By Gabrielle Low
Away from the broken sidewalk and wristwatch peddlers just a little further up Jalan Bukit Bintang, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur embodies all the glory and grandeur of capitalism.
Walk into the building and everything just shines. From the floor tiles to the merchandise to the glass balustrades, the mall is a testament to how dazzlingly far floor wax and glass cleaning fluid can go in projecting a desired image. And if that’s not enough to make you want to spend all the money you don’t have, almost every shop lot looks as if a page of Vogue has just come to life.
Consumerism in KL has not looked this good since Suria KLCC opened in 1998.
But it’s more than that. In a city with a dearth of public spaces such as parks and promenades, we need our shopping malls to provide us with amenities as basic as contiguous sidewalks and public seating. And the Pavilion provides these amenities, suggesting that even a bulwark of consumerism can be democratized, that it too can provide public spaces for everyone ranging from weary socialites laden with shopping bags to foreign migrant workers on their day off.
By introducing elements such as public seating areas, public access and natural lighting, GDP Architects, the firm that designed the mall, has shown that it is attuned to contemporary urban sensibilities. They have also produced an extremely slick design. The two-storey storefronts facing Jalan Bukit Bintang, for instance, look like a contemporary take on the fronts of traditional Straits shophouses.
And there’s more to come. The Pavilion is only one part of a RM3 billion multiple-use development that will include an office block, serviced apartments and a hotel.
All this is driven by good business sense. Public and cultural spaces, like corporate social responsibility, are part of sophisticated branding and marketing strategies employed by even the most hardened property developers.
And make no mistake about it — the mall didn’t look this good by accident (or by virtue of one autonomous designer’s flash of inspiration). Its image has been carefully stage-managed down to the smallest details. Employees of one store were recently told that they were not to use Styrofoam for a temporary atrium display. Potential tenants go through what can only be imagined as a rather haughty selection process. “We want to carefully select tenants that will bring value to the shopping centre,” Pavilion’s leasing and marketing director told the Star newspaper, “As the epicentre of inspiration, tenants must be able to provide a shopping experience to shoppers.”
Epicentre of inspiration aside, other selling points included its significant economic potential. Among other things, it was expected to create six to seven thousand new jobs and is projected to bring in RM1.5 billion in retail sales this year.
The government, for its part, has encouraged this and similar projects as part of a larger urban manifesto to redevelop the heart of the city. The Pavilion even won for itself the endorsement of government ministries. It has been designated a tourism asset by the Ministry of Tourism, but more surprisingly, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage has reportedly called it a centre for arts and culture.
Shortly after its inception it hosted gamelan and wayang kulit performances, but there seem to have been few cultural events in recent months.
The last event I saw in the atrium was a promotion for a popular brand of shampoo.
History and Class
It’s hard to talk about the Pavilion without talking about what used to be there.
The site was the location of the Bukit Bintang Girls’ School (BBGS), one of KL’s venerable missionary-established schools. When it was announced that the land would be exchanged for a multimillion ringgit Smart School in Cheras, conservation proponents, including Badan Warisan Malaysia and the Malaysian Institute of Architects, fought to preserve two school blocks, built in 1930 and 1941, insisting that the two blocks could be adapted for commercial use.
Were it not for the unwillingness to compromise on the gross floor area of the new development, the buildings would still be there.
It’s hard not to observe with some wryness that when the mall’s proponents tout Bukit Bintang as Malaysia’s very own Orchard Road, Ginza and Fifth Avenue, they forget that it could have been Malaysia’s own Clark Quay and Shanghai Bund (in fact even Fifth Avenue retains a number of buildings that date to the early 20th century).
And let’s not forget that many of the best architects of our generation have risen up to the challenge to built on and around old landmarks, creating works that stand as dialogues between past and present forms. The Louvre pyramid comes to mind. As does the Reichstag in Berlin.
As shopping malls in KL go, the Pavilion is a spectacular space that offers a degree of utility to the public. But was there a bolder, more imaginative and more courageous alternative?
I think the answer is yes.
I graduated from BBGS in 1998. The school was demolished in 2001. I will not, however, exaggerate or romanticize BBGS’s merits in education and scholarship as many conservation proponents did seven years ago.
Here’s the paradox.
As an institution of learning, BBGS was, perhaps no less or no more than any other school, an incubator for the kind of values that brought about its own demise.
In school, we got our first lessons in glorifying material development over intellectual growth, in defining ambition as economic ambition and little else. We didn’t see the inherent value in the things around us, and least of all in the pursuit of knowledge.
‘History’ was an exam in which we had to answer 40 multiple choice questions and write four essays.
We hardly noticed that every day at school was an encounter with history.
That our classrooms were surrounded by Neoclassical-style colonnades that were older than our parents.
That BB Park just up the road was where our grandparents used to joget and where cabaret shows got so raunchy they became subject to police raids.
(Did we even know the name Rose Chan?)
Across the street, the old market became Lot 10. What was once a squatter settlement transformed into the Starhill Gallery. We saw one of the few public swimming pools in the city, the Weld pool, get vacated because it too was sitting on land designated for what would become the Pavilion.
As schoolchildren, we were placed on the path to be the kind of people who would bring the shopping malls of the world into existence, or at least the kind of people who would welcome its existence as long as it doesn’t get in the way of things that have sentimental or material value to us. Build your shopping mall, just not on the site of my old school or in the green lung near my neighbourhood.
Big budget developments don’t just reflect shortsighted urban planning or ruthless expansion.
They are a symbol of our times.
First Published: 15.05.2008 on Kakiseni