Cover Even in the heart of the city's oldest districts, Komtar can always be glimpsed

Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak, better known as Komtar, had a troubled history but it remains Penang's tallest skyscraper and the datum from which locals orientate themselves

Today's George Town, Penang, is a hive of activity but it was not always this way. In the '60s when Malaysia's Federal Government rescinded the state's free port status, George Town began to decline economically. This was further accelerated by the creation of the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone located about 20km away on the island.

To mitigate this, Penang's second chief minister, the late Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, conceived a massive project that would consolidate administrative, transportation and retail activities into a single complex. This would be known as Komtar, named after the then Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak.

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The entire complex was set to occupy an 11-hectare site situated between four major roads. Its design was entrusted to Arkitek Team 3 (AT3) of Singapore and an organisation was set up to oversee its design and parallel urban renewal projects headed by Lim Chong Keat, the chief minister's brother who is an architect himself.

Rising from a sprawling four-storey commercial podium would be a 65-storey central tower that housed government bodies and offices. A geodesic dome serving as a function hall was included and designed by Buckminster Fuller, a renowned 20th century inventor and visionary. Fuller was Chong Keat's friend and colleague. The geodesic dome was perhaps Fuller's last significant building in Southeast Asia that should be recognised worldwide.

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KOMTAR's towering presence in George Town cannot be denied
Above Komtar's towering presence in George Town cannot be denied

Three 17-storey residential blocks were planned to replace the 19th-century neighbourhood that had been cleared for the project. As noted by Dr Gwynn Jenkins in her book about the cultural, social and physical history of George Town, Contested Space, these were to provide a ‘socially-engineered residential community’ in flats of mixed income and ethnicity—all part of a utopian New Urban Centre.

 

An entire civic and business district condensed into a single complex, public transport and multi-storey parking facilities would further reinforce Komtar as the hub of George Town. 

Modernist in architectural style and ambition, the tower was a break from the historicist styles of the colonial past. From its separation of usage and functionalist aesthetics to its curtain walls and concrete brise-soleils, this was Penang's belated answer to the modernist buildings built to mark Malaya's independence like the Parliament Building and Stadium Merdeka.  

Tun Abdul Razak made it clear what the project symbolised at the driving of the first pile on January 1, 1974: “This project would change the face of the city, discarding the colonial heritage image in favour of one which reflects the identity of Malaysia and its multi-ethnic culture.”

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Although piling works started in 1974, construction was laboured and ridden with delays. In 1983, a fire broke out at the 43rd floor of the tower and destroying the floors above as firemen were unable to reach so high up.

By the time Phases 1 and 2 were completed, the budget had blown to a staggering RM300 million, so once the four-storey podium, dome, and 65-storey tower were finished, the masterplan was abandoned. The three residential towers never saw the light of day and in its place, a single luxury hotel was built and occupied by the Shangri-La (now JEN Penang Hotel).

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As of August 2016, the former KOMTAR Walk has been rebranded as The TOP.
Above As of August 2016, Komtar Walk was rebranded as The Top Penang

Despite these travails, Komtar briefly held the title of Asia's tallest skyscraper before being surpassed by the Korean Life Insurance Building in Seoul. By the time Komtar Tower was launched in 1988, it was the third tallest skyscraper in Asia.

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Today, Komtar is no longer as bustling as it used to be but the complex remains an attraction as it houses a glass skywalk called The Top Penang on its highest floor. Some government offices, including the Chief Minister's office, still call it home. And as its status as Penang's tallest building remains intact, it continues to be an iconic landmark that is hard to miss wherever you are in Georgetown and beyond. 

All images used in this article are the work of commercial photographer, Yzhensiang, and part of his 'Komtar in Penang' series. The Penang native has spent the last five years photographing this project and strives to capture this architectural icon in an interesting and graphic way. 

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