Historical Heights of Penang

Historically, tall structures served as beacons of peace and war. From afar, belfries, minarets and pagodas provided visitors and local communities with a recognisable structure to retreat to for food, rest, shelter and worship; while lookouts from watchtowers and lighthouses surveyed the land and seas to warn armies and ships of impending danger.

Humankind is transfixed with touching the sky or the divine; and this is physically manifested through architecture by many religious institutions. Churches were traditionally built on high ground or constructed as the tallest structure in a neighbourhood. Height signified superiority, a closer position to the heavens.

Then this adulation for the great mystery was replaced with the worship of man itself. Tall, large structures became monuments to stroke the egos of men and a fulfilment of their short legacy. These were often immutable phallic symbols of indomitability.

But what do towers represent today? It’s not a tall tale that half of the world’s skyscrapers have been built since the year 2000. What has led us to impose human domination so pointedly over the skyline?

Initially, increasing land values drove expansion skyward, enabled by technological developments like elevators and high-strength steel. These were also constructed to ease the burdens of land scarcity and population growth.

But with science and technological innovations spurring advancement in materials and materials engineering, structures could be made stronger and taller, and stretch high enough to reach the clouds. These became national monuments to modernity and global reach – tall buildings signal aspirations. For many cities and nations, building tall structures became a vanity project, each competing with the other to possess the limelight.

Over the years, the semiotics of tall structures have changed very little: from being unshakeable pillars of religious faith, to proud masquerading trophies meant to intimidate lesser men and nations, and to a projection of a country or city’s technological prowess and economic virility, they all have one common denominator: the celebration of power.

Regardless of their symbolism or the reason for their existence, it cannot be denied that tall structures project a feeling of awe when they cut a striking sight against the sky, and pronounce and define a city’s skyline.

Dan Lee graduated with an M.A. in International Relations from Kyoto, Japan. His passions include exploring new places and photojournalism. In his spare time he tends to his garden.

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