Dubai has just unveiled the world's largest skyscraper, like a hypodermic needle against the desert sky. In a feature last year J.M. Ledgard asked, "what is the point of the Burj Dubai? And does it even have a good view?" ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE, Winter 2008
It wasn’t the best view in the emirate. The tallest building in the world was set back, partly blocked by other towers, but it was still wondrous, unlike any building I had ever seen, maybe unlike anything anyone has seen. At 710 metres, with more floors and a steel spire to be added, it was already the tallest man-made structure of all time, eclipsing every radio mast. Seen from my armchair in the Novotel, it looked like a glorious hypodermic needle; it did not scrape the sky, it injected it.
Over the next few days I spent hours gazing at it. The development around it was gap-toothed, swirling with mustard-yellow dust. The only beauty was in the way the sun and the moon rotated above it, bejewelling the glass. Because it was so tall, the Burj Dubai took the light for longer than other buildings. It stood dull blue in the gulf dawn and burnished pink-gold with the desert sunset. At night, it blackened. I found that if I kept my eyes on the top of it, I somehow became more aware that I, the tower, we, were all spinning in space, and perhaps more so because it was the month of Ramadan, when prayer and the rotation of the planet were aligned.
Sometimes my eye fell to the ground. Cars sped by on the Za’abel Road, thickening towards the end of the day, but there were never any pedestrians. I asked myself: is this a city? If it is not a city, then what is it? Perhaps only the obvious: a necklace of gargantuan property developments laid down in the sand, threaded on expressways and overpasses.
Dubai rose up as a port after the Islamic revolution in Iran. Before, it was a pirate coast; now it is a safe haven, a bolt-hole for wealthy Arabs and Asians. The population has grown to 1.4m, only a fraction of whom are citizens of the United Arab Emirates. With $45 billion of construction close to completion, it has become a place of superlatives: the largest port, the most shops, the biggest theme parks. Dubai International airport will soon be replaced by Dubai World Central airport. But Dubai lacks the mulch of an ordinary city. Neighbourhoods are razed to make way for new projects. Water is more expensive than fuel, a labourer’s daily wage won’t buy a bag of apples, and the only solar panels are for powering parking meters; a green and gentle future is hard to see. No, Dubai is about conspicuous and continuous consumption, it is a Disney World gone open-source, and at the root of its brief attraction is something like the enforced indulgence of a long-haul flight: you’re not here, you’re not there, so put away your work, pull out the duty-free catalogue, and enjoy.
“Downtown Dubai”, with the Burj at its centre, is one of the city’s classiest developments, smarter certainly than the recently completed and dismally received Palm Jumeirah development (the Sun newspaper dubbed the Palm’s $1.4 billion Atlantis Hotel “The eighth chunder of the world”). Emaar Properties, publicly listed on the Dow Jones Arabia Titans Index, claims to be spending $20 billion developing two square kilometres of desert. In addition to the $1.2 billion tower, there will be nine “world-class” hotels, the world’s largest shopping mall, an Arabian “Old Town”, a 3.5km strip called “the Boulevard” serviced by a tram, and a fistful of smaller residential towers, set back to get a good look at the Burj. The aim was to create an architectural icon, says Robert Booth, a director with Emaar, then to “ripple the value of the building through the entire masterplan”.
It worked. Apartments facing the Burj fetch a 60% premium. Emaar made $1.9 billion profit last year. Its chairman, Mohammed bin Ali Alabaar, is also the head of Dubai’s Department of Economic Development. Despite a recent slump in its share price, he plans to turn Emaar into one of the world’s richest companies. It already has interests across the Middle East, as well as in Asia and North America, but the Burj will be its showpiece, with Alabaar keeping the highest offices in the world, in an executive suite on the 152nd to 154th floors.
The Burj was engineered, designed, and is mostly being decorated by the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—SOM. By its own count, SOM has designed more of the world’s tallest buildings than anyone else, including the Sears Tower and John Hancock Centre in Chicago. How tall will the Burj be? The SOM partner in charge of the project, George Efstathiou, won’t say. The contractors on the Burj, led by a South Korean firm, Samsung, and a Belgian firm, BeSix, are even more tight-lipped. Emaar insists on it. But Efstathiou comes close. “I was driving to work down the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago the other day, trying to understand how big the Burj would be, and I finally understood it would be almost exactly like taking the John Hancock and stacking it on top of the Sears Tower.”
I make that 786 metres. With its spire, the Burj is likely to top out at 820 metres. Picture two Chrysler Buildings plus two Statues of Liberty. Or three Canary Wharf Towers crowned by St Paul’s Cathedral. The Burj will dwarf the world’s next tallest building, Taipei 101, which has a roof height of 440 metres, and a height to spire of 509 metres.
“In such a building we had to ask ourselves: what constitutes luxury?” says Nada Andric, the head of SOM’s design team on the Burj. One answer was quality of materials. Mohammed bin Alabaar’s executive suite will be “celestial”, with the staircases floating between floors on a series of cables. “It demanded space-age technology. Three floors of the most technically advanced materials.” SOM was in charge of decorating the public spaces from the 19th to the 108th floors, as well as the entrance lobby, and sky lobbies on the 43rd and 76th floors with gyms, swimming pools, spas, dining and entertaining spaces. There was an element of Arab pride to consider. With the Burj, the Arab world regains the title of loftiness (itself a resonant word for Muslims—it is one of the qualities of Allah) for the first time since Lincoln Cathedral exceeded the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1311. “We wanted to recognise the culture, but not in a literal way. We looked at scholarship.” So the white Venetian plaster walls of the entrance lobby will contain motifs of Arabic script and mathematics. Deeper in, near the lift banks, will be a stone fountain of Moorish inspiration. An Opus book, itself standing five metres high, will be displayed like a sacred text to remind residents of the “human endeavour” of building the tower. Some Arabs speak about using the tower to help preserve migratory sooty falcons and peregrine—halting their journey to the craggy interior of Arabia with morsels of meat left out on the terraces.
To add an international touch and “compensate for what New York and Chicago have”, the Burj will have its own art collection. George Efstathiou reckons the budget for several hundred pieces of mostly contemporary paintings, pottery, basketry and tapestries in the public spaces is “considerably more than the usual 0.5% of the construction cost”—perhaps $12m. A “thread of commonality” will run through the building, not just the interpolated Islamic heritage, but a veneer of solidity in the cool silver travertine marble, taken from a single quarry in Italy, and in the dark panels of Brazilian Santos rosewood. The fabrics will be in a small palette of greys and browns and there is the repeating of the form of the hymenocalis, a pale desert flower trumpeted in SOM and Emaar’s blurb as the inspiration for the petalled form of the building seen from above (the real reason, I am told, was engineering). The idea, says Nada Andric, was “to introduce an element of calm and create an oasis from the harshness of the climate”.
The Burj has another distinguishing feature—it is mostly residential. The 1st to 8th floors are a 140-room Armani Hotel and the 9th to the 16th floors are private residences designed by Giorgio Armani. All the way up to the 108th floor are 800 one-to-four bedroom apartments. Except for an Armani club lounge on the 122nd floor, and a public observation deck on the 123rd and 124th floors, the rest of the building is boutique offices to about the 156th floor, with communications rooms and machinery in the narrowing final floors up to the spire. It is the tower of Babel then, assembled by the workers of the world from shards, this time around as a condo.
Skyscrapers are rarely successful at their launch. It is difficult to rent volumes of office space without driving down the market price. The Empire State Building, finished in 1931, was for a long time known at the “Empty State Building”. It became profitable only in 1950. But when Emaar put up its Burj apartments for sale in 2005, declaring the tower to be the new centre of the earth, they sold out in three, invite-only sales evenings. By the third night, invitations were changing hands for $15,000 and a promotional world tour was cancelled. Many of the apartments were sold on for a quick profit—“flipped”, in property parlance—and the secondary market for the Burj remains strong. By some estimates, the Armani residences went for $37,000 per square metre, the apartments for $20,000 or more, and the offices were individually sold over tea by Mohammed bin Alabaar and other Emaar executives to the Middle East’s most bespoke princes, plutocrats and industrialists for some $43,000 per square metre. Taken together with the premium on the surrounding residential blocks, Emaar’s profit on the Burj will probably be over $1 billion. And it will continue to extract fees for delivery of power, water, gym and club memberships, food and concierge services.
“The clients reflected Dubai,” says Greg Sang, a New Zealander who is Emaar’s head of construction on the Burj. That means Arabs mostly—particularly Lebanese and Palestinians, Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Africans, and a few Russians and other Europeans. For most, the purchase will have been discretionary—a second or third home. What do they get for their money? First of all: vertigo. The Burj is so tall that lightning will strike its side, not its spire. In theory, at least, it’s possible to see a sunset on the ground floor, then take a lift up and see it all over again from your apartment window. Eric Tomich, the site director at the Burj for SOM, says that all of the apartments will have floor-to-ceiling views, with the glass sputtered to let in as much light and as little solar radiation as possible. Emaar decided on the appliances and the electronics controlling the temperature. Together with SOM and the contractors, it built mock-ups of the apartments on the 21st floor to test the details of flooring, lighting and plumbing before setting to work fitting out the apartments. To address concerns about terrorism and fire safety, five pressurised refuges have been built into the building where residents can shelter. Some of the lifts, operating under auxiliary power, can serve as lifeboats. Apartments with terraces will come equipped with doors that automatically lock when the wind is too high: no one is meant to blow away.
Even by Dubai’s accelerated standards, construction has been heroically fast and uneventful. George Efstathiou shook hands on a deal for a 550-metre tower in 2002. Ground was broken in 2004. As late as August that year SOM was redesigning at Emaar’s insistence, pulling the building upwards. Once construction began, there were snags, for instance how to pump concrete into the sky and keep it from cracking in the blazing sun (the answer: mix it at night, with ice). Samsung’s head of construction, Kyung Jun “K.J.” Kim, is the only man to have built the world’s tallest building twice. He previously built the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Others in his team worked on Tapei 101. Together with Greg Sang, he oversees 8,000 workers on the site. Most are Indians, earning $5-20 a day, depending on their skills. They have no unions and have more than once set down tools to protest for better medical insurance, pay and housing. The work rate is punishing: a new floor every three days, with work continuing 22 hours a day over two shifts, except for a half day off on Fridays.
The tower is no more than 25mm off centre at any one point. Kim attributes that to the “buildability” of the design, with floorplans resembling each other and a hexagonal core rising all the way up the building. The core lends the tower torsional rigidity. It also allows for uninterrupted lift shafts. This is important. Since lifts limit the height of tall buildings in the same way batteries constrain laptop performance, recycling of lift shafts is a big bonus. In the Burj it means the installation of computerised “double-cab” lifts by Otis.
Instead of “up” or “down”, residents punch in their required floor and are assigned a lift. The lifts will travel upwards at ten metres per second and go down a little slower (to avoid puking), but will still be based on the safety-brake technology unveiled by Elisha Otis, the founder of Otis lifts, at the 1854 New York World Fair.
The main reason the Burj got so high is that Bill Baker thought of a way to do it. He came up with a Y-shaped floorplate for the building, called a “buttressed core”, and which may be the future of tall buildings. I met Baker one night on the terrace of the Palace Hotel—a spot he chose for the view of the Burj, a few hundred metres away. Between the hotel and the tower, bulldozers were working to create a lake from which the world’s biggest fountain will shoot up 200 metres, with lasers slicing the water into rainbows, even as the jets pulse in time with the music. Two cranes were lit up at the top of the tower, opening and releasing like tendons. Baker, a structural engineer and a partner in SOM, was dressed in a company man’s black suit, seemingly unaffected by the heat. He scribbled sketches and calculations on the back of his airline ticket with a thick retractable pencil throughout the evening, and pointed out features on the tower with the kindly precision of an undertaker. The juxtaposition between the scribbles and the reality of his career was often arresting.
Most tall buildings, he explained, are long narrow slabs—think of the United Nations building in New York—strong in the narrow and weak in the long when the wind blows against them. “What we’ve done with the Burj is to take three slab buildings and make a pinwheel out of them, so that when the wind blows, one wing braces the other two. Wind engineering was the critical thing. No one knew what the wind did at these heights.”
Most of the work was done at the RWDI wind lab “tucked in next to a dry-cleaners and a Chinese takeaway” in a strip mall in the Canadian city of Guelph. Models were tested, peer-reviewed, then tested again. The entire atmosphere around the Burj was modelled using data from weather balloons launched in Abu Dhabi. When the numbers were in, SOM took the decision to rotate the tower 120 degrees to where the wind was least likely to come from. Baker walked to the edge of the terrace and pointed up at some of the 24 tiers on the Burj where the floorplan of the building reconfigures, with the “slabs” setting back in a clockwise rotation. The tiers give the tower its hypodermic beauty, but also serve to break up the vortices made by the wind flowing past the building.
Much of the thinking on the Burj was drawn from SOM’s recently finished 356-metre Trump Tower in Chicago and from an earlier unrealised SOM project, 7 South Dearborn, also in Chicago, which was meant to have risen 478 metres from a narrow floorplate. The advantage of all three buildings, which were designed by Adrian Smith, the former head of SOM, was more light and less volume, with fewer columns on the outside and shorter distances to the lifts. “On a residential building you can’t be too far from natural light,” says Baker. The Burj, in particular, gained from Smith’s understatement. For Baker, the tower stands out for its simplicity, not its height. “In Dubai all the buildings are screaming ‘Look at me’. When everyone is special, no one is.”
Yet standing underneath the Burj on the dusty building site (Emaar refused to allow a trip up on the construction lift, controlling the press being the first instinct of Dubai) is disappointing. It is not the tower that disappoints. There may never have been a building as great as the Burj surrounded by such crap. The Dubai Mall stands squat and dirt-coloured off to one side. It will boast a Sega theme park, an Olympic-sized ice rink, several hundred gold-sellers, several thousand shops, and a branch of Paris’s Galeries Lafayette. Its main attraction will be a fish tank filled with tiger sharks, with an acrylic tunnel underneath for better viewing. “We need to be sensitive to scale,” Robert Booth of Emaar said recently in a public debate on Dubai; “they can be big projects, but if you’re unsuccessful in the details at a human level, then what’s the point?”
In Emaar’s hands, the beautiful Burj falls to the lowest common denominator. There was more poetry in the anonymous British base jumper who clambered up the Burj at night earlier this year and registered a jump of 600 metres on his altimeter before his arrest back on the ground, than there is in any of Emaar’s publicity on the project. Even the name: burj means “tower” in Arabic. The Tower tower?
It might be the heat, but things, places and times melt in Dubai, become plastic, and can be worked to a developer’s model. It raises counter-possibilities. How would the Burj have looked if it had been placed somewhere else in the world? Would it have been so lonesome? What if it was built in the Fens, with views across to Cambridge, Ely, and out to sea? What if the entrance lobby was lined with salvaged red brick and there was a fireplace, books and, instead of an Islamic motif, something of Newton, some riff on gravity?
Of course, in Dubai the tower makes money. George Efstathiou believes it is the transition between the traditional 300-metre-or-so skyscraper and something radically new. The problem for taller buildings is volume. A 1.6km tower planned for Jeddah will have five times the floor space of the Burj. “You can build over 200 storeys easily with the present technology,” says Greg Sang. “The question then is economic and financial.” It is also about new forms of living. There is a question of how these supertall buildings, whether in the shape of needles or ziggurats, will influence the Arab world’s sense of itself. Will Islam and futurism clash on the 220th floor, or unexpectedly merge?
As I roamed the building site under the tower, what I noticed most was the smell. It was abiotic with cement and sand, sure, and shimmering, as if the heat had a stink of its own (which it did—it was the smell of buildings and roads baking in the sun, and oil flares, and bulldozer exhaust fumes), but then it occurred to me: it’s not the building site you’re smelling, it’s the absence of living things, the subtraction of what you took for granted before you arrived. Finally I understood: it was the smell of the future, of a tomorrow as it will be lived in many places when my children are grown up.
I took a taxi onto Oud Metha Road, about 10km out, so I could stop and look back at the Burj from a distance. The other blocks fell away with the curvature of the earth. There was only the Burj, injecting the sky—injecting it with what? I thought of a fairytale I could write, not about the Armani private residences, but of an Indian labourer with a head for heights, a poor man, who was even then tiptoeing a girder at the highest man-made point. I tried to imagine what it would feel like up there and then I remembered Bill Baker’s description of being on top of the building. “There was no feeling of height,” he had said. “It was like I wasn’t there. It was like I was observing.”