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Once again developing our airside-retail pedigree, we’ve just returned
from an exciting international luxury pitch in Malaysia, tender courtesy
of the charming Malaysia Airlines. The airport itself is a modern
retail carousel; its mid-mall tropical walkway with arms of multi-level
retail radiating outwards. Outside of the airport, Kuala Lumpur is
typically diverse as any international capital.
Central Kuala Lumpur is a sprawling collection of eclectic high-rise office architecture, rubbing-shoulders with highly decorated temples and historic colonial architecture, some celebrated, some left to deteriorate, all of it bustling and occupied. The retail experience is literally ‘squat-down’ rather than ‘pop-up’, especially in terms of its famed street-food - retailing at its most basic. Pleasurably devoid of Health & Safety over-management these stalls are deeply trusted and incredibly popular with the locals; frequented my Prada wearing office workers and street traders alike there is a familial feel about the service and attention received by the customer that keeps them coming back. Similarly imbued with retail spontaneity, the tourist magnet that is Chinatown market is frenetically assembled around the bustling day-time tourists in a flurry of ply and scaffold that seem to appear as if by magic from the depths of the lock-up units to either side of the crowded thoroughfare.
In contrast to the human scale of the markets are the radiant, iconic Petronas Towers that dominate the skyline and enclose the cavernous Suria KLCC shopping centre. The centre comprises the usual collection of Western super-brands gathered around the cavernous void that suggests it might extend to the full height of the towers interior - with an impressive array of everyday and domestic brands in residence.
Kuala Lumpur, as a destination, aspires to Singapore’s pristine super-cosmopolitan chic but has a long way to go. The fabric of the city still expresses the colour and charm of its people who don’t seem to have the detached ‘reservation’ of Londoners or Singaporeans.
I experienced this warm welcome in the form of an impromptu tour whilst getting a lift into the city with Azhar Sulaiman, Malaysian film and TV Star turned architect. I had the pleasure of a whistle-stop tour of Azhar’s current ongoing projects, his family development, in the outskirts of the city. A collection of modern Malaysian houses, with indigenous accents in the large over-hanging roofscapes and deep-set windows, creating semi-open spaces to temper the heat and humidity.
On the drive in, Sulaiman explained the Malaysia Government’s plan for the city; in an attempt to rapidly develop infrastructure, ultra high-density, high-rise housing blocks are shooting up across the city’s suburbs. Ultra-modern is manifesting itself in amongst the heritage but the join-the-dots approach to these modern manifestations will take a while to complete. The disparate yet cheap-and-reliable transport system is beginning to integrate. The essential transport infrastructure is well established and station modernization continues apace but will remain physically chaotic, this has been partially remedied largely by some focused brand consolidation; modernization of ticketing, directional signage and brand integration in a similar mode as the London Underground/Overground model.
Street-level, the roads are atypical as any European city centre, as congested as any West-End. Tolls on the periphery control flow around the city but the centre remains at the mercy of the familiar collection of boulevards, flyovers and one-way systems. For the tourist, walking between central locations is discouraged in favour of promoting a burgeoning taxi industry and in a lot of cases may be practical.
The thought of a seated and air-conditioned trip in light of the 32 degree heat and 80% humidity may sound preferable but still a poor way to experience such a vibrant city. So much of the existing fabric, yet to be completely varnished over in the faceless modernization, can be easily missed and forgotten in the rush to a destination and something for the planners to think about.
- James Breaks