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 In the '60s when Malaysia's Federal Government rescinded the state's free port status, George Town began to decline economically.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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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).