Monday, January 4, 2010

Skyline Bling

Not too long ago, the title "world's tallest building" actually meant something. With the opening today of the Burj Khalifa* tower in Dubai, however, the distinction has tumbled into a comical race to reinterpret the Tower of Babel.

To the world's most vapid, farcical, and gaudy city, the Burj Khalifa seems almost anticlimactic in the Disneyesque surrealism already parodied by the Burj Al Arab hotel. True, Dubai's success in constructing an edifice claiming the greatest height, the most floors, and the highest observation deck of any other structure on Earth would be laudable, if it wasn't for the fact that the Arabs have simply built - pardon my bluntness - a giant phallic symbol on the sand.

Yes, I'm extremely cynical about this structure, and not just because it really does look sexually immodest. If the renowned architecture firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) hadn't designed it, I'd be even more disgusted at this elongated prism of concrete. However, I'll give SOM the benefit of the doubt for providing its tasteless customer a building that probably is better than what it could have been had a lesser firm been commissioned.

What Price Height?

First, let's consider the pricetag of this superstructure. For a building 2,717 feet tall (we'll take Dubai's word on that - nobody wants to actually get out their tape measure and check), developers claim they spent $1.5 billion in total construction costs. In comparison, consider the relatively puny Dallas Cowboys Stadium here in Arlington, Texas: a 30-story structure seating 100,000 football fans in air-conditioned comfort, at a cost of $1.1 billion. Or consider any of the 50-story glass boxes constructed in Midtown Manhattan during the past decade - most at approximately $1 billion apiece - prices that make Dubai's newest spectacle a relative bargain.

How did Dubai do it? First, developers of the Burj Khalifa didn't have pesky building codes and zoning restrictions like developers in democracies have. They didn't have neighborhood groups to appease or city building inspectors to accommodate. They didn't pay for market feasibility studies or court real corporate tenants. They just built what they wanted to build, because they wanted the notoriety of having the world's tallest structure.

Second, they built their tower using conscripted labor from Asia. There are no such things as minimum wage or unions in Dubai. There is no OSHA, no company-paid healthcare or vacations, no cost-of-living allowances, and certainly no 401K matching. If the Burj Khalifa were to have been constructed in a democracy, even conservatives would be howling about the human rights abuses prevalent on the job site, if only out of concern for lawsuits and insurance rate increases. While I realize many US developers would love to work without the constraints of caring for their employees, enough common sense prevails that OSHA is at least tolerated and market-rate wages are provided.

The Fallacy of the Phallic Symbol

Since the dawn of the vertical building age, critics have claimed that tall structures serve the ego of the builder more than their common sense. And in many cases, this can be easily seen (think Donald Trump). However, the original catalyst for vertical construction centered on urban density, congestion, and land scarcity. Developers found it can be cheaper to build up rather than out, because they can maximize the building's footprint within the city grid.

However, for most of the superstructures built in emerging countries in the past twenty years, urban density and land costs have not provided the impetus for vertical construction. It's been ego, plain and simple: ego on the part of nationalistic rulers and/or builders who want a skyline - even if it's a skyline of only one building - to validate their importance to the world. New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Tokyo have precious little land for construction, so they've built up. Dubai, on the other hand, doesn't have the physical need for the world's tallest building, but they built it anyway, because they could. It's not a testament to their economic might, their cosmopolitan way of life, their industrious workforce, or their need to maximize space in a highly popular locale.

So, now that they have their tallest structure in the world, who's going to live and work in it? While the developers boast that 90% of the building has been contracted out, that doesn't mean that tenants have been lined up. Investors have purchased space in the building, but they will have to find people to live in those apartments and work in those offices. Considering the prevailing economic climate in debt-ridden Dubai, chances are slim that the Burj will max-out occupant-wise anytime soon.

9-11 Comes Back to Haunt the Arabs

Speaking of tenants, would you want to spend much time in what has just been christened the world's tallest terrorist target? While Dubai is considered one of the more moderate and secular of Islamic countries, it's still a Muslim state, which if only mildly disconcerting in theory, still makes most people pause when it comes to actually setting up house 2,000 feet from the ground.

Structural engineers for the Burj claim that its reinforced concrete infrastructure makes the building far more sturdy than the steel-framed World Trade Center towers, and that an airplane wouldn't be able to slice through the Burj. That's small comfort, isn't it? About the only thing preventing the Burj from destruction by plane is that it's so skinny, you'll have to be an expert pilot to even hit the thing.

Trying to Find Anything Positive

If you've read this far, you're probably wondering if I have anything nice to say about the Burj Khalifa. As a matter of fact, I do!

I will concede that the Burj does serve a couple of useful purposes. Nobody has really talked much about the foundation of the building, but consider that the supporting structural piles going into the ground - and holding up the entire colossus - are encased in sand. The Burj hasn't toppled over yet, so maybe there's something to the whole sand-friction theory. At least the long-term performance of such engineering in a windy locale might provide valuable data for projects in similar environments elsewhere in the world. Of course, the Bible says "the foolish man built his house on the sand", but engineers love a challenge.

Also, the audacity of the Burj just might prove, once and for all, that skyscrapers are a stupid way of expressing one's ego, nationalist pride, or some other demonstration of one-upmanship. This building just looks too silly to be considered a valuable addition to the Dubai real estate portfolio. Maybe now the other half-baked leaders of emerging economies will devote their energies to more beneficial, logical, and sustainable pursuits, such as human rights guarantees, equitable trade alliances, and environmentally-sound industrialization.

Naw... who am I kidding? The Burj Khalifa will be the world's tallest building... until some other over-confident oligarchy builds their own.

* The original name of the project was the "Burj Dubai".

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim. Good piece on the world's tallest. Let me say something about the sand-friction theory. You may know that in The Netherlands in a lot of cities, specially in the west, buildings have to be built on pilings and caisons. The pilings are driven through a heavy clay layer till they meet a major layer of sand. The pilings actually rest on this layer and have done so for eons.

    Warmest greetings, Anton

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