The practice of using billboards to promote construction activities has become increasingly prevalent in and around the Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC) in the two years since the previous IFTA field course. Rather than simply screening a worksite these surfaces engender the global aspirations of each development, often featuring geographically ambiguous names like “Fennel” or “The Sentral Residences”. For instance, along Jalan Raja Chulan we can see an example of future place marketing: an architectural rendering of the Harrods Hotel planned to open in 2018.
Along the perimeter—formerly occupied by a strip development and a restaurant that featured traditional Malay cuisine and entertainments—are bilingual statements suggesting the global linkages of this specific development: “prestij antarabangsa” (international prestige), “lokasi strategic” (strategic location), “first in the world” and “international development”, while the very name “Harrods” is globally recognized and aspirational in nature.
Indeed, the physical location is strategic in the sense that it sits between the globalized retail spaces of Bukit Bintang (featuring mall developments along the Bintang Walk including Pavilion, Starhill Galleries and Fahrenheit 88) and the Petronas Towers. This part of the cityscape is changing rapidly with the construction of new hotels and condominiums on land that historically had a population density of 10 people per square mile and that is now attaining prices per square foot in excess of 2,000 ringgit (USD$625 per square foot).
The billboard screens are visible and explicit indicators of the changes underway in and around KLCC—markers to the local elites that all is well with the long-standing plans to transform Kuala Lumpur into a truly global city, and markers to foreign tourists and capitalists that this is a site to believe and invest in. The Harrods Hotel is being developed in partnership between the Tradewinds Corporation Bhd, the Pavilion Group and Qatar Holding LLC—the latter being a development company controlled by Qatar’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. In essence, local and international capital is landing here, banking on this site to generate sufficient returns by trading on the luxury reputation of the Harrods brand.
Using billboards to promote new developments such as the Harrods Hotel also gives local residents an opportunity to acclimate with the future skyline of their city. Perhaps the promoters hope that any sense of loss felt by citizens over the changes made to the urban landscape will be erased by the promise of a new and gleaming skyline. However, the billboards now seen across the city of Kuala Lumpur tend to depict a very specific and rather limited urban future that tends to exclude more citizens than it could possibly include. Perhaps it is more appropriate to refer to these billboards for what they are: temporary walls. And as with the promotional walls surrounding gentrification projects in cities worldwide, these temporary walls will eventually be replaced with more permanent forms of social and spatial exclusion.