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Rise of the Planned City

On my first morning in Putrajaya, Malaysia, a model administrative capital city that has been under development since 1996, I try to walk to the surreal urban landscape—a kind of Southeast Asian Epcot—that I see from my hotel balcony. The temperature is already in the nineties as I slip out the back door of the Shangri-La, a swank hilltop hotel that bears a passing resemblance to the Arizona Biltmore, and make my way through a lush, meticulously landscaped public garden and past the Putrajaya Landmark, a soaring tepee-shaped stainless-steel spire reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. Ultimately, I discover that the path I'm on doesn't lead into town but instead circles back to the hotel. To get to Putrajaya Square and the 250-foot-tall, buttercream pink-domed Putra Mosque, as well as the massive Moghul-style Perdana Putra—the prime minister's office building—I would have to scramble across the grass and over a drainage ditch and tackle a four-lane roadway without benefit of a crosswalk. As an American in a predominantly Islamic country at this dicey moment in geopolitical history, I'm not eager to break rules; I don't even want to jaywalk. So, sweat-soaked and puzzled, I climb the hill back to the hotel and my air-conditioned room.

I've spent the past dozen years seeking out places like this, planned cities and attempted utopias. I've made pilgrimages to socialist industrial enclaves such as Eisenhüttenstadt (originally Stalinstadt), built in East Germany in the 1950's, the "garden cities" that reformer Ebenezer Howard constructed in England at the turn of the 20th century, and even the ultra-Modernist capital complexNelson Rockefeller built in Albany in the seventies. Brasília, the crazy minimalist dreamscape of a Brazilian capital, and Chandigarh, the model city Le Corbusier designed for Nehru in India, are high on the list of places I'd like to someday visit.

The belief that brilliant men can build the perfect city from scratch goes in and out of fashion. It probably reached its peak in the decades following World War II, with massive urban renewal projects in America and Western Europe and the construction of model socialist cities across Eastern Europe. The idea was that obsessive planning could somehow protect a place against the sloppiness of human nature. Many of those projects turned out to be a little too perfect, so the whole business of master planning fell out of favor for 20 or 30 years. Now it's back, but even our biggest, most ambitious endeavors in the West—Berlin's Potsdamerplatz, for instance, or New York's World Trade Center site—are modest compared to the scale of projects currently under way in Asia.

Putrajaya, some 15 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, is the world's most recent example of the planned city. This 19-square-mile development, with a population projected to be 335,000 by 2012, was the particular obsession of Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. During his 22 years in office, Dr. Mahathir used major building projects—most notably the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur—to establish his vision of Malaysia as a technologically advanced Islamic state, at once aggressively modern and rooted in tradition. Though elected to office, Dr. Mahathir held the kind of centralized power generally associated with dictators, and his dream of a Multimedia Super Corridor with Putrajaya as its nucleus was driven by his need to build something grander, more advanced, than Singapore, the famously technocratic city-state that sits at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Dr. M, as the prime minister was popularly known, closely supervised the construction of his $5 billion-plus city of the future—largely underwritten by the state-owned oil company Petronas—from a helicopter or on horseback.

At exactly 5:20 on my first morning at the Shangri-La, I'm awakened by the sound of a man singing outside my window. It turns out to be a call to prayer, broadcast from the mosque. I doze off, and the next thing I hear is the hotel sound system clicking on at seven, piping an endless loop of knowingly hip torch songs through the hallways. I've got the imam on one side of me and Norah Jones on the other. This, in a nutshell, is Putrajaya.

Eventually, I find a way to walk to the center of town and stroll the 2 1/2-mile Boulevard, a straight shot from the green onion domes of the Perdana Putra to the assertively Modernist, bowl-shaped convention center. The Boulevard is outfitted with wide sidewalks and spacious public plazas. It is the perfect pedestrian promenade—except that I'm the only pedestrian. As I walk, I begin thinking that Putrajaya is like a compendium of every utopian planning idea that's come before it. This central spine, for instance, bookended by two monumental buildings, could have come directly from Pierre L'Enfant's 1792 plan for Washington, D.C., or Albert Speer's unrealized 1930's plan for Berlin.

Putrajaya is a crazy mix of architectural styles. Some structures, such as the "vision" bridge, a composition of cables strung from an angled steel wishbone, look toward the future. Others, like the Ministry of Justice, a variation on the Taj Mahal, look to the past. The government buildings that line the Boulevard, however, are mostly a jarring fusion of extremely modern materials and methods with traditional Islamic decorative touches. One, for instance, features a dramatic 12-story Persian-style arch made of a prickly stainless-steel mesh. It's as if the postmodern movement that gripped America in the 1980's had mined the Middle East, instead of Greece and Rome, for its historical references.

The only thing that I'm sure of as I explore this meticulously planned place, with its numbered precincts, its eight "signature" bridges, and a special style of streetlamp for each neighborhood, is that the urban renewal bug that infected the Europeans and the Americans in the 20th century has been passed along to the Asians. I began noticing this in the mid nineties when I visited Hong Kong's "new towns," dense high-rise districts complete with shopping, schools, and transit hubs, built on landfill. And I was reminded of this again recently when I visited Roppongi Hills inTokyo.

And supposedly, the planners of the next new Asian city, a brand-new South Korean capital, have been studying the example of Putrajaya. Or so I'm told by Captain Abdul Halim Hamzah, one of Putrajaya's six official tour guides. When and if it gets built depends on how well President Roh Moo-hyun handles the substantial political opposition to the $45 billion project.

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