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Rise of the Planned City

My arrival in Putrajaya coincides with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The holiday only adds another layer to the native strangeness of Putrajaya. On the first day of Ramadan, every place Captain Halim takes me on a three-hour drive around the city is totally depopulated.The prime minister's residence, normally open to the public, is shuttered. Only the mosque, where I have to don a long, neon pink visitor's gown to gain admission, seems even a little bit busy.

But I'm not sure that Ramadan was the only problem. As with many planned cities, there is something inherently artificial about Putrajaya. While disorganized, chaotic Kuala Lumpur—a city that makes few concessions to the needs of pedestrians—is teeming with people, Putrajaya, with its plethora of formal plazas and really big buildings, seems to offer few incentives for anyone to actually come out in public.

Everyone I meet during my visit tells me that I must go to Alamanda, the newly opened shopping mall. Strange: Here I am in the Emerald City, and people keep directing me to Paramus, New Jersey. I shrug off the suggestion until, finally—why not?—I go. Anchored by a Carrefour department store, the mall has a Starbucks, a Levi's store, and a boutique called Al-Ikhsan that features traditionally modest clothing, like the shalwar kameez, in psychedelic colors and sheer fabrics. But the Malaysian-style food court is where the action is. The indoor plaza lined with stalls selling chicken and rice, dim sum, curry, noodles, and more chicken and rice is where non-Muslims can eat lunch during Ramadan without feeling rude or out of place. For the first time in days, I relax.

Maybe it's just that the mall is air-conditioned. Or maybe it's because it is comfortably unmonumental. I mean, as malls go, Alamanda is architecturally ambitious, with high, curved airplane-hangar ceilings and whimsical towers marking the main entrance. But by Putrajaya standards, it's low-key. My guess is that people congregate here because it's the most normal place in town. So for an hour or two I forget all about Pierre L'Enfant, Albert Speer, Le Corbusier, and Ebenezer Howard. I even forget about Walt Disney. I decide that the most inspired planner, the real genius behind Putrajaya, is Victor Gruen, inventor of the shopping mall.

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