I must have driven past it 1,000 times in my five years in Dubai. But like a tourist in Manhattan, I can't resist the urge to look up every time I pass.
The need for taller towers will never go out of style
I must have driven past it 1,000 times in my five years in Dubai. But like a tourist in Manhattan, I can't resist the urge to look up every time I pass. In all that time, every visiting friend and relation I've collected from the airport has asked about its progress as we pass. My nephews, currently studying for their exams in Indifference, Sarcasm and Attitude, are transformed into attentive, questioning little charmers for the few seconds it takes to pass the Burj Dubai site when they fly in from London every year. By the time the tower is in the rear-view mirror they're back to rolling their eyes.
There is something about the idea of the world's tallest tower that fascinates the little boy, even the truculent teenager, in all of us. That is why we continue building them despite the commercial and engineering challenges they present to their architects, engineers and sponsors. As a nipper, the scene I remember most from King Kong is the very end of the film, when the oversized ape is hanging from the Empire State Building swatting those biplanes away. I wanted to know whether the edifice would be able to retain its structural integrity if a 20-metre, distressed monkey was to clamber over it in real life.
It is important questions such as this that have driven mankind to challenge his environment down through the ages by building ever-taller castles in the sky capable of resisting attack from even the largest of primates. Property developers have known that towers of more than 80 storeys tend not to make much money since Kong first scaled the Empire State Building in 1933, in a rage over the loss of his palm-sized sweetheart. (It was a relationship that would never have really worked anyway.)
Building tall only makes sense up to a point as a commercial enterprise. The higher you build, the more space you need to devote to lifts, which means less leasable area for you to sell or rent. Then there's the problem of the steel cables that carry the lifts, stretching under their own weight like giant strands of chewing gum. So you need to break up the journey to the top, which means adding more lifts and selling less office space.
The bigger the building, the deeper the piling needs to be. The taller the building, the wider the base generally needs to be to remain structurally sound, which means buying more concrete, steel and other expensive stuff, and hiring more people to put it all together. Tall buildings also need clever systems to avoid them swaying too far and too fast at the top and giving those who live and work in them the feeling of seasickness while sending the cables within the lift shafts whipping from side to side. It all gets very complicated and expensive. So why go to all that bother for a building that may never make you money and is sure to be eclipsed in a matter of years by the next Johnny-come-lately tower from your neighbour, who is determined to have an even bigger building than yours?
Building on this scale is rarely about turning a quick profit. The Empire States and Burj Dubais of the world are about cities and their golden eras of development. They symbolise the successes and failures of economies. They bookmark the emergence of new centres of capital and commerce. Where once they were all about the American dream, in the last decade they have more recently come to signify the Asian dream. Seven of the world's 10 tallest towers are in Asia and all of those have been completed since 1996.
The only US tower to remain in the top 10 list is now the Willis Tower, the former Sears Tower in Chicago, which was finished some 36 years ago. Now the Gulf is where all the super-tower action is to be found. Local property pundits have been speculating over the future of such colossal structures and as to whether the completion of the Burj will mark the end of Dubai's obsession with building tall.
Smaller, lower and more energy-efficient buildings are the way forward, say the architects and brokers. That may be so, but if there is anywhere in the world where building tall is still in vogue it is the Gulf, where shed-loads of cash tends to trump low-rise efficiency. Ultimately, if the funds are available, we can't help ourselves. It's in our DNA. When my two-year-old son gets his Lego set out, he tends not to be interested in low-rise, community-based construction. He wants to put one block on top of the other until they are as tall as he is when he can't stretch any higher.
That is really why towers such as the Burj will never go out of fashion. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org