As a young capital, Putrajaya may not have the character and soul of the great cities of the world, but it is well on its way there with innovative architecture, community-centric town planning and long term ambitions. In relation to many of Malaysia's other cities like Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, the garden city of Putrajaya is like a new kid on the old block. Granted, it lacks the dramatic history of the former and the age-old culture of the latter but what it has in excess is youthfulness, a modern vision and a spirit to embrace the new.
From crops to city
A walk down its memory lane - or in this case, its landmark 4.2 km-long boulevard - may be short but it is filled with many aesthetically-pleasing buildings, parks and bridges. Barely 16 years since its groundbreaking ceremony, Putrajaya, gleaming in the tropical sun today, is a majestic city fitting of its role as the new centre of the Malaysian government.
What you see today is a far cry from the time when the area was known as Prang Besar. Those were the days when rubber and palm oil plantations dominated the terrain. In the late 1990s, work began to transform the estate into the glossy administrative capital envisioned by then-Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. It was to be his legacy for Malaysia, but at the time, the city was conceived for a more practical reason - to relieve the urban congestion that was slowly choking the capital city, Kuala Lumpur.
For some years during the initial phase of development, Putrajaya looked like a muddy pit where man and nature engaged in heavy battle - an apt reflection of its name (Prang Besar loosely translates into Big War) - as trees were mowed down and earth was flattened to make way for the new city.
In the following years, the barren landscape sprouted shiny new buildings connected by a wide and impressive boulevard, while around it, a new township complete with schools, shopping malls and residences were built. It's interesting to note that Putrajaya's master plan focused on creating optimum living conditions. For instance, as much as 70 percent of Putrajaya's total area is still green with more being done to reduce carbon emissions and waste products and to promote cooler outdoor temperatures in the tropical heat.
A broad range of housing types are available to bring people of diverse backgrounds together in Putrajaya. Public amenities and facilities within each neighbourhood are located within five minutes' walking distance from any point. Solid fencing around the perimeter of a house is discouraged so as to promote interaction and socialization among neighbours (hedges, shrubs and trees are used instead to demarcate one house from the next).
The original streams running through the barren landscape -- Sungai Chuau and Sungai Bisa - were flooded over and dammed up to create a chain of scenic man-made lakes that together, make up about 600 hectares or 12 percent of Putrajaya. Entire forests were re-planted, a whole other ecosystem was re-created. A new city was built from ground zero.
The lake district
The lake - its presence too huge to ignore -- has now become the main feature of Putrajaya. It functions as both a recreational area and scenic element, as well as being an environmental filter and cooling system. It's been the venue for high-profile events such as international hot air balloons festivals, flower carnivals, the Le Tour De Langkawi, and international waterski championships.
As many as eight bridges of majestic architecture were constructed over the lake at various points. These have become scenic backdrops for a variety of television commercials and favourite subject matters of the many photography enthusiasts. Visitors can best enjoy the beauty of the lake, and Putrajaya, via a lake cruise that highlights the many stunning landmarks around.
A 38 km waterfront area was developed along a part of the lake with parks, landscaped walkways, fishing piers and viewing decks. A well-kept secret is the public "beach" right next to Pullman Putrajaya Hotel where folks can enjoy some sun while the kids splash away in the water.
The lake also forms part of the wetland park and functions as a habitat for new wildlife to the area such as swifts, moor hens, water hens, wild ducks and kingfishers, as well as migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Needless to say, it offers bird-watchers and nature lovers a fruitful outdoor session.
One of the first Putrajaya structures to be completed was the Putra Mosque which, till today, remains an important icon of Putrajaya. Its dusky pink dome, topped with a gold tiled finial measuring 76 metres above ground level, has been the point of reference for many who navigate the roads around the city. Surprisingly, the elaborately-decorated dome took only six weeks to complete due to the use of modern technology which was able to create a perfect mould of the dome. Pre-fabricated sections of the dome were made off-site and mounted on the mosque without the use of scaffolding and in 30 per cent less time than conventional methods.
Today, the mosque, which seems to "float" on the Putrajaya Lake, can welcome as many as 10,000 worshippers in its vast prayer hall. Even so, there was a need to construct another mosque just five years later, the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque which can take in up to 20,000 worshippers at a time. Nicknamed the Iron Mosque because of the 6,000 tonnes of steel used in its construction, it couldn't be more different than the Putra Mosque just 2.2 km to the north. Influenced by German and Chinese architectural aesthetics, the mosque does away with minarets, fans and air-conditioning. Instead, a fountain courtyard, large open spaces and latticed walls were implemented to cool the interiors and promote ventilation. Other design elements include the use of "transparent" walls on which etchings of Quranic verses seem to float.
Another building worth mentioning is the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications, or better known as the LEO building, short for Low Energy Office. It broke new ground in the area of energy efficiency and conservation in buildings, operating on approximately 135 kWh per m2 a year, with the aim of sustaining on as little as 55 kWh per m2 a year. It has become a model for green buildings that are both beautiful in design and user friendly for the comfort of its inhabitants.
The Putrajaya International Convention Centre (PICC) in Precinct 5 also has a striking architecture. Located right at the end of the Putrajaya Boulevard, "facing off" Putra Perdana, the PICC was inspired by the design of the royal Malay belt buckle or pending, which is best appreciated with an aerial view of the building. From the front, however, the roof - whose sides are "lifted up" -- reflects hints of Japanese origami design elements. The rest of the building is made of glass, to illuminate the interiors with as much natural light as possible.
Another distinctive feature of Putrajaya is the 100 metre wide and 4 km long boulevard with the Putra Perdana (the Prime Minister's office) at one end and the PICC at the other. It's been said that Tun Mahathir wanted it fashioned after the Champs-Elysees of Paris where parades and celebrations could be held in grand fashion along the main thoroughfare.
The garden city
Besides the Wetland Park, there are at least five other major parks in the vicinity. The Botanical Park has a fine collection of plant exhibits in beautifully landscaped grounds featuring 700 species from 90 countries. The Agriculture Heritage Park meanwhile honours the origins of Putrajaya by maintaining an original tract of the Prang Besar rubber plantation including an authentic rubber processing machine and smokehouse. It also cultivates Malaysian fruit trees in its orchards to give visitors a chance to sample local seasonal fruits.
Within the diplomatic enclave lies a man-made dipterocarp forest; what used to be an oil palm estate is now an urban jungle complete with natural streams, walking trails, and horse-riding trails. Two other unique parks within Putrajaya are the Challenge Park, to promote X-Games type recreation, and the Equestrian Park.
Putrajaya may be small in size at only 49 km square (compared to Kuala Lumpur's 243 km square), but it certainly packs in a lot with its mixed development. And while it may be relatively young, it's creating history of its own with landmark architecture, seamless marriage of modernity and nature, and its spirit of community.
For more information on Putrajaya, go to www.ppj.gov.my or www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my.