: Brazil's administrative capital could provide us with some lessons

Dictators and strong national leaders have many things in common. One of which is to build monuments and erect physical edifices that will serve to permanently etch their legacy in history.

Manís child-like fascination for monoliths and material obelisks is mysterious but not altogether unexplainable. From a Freudian point of view what we inherently lack within ourselves we project outwardly to a point where we cannot be ignored.

Loud architectural symbols are the easiest to acquire by any nation and attention is always guaranteed. While critics may deride such constructions either for want of aesthetic sense or as financial wastage, the builders inevitably achieve their purpose to literally stamp their mark in society.

Putrajaya: City to "The Prince"

Like most leaders who want to be remembered with greatness, the natural step after envisioning a sense of stupendous growth and economic development for Malaysia was for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to build a megalopolis from a tabula rasa, the construction of which he would dictate. And so was erected Putrajaya, and its techno-twin, Cyberjaya. Their construction is supposed to be the symbolic culmination of the PMís architectural stewardship of the countryís rise from a backwater.

Had it not been for the precipitation of the Asian financial crisis, few would have realised the lavishness of the project. The administrative capital costing RM22 billion is built on oil revenues and under terms of borrowings to which we are not privy. Perhaps not surprisingly, our parliamentarians also had little inkling as to how the projectís approval came about. Every record to uncover this mystery seems to have been lost somewhere between the lackadaisical euphoria of the "feel-good-boom-years" and the dark recesses of the Official Secrets Act.

Celestial Abode

The first edifice to come under public attack was the Prime Ministerís residence. Critics dubbed it the Mahligai, which, in Malay really means an otherworldly or celestial palace. At least by sight it appears to be the largest official residence built for any royalty or heads of state in this country.

The Mahligai is far from being an architectural wonder. The design is conservative and would not qualify for an avant-garde or path-breaking mention in the annals of architectural history. It is not distasteful but is pompous and pretentious.

The onion domes are supposed to symbolise Islamic elements and cascading terraces are reminiscent of grandiose European villas. The "Malaysian" element is hard to pinpoint. This empyreal residence built to feng-shui specifications comes complete with running waters, swimming pool, a helipad, view of the lake, and subterranean tunnels. Surely, to use an oxymoron the "Peopleís Palace" to describe such a dwelling, rankles, and is the height of vulgarity!

Beauty To Match Duty?

The other prominent building in this new city is the Prime Ministerís office. From photographs it is hard to distinguish the Prime Ministerís office from his home. The latter only looks like a smaller version of the former. The combination of sand-coloured façade, towering colonnades and grey-green domes atop the massive building is of a pleasing design. One would hope that the quality of public administration will someday also match the shell under which it is housed.

One other architectural pride that is politically correct to trumpet is the mosque, a relatively modest-sized structure whose most outstanding feature is its beautiful lattice-like tiled rose-pink domes.

Prime Ministerís Touch

No other buildings are as prominent as the three described above. However, who are the designers of these buildings? Are they locals or foreigners? How much local content in terms of building materials have been used? We are in the dark about all this. All that we hear of is that the Prime Minister had had his touch in almost every respect of the buildingsí design.

We do not hear or know much as to what the planners would be doing about housing or recreational spaces for would-be residents of Putrajaya. Will it be a model ecological-friendly city? Is there an indefectible garbage-collection system for all cities to emulate? Would walking and public transportation be preferred over private vehicles? Or, is Putrajaya destined to be a ghost-town for sometime to come? Is there any parallel in history from which one should take a cue?

Brasilia Rising From The Savanna

Brasilia, the administrative capital of Brazil could provide us with some lessons. It was constructed in 1960 and today, forty years down the road the city is still approached ambivalently by critics and visitors alike. It remains to be the butt of national parody.For much the same reason as Putrajaya was conceived, Brasilia was also built by the then President to instil a sense a national pride among Brazilians. The military rulers then did not trust their safety in the old capital, Rio de Janeiro, which was situated on the coast and wanted to move inland into the savanna, which was the heart of Brazilís natural wealth. The country was undergoing rapid economic growth during this period and its leaders wanted Brazil to join the ranks of one of the greatest nations in the world. Brasilia was to herald this vision.

Classless Utopia

However, unlike Putrajaya, the bold architectural showmanship in Brasilia has won some admiration. It was designed as a modernist utopia by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, disciples of Le Corbusier. Brasilia is situated 1,200 kilometres north-west of Rio de Janeiro. It was conceived to be a classless utopia by its creators where politicians and their chauffeurs are supposed to live within the same neighbourhood. When Brasilia was first built, some foreign embassies refused to relocate to the city.

Besides the National Congress the city was built with several noble edifices such as the Pantheon of Liberty, the Palace of Justice and the Judicial Annex. The construction of the city nearly bankrupted the nation but the President who oversaw it, Juscelino Kubitschek, nevertheless became a national icon.

Brasilia is now the only 20th century city granted a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its stark and antiseptic modernism has made the city useful more as a "museum of architectural ideas", than a symbol of power, says one of its critics. Thereís More Life in Unplanned Townships

Is there life in Brasilia? Yes, lethargically. The city has attracted more migrants looking for public-sector jobs than vibrant economic activities. It was supposed to trigger regional development but that has not happened. The city has not generated enough jobs. Today, the Brazilian media continues to satirise Brasilia as a hub of political intrigue and corruption

Brasilia had been more successful in spawning a cluster of satellite townships around it, both shantytowns and middle-class suburbs. There is for example more life in Taguatinga, an unplanned township which sprung-up to offer what Brasilia could not; cheaper homes, bustling nightlife, shopping and high-rises.

Legacy of Putrajaya

Much of Brasilia is still a controversy, but at least it was planned with a philosophy of egalitarianism and its design, though inspired by western architectural schools was still the product of local imagination. The concept of Putrajaya on the other hand has been mired by the single-minded purpose of one leader. Right now it is nothing more than a political showcase of contrived beauty and grandeur.

It has been almost 40 years since Brasilia was first constructed, and it is still being reluctantly approved by Brazilians. By 2020 Putrajaya and Cyberjaya would only have been around for 20 years. Would future generations be looking back and thanking their builders for what was built?

What would be the legacy left by this present regime in Putrajaya? Would its architectural monuments be remembered as a symbol of someoneís delusions of heavenly power? Alternatively, would the city, through numerous rounds of criticisms and subsequent rehabilitation be remembered as a watershed in the peopleís social awakening to the excesses of hollow success?