« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

The Burj Dubai and architecture's vacant stare

January 1, 2010 | 10:00 am


One of the odder, more complicated moments in the history of architectural symbolism will arrive Monday with the formal opening of the Burj Dubai skyscraper. At about 2,600 feet high -- the official figure is still being kept secret by developer Emaar Properties -- and 160 stories, the tower, set back half a mile or so from Dubai's busy Sheikh Zayed Road, will officially take its place as the tallest building in the world.

Designed by Adrian Smith, a former partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Burj Dubai is an impossible-to-miss sign of the degree to which architectural ambition -- at least the kind that can be measured in feet or number of stories -- has migrated in recent years from North America and Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It is roughly as tall as the World Trade Center towers piled one atop the other. Its closest competition is Toronto's CN Tower, which is not really a building at all, holding only satellites and observation decks, and is in any case nearly 900 feet shorter.

Monday's ribbon-cutting, though, could hardly come at a more awkward time. Dubai, the most populous member of the United Arab Emirates, continues to deal with a massive real estate collapse that has sent shock waves through financial markets around the world and forced the ambitious city-state, in a significant blow to its pride, to seek repeated billion-dollar bailouts from neighboring Abu Dhabi. Conceived at the height of local optimism about Dubai's place in the region and the world, this seemingly endless bean-stock tower, which holds an Armani Hotel on its lower floors with apartments and offices above, has flooded Dubai with a good deal more residential and commercial space than the market can possibly bear.

And so here is the Burj Dubai's real symbolic importance: It is mostly empty, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, virtually all were bought three years ago -- near the top of the market -- and primarily as investments, not as places to live. ("A lot of those purchases were speculative," Smith, in something of an understatement, told me in a phone interview.) And there's virtually no demand in Dubai at the moment for office space. The Burj Dubai has 37 floors of office space.

Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied -- it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score -- it's fair to assume that like many of Dubai's new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest -- and biggest -- in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence.

And so in the same week that you could read the news that the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has entirely sealed off two of its three towers (and its buffet!) for the holiday season, citing slow demand, you could head to the multiplex to watch the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road," in which a father and son wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape where buildings for the most part have been reduced to burned-out shells.

And it's not just "The Road": The Roland Emmerich destruction-fest "2012" and the upcoming Denzel Washington vehicle "The Book of Eli" are full of similar images; Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" moves its characters through a series of downsized companies where abandoned desk chairs swim in empty space.


Or you might discover online a group of photographs called "Empty L.A.," part of a series completed recently by Matt Logue, showing a number of recognizable intersections and stretches of freeway in and around the city where people, cars and other signs of life have been scrubbed away, presumably through digital manipulation -- and in the same trip around the Internet find a Q&A in Entrepreneur magazine with a man named Mike Enos, who runs a firm that encloses foreclosed houses, half-built hotels and other objects in plastic wrap and reports a surge in business since the economic collapse last year.

This movement in the direction of emptiness is profoundly difficult for contemporary culture -- and particularly American culture -- to grapple with. Occasional recessions and other setbacks aside, we assume that our national trajectory always moves toward fullness, that our cultural progress can be measured by how much new square footage we've created and occupied.

But that process has completely reversed itself in many of cities hardest hit by economic crisis. Detroit, as Rebecca Solnit put it in Harper's Magazine, "is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild." And as P.J. Huffstutter reported recently in The Times, Hantz Farms is planning to buy and plant as many as 5,000 acres of land within the Detroit city limits.

In Los Angeles, there are parking lots where great towers, planned during the exuberant middle of the last decade, were supposed to be. At Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand complex in Glendale, every one of the development's 100 condominiums sat empty during 2009, even as shoppers browsed in the stores below. Occupancy wasn't allowed until more than half of the units had been sold, a mark that was finally reached in December.


As super-tall buildings go, the Burj Dubai is elegant. Smith is an unusually talented shaper of skyscraper form, as he proved at Shanghai's 88-story Jin Mao Tower, which he designed before leaving SOM in 2006. The Burj Dubai's profile, which Smith says is inspired by a range of local influences including sand dunes and minarets, grows more slender as it rises, like a plant whose upper stalks have been peeled away.

But the extent to which the building had to battle worries about the wisdom of its construction even before it was finished -- the way it seemed doomed, at least in financial terms, while it was still going up -- may be unique in the history of skyscraper design. In that sense it seems impossible to write about the Burj Dubai without at least mentioning the Tower of Babel, which also, if the biblical story and various historical sketches are to be believed, combined a tapering, corkscrew design with heaps of overconfidence.

Dubai's economy will recover, at least in some chastened form. But the hyper-confident Dubai that Smith's tower was designed to mark and call global attention to is already dead, as is the broader notion, which the emirate came to symbolize over the last decade, that growth can operate as its own economic engine, feeding endlessly and ravenously on itself.

If the Burj Dubai is too shiny, confidently designed and expertly engineered to be a ruin itself, it is surely the marker -- the tombstone -- for some ruined ideas.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: The Burj Dubai. Credit: James Steinkamp.

Middle and bottom: Images from the series "Empty L.A." Credit: Matt Logue.

Comments () | Archives (47)

I have been forecasting such a state in Dubai first and foremost, but also Vegas and other vanity/bubble speculation projects for years. Dubai is not needed, it has no reason for being. This was the poorest part of the world before oil, and will be again. It was on a trade route from India and Africa to Iraq the only real viable Arab country in the area, and Iran, as they are sustainable entities. But gulf states only had pearls and trade, there is nothing else there. And is not the dual position of exporting and importing as crossroads of world trade that New York, LA, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and a rising Sao Paolo/Rio are. Mumbai is the closest major sustainable port and center of local commerce in the Arabian Sea.

The Saudis have been smarter, investing their great wealth in Europe, America and now the Far East, though hatred of the Hindu’s has stopped much obvious symbiotic relations there. Arabia was never conquered, except by the Ottomans as they wanted to control Mecca as the holy site of Islam, because it has nothing anyone wants worth the expense and trouble, the same with Afghanistan. Which is an interior country of Turkish economic focus, Kabul built by Timur, though that is more Russian controlled through Kazakhstan at the moment.

The is no long term reason for Dubai to exist in more than its fish village, trade post prior state, and it will return to it, being the first example of such demanifaication so popular in the last year, especially on the History Channel ,why I have no idea as it is not history at all. All conjecture about an impossible state. Silly, more about the CGI and pseudo religious Apocalyptic Mad Maxless trends in western man. Silly adolescent issues like horror movies.

Purpose is everything, and Vegas is only about instant self gratification, the prime mover in the Western world over the last few decades, and completely victorious in the "arts". That age is over. Vegas will come back slowly as an overflow valve of excess population in cheap land, with plentiful water and power from Hoover Dam, being why we are so short of water now in LA as our sources are diverted to other places along the Colorado River, which are the gold of Western existence, no water, nothing can live. And Arabia has little fresh water outside of the limited Medina through Yemen coastal areas of the Red sea. And so doomed. They have nothing to barter with beyond the oil they will soon be rid of, but a blip in human history.

Purpose is everything, and art, and architecture, must finally actually debate what its is. Not the childish rants and egocentric self expression of children, but real debate as to what it is for, why it is of value to mankind, things it has ignored as speculative investment and entertainment, which is not its function. Art is the highest common denominator of man, entertainment the lowest, the yang and yin of human culture. But now are reserved for the rich and bored, absurdist entertainments for those who cant be too thin or too rich, and so of no value to mankind. Its connection to human culture severed.

Now is the time, this New Year arrives with art castrated by its own vanity, effeminate, emasculated, with no virility of mind, body or soul. Now is the time, right now. The New Year art must resolve to regain its human function, to reveal mans purpose, to define who we are, to explore nature, and search for god. All banned from the academies of self worship and individual glorification, childishly decadent issues that have defanged and neutralized it s a force in humanity. It is needed, now, again. We must resolve as artists to matter once more. To be of a common humanity, to build as one, not in excess to vanity and pride, but to the advancement of our species, living in a world in balance, of mind, body and soul. But one of many roles in humanity, not more nor less important than soldier, statesman, farmer or builder. But essential in visualizing our common humanity, who we are, why we are here, where do we come from, questions asked long ago by Gauguin, and Coltrane. And Michelangelo. We must return to our task, our work, our reason for being. Working with science, with religion, all part of who We are. That of mind, body and soul. Philosophy, science, and theology. Wordless, musically, poetically, using line as melody, color as harmony, structure as rhythm to create relationships that reflect who WE are. Purely, to the center of mans being with no explanations needed, or we fail.

Welcome 2010, now is the time. to put aside childish things. to pick up the mantle of adulthood. Where responsibility, commitment, sacrifice and passion replace the void of self glorification and vanity.
Now is the time.
Happy New Year
Art collegia delenda est
Ave the Watts Towers, destroy the Ivories

For the tower to be a tombstone there would have to be a corpse. Debt is not a corpse. It is an injury, albeit a very serious one which - I promise you - is now duly recognised by those who need to recognise it.

The read to recovery will not be smooth nor easy, but it is very much there and Dubai will walk - not run - that path.

Dubai's reason for being is much much much more than vanity. In fact, it is the very opposite. Dubai is necessary for so many people and its emergence was a due to the need of a new port to do business in the region after the policy changes of the port of Bandar (Port) Lengeh in the south of Iran.

Dubai will not only survive but will grow into a city that it's turbo fueled growth would no have allowed it to be. Dubai is fortunate for the crisis to have occurred because it had given it much needed redirection and a focus that was for most of the previous decade missing.

Dubai will definitely not become a fishing village as Donal Frazel assumes, not with the combination of infrastrucutre, hospitality and business friendly climate which remains unchallanged for thousands of miles.

Some of the most famous skycrapers have been erected during much less auspicious economic moments than Dubai's current situation. Empire State Building was built during the Great Depression (surprised Hawthorne didn't mention this); World Trade Center came online during the sucky 70s. I predict Burj Dubai will attract huge numbers of tourists from the Middle East and in a year or two the refinancing of Dubai will be forgotten. Haven't seen images of the inside, but the exterior definitely pushes the skyscraper type into more graceful visual territory, which is not a bad thing.

i am a young architect, only coming to grips with the force of creation and its many other driving forces, community, economy, ceremony, practicality...destruction. it seems to me cities exist as a complex organism that are fully capable of recovering from fatal economies, all our cities have done so in the past. i find it hard to imagine Dubai reverting to its fishing village origins in the practical future and that is to say in the future marked my a burj dubai. we say that local conditions cannot possibly maintain such investments. however international cities (capital cities) are not supported merely by local geography and demographic power. improvements in transport and communication have expanded the "local" to become globally based, at least to neighbors within rage of available methods of transport. it is the defining and simple impact of the last century. and in many ways would only take a 2012 scenario to disrupt. i don't think local fish will make the menue.Kangaroos maybe.

the structure it self gives form to the aspirations of an entirely positive pre-2010 economical time. And yes perhaps this is also a result of a shortesight to the dangers of an overly confident ecconomy. however i don't think these buildings could possibly become tombstones considering our past tendency to economically and socially improve our understanding and circumstance, especially after crisis. perhaps with a new year this is not the end of a consumer overconfidence but a beginning for other such projects and improvements. Improvements catering for our ever more complicated lifestyles and populations. either way as architects we are very much opportunists allowed to practice in the envelope of the money available. i doubt Adrian Smith's reputation will be to greatly hindered, or that of the architectural discipline itself. when economic climate improves enough i'm sure these buildings will be built again. after all they are close to becoming vertical cities. inventing ever more complicated relationships between otherwise separate sectors of society. creating closer and more practical ties between people. a scary thought we might not ever embrace. But altogether an idea with undoubted marketable appeal.

Such is the appeal of the Burj Dubia. its success will most likely be determine by the recovery of its city. and if Dubai is largely reliant on oil related revenue then the next several decades at least will ensure that the Burj is well looked after. and these are most likely the years that will see it prosper of destroyed. Then the test will be to see how sustainable programs like these are for people living in economical, social and political centers. i doubt this will be reliant on the local fish but more on global markets willing to export excess.

It seems the author of this blog has been allowing his imagination to run wild. How can some one say a building is empty before it has opened ? He admits most of the apartments in Burj Dubai are sold out, yet he says the building is empty because they were all bought for speculation. Doesn't sound very logical.

The truth is : the apartments are all completely sold out. The price per square foot has gone from USD3500 in June 2008 to around USD4590 in December 2009.

The developer says the handover of the apartments will be complete by February-2010. Only then shall we know how many of the apartments have absentee owners. Even if some apartments are kept empty by owners who bought them for speculation; it is unlikely a visitor to the building will encounter images of post apocalyptic dereliction (as the blog's author likes to think).

Building height has always been the realm of the egotist, puffing out their chest and such.

But with that being said, the Dubai building is simply gorgeous. If you 'have' to build it that tall, that's the way to do it. There have been a lot of buildings that have captured the title of 'world's tallest', with many being gawdy eyesores. Even the World Trade Towers. Two giant rectangles. Ugly and boring.

I see some similarities between the Burj Dubai and the Empire State Building. Both were planned in times of exuberant excess, completed in the middle of an economic crisis, and seen on their opening day as a questionable investment.

But the similarities end there. We know how the Empire State Building turned out, after the country lifted out of the Great Depression it did very well, and has over time aged into a well known landmark.

I don't feel the Burj Dubai will end the same way. The economic downturn will change as it always does, but in the case of the Empire State Building the city of New York had the resources and development of a viable metropolitan area. There was manufacturing, a port, and international commerce and trade. In other words no one thing kept it afloat, and the Empire State Building was but one of many symbols of prosperity. When the economic collapse passed those multiple business cycles renewed themselves.

Dubai runs almost entirely on the economy of oil, and would not exist as a major city without it. It is literally a playground for the patronage of the super wealthy. Without oil there is no money to sustain it all, and without the huge infrastructure the wealthy have no reason to go there.

Someday the oil will run out, and I think Dubai will sink as quickly as it had arisen.

Looks like a stack of unlabeled juice cans.
According to Wiki, it is 818 m (2,684 ft) tall, but I wonder how much it sways near the top?

I always enjoy these end of an era stories. I always look back on them in a couple of years and smile. I have been alive for over a half-century now and nothing predicted has happened yet, especially the flying cars.

The aesthetics of vacancy ... very 2010. Thank you for this insightful and illuminating article. I live just outside of Buffalo and, as in Detroit, there are large swaths of the city that look like they could be a movie set for the Omega Man or The Road. A sign of things to come? A physical metaphor for the emptiness at the core of contemporary culture? A testament to the empty promises of the idiots who proclaim, "We must grow or we will die?"

It's nice to see Buffalo at the leading edge of a new cultural aesthetic at last, but I sure wish it hadn't happened this way.

The statement that most of the apartments are sold answers the all the negative questions raised in the article. I know office space is sold out as Emaar does not have any vacant office space. After all it is THE ADDRESS i.e the most prestigious address in the world. Who would not want to live or work in the Burj ??? I know I would if I had the money to buy an apartment.

The worst which had to come has come and will pass and Dubai will cross all hurdles with flying colours. It is indeed a proud moment for all of us the residents of Dubai to be part of history. Congratulations to H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid on this prestigious occassion, we are indeed proud.

Economic cycles apart, The Empire State was a symbol of an open society, a society that valued education and mertiocracy, and invested in universities and science, etc; a society that could build great thing with its own hands. Dubai is none of that; the Burj represents a society that thinks everything can be bought with free wealth spewing out of the ground and with financial derivatives. It is a society where 90% of workers are foreign "guests" who are denied the most basic civil rights, and it's a safe bet that none of its own homegrown citizens would be capable of designing and building a skyscraper, given their lack of serious universities. Indeed, Hawthorne is right, the Burj is a symbol of emptiness, not only material.

Splendid article!

Don't forget that there are no politics and only one opinion that is legal to have in Dubai. The ruler's handwriting is all over the land and sea, but today they remind us that debt contracts say it's not his sovereign pen and never was, so there is nothing to see here, move on, "shut up," and the West "doesn't understand" that Dubai is just a "fruit tree" temporarily out of fruit.

The "injury" of the bailout (the "refinancing" in Dubai) is an unmasking: Dubai is not wealthy at all, just made to appear that way. Yes, a lot of its working capital has been oil money generated by neighbors, but at the end of the day, Dubai is a toy for the Western financial system, denominated in US Dollars, that is completely powerless against the ebbs and flows of global capital.

While Mugabe and Ahmadinejad do favor narratives of Western misunderstanding or interference in their markets as the only permissible narratives for price instability, they at least rest plausibility on the premise that they are excommunicated (by force or by choice). Dubai, on the other hand, is a product of fractional reserve banking and the US Dollar, and so it is more likely the West actually does understand what's going on in Dubai better than they do (even though they fashioned King Dollar into colorful "Dirhams").

So, the story of Dubai's future price resilience has nothing to do with the egos memorialized in skyscraper tombstones because these are not tombstones, they are idols at the feet of which the local Arabs sacrifice themselves to the Dollar. Long live Dubai. We will keep investing if you keep worshipping materialism and excess denominated in our Fed money. P.S. thanks for the military base between Iran and Yemen.

Here is a fact that most of you do not even know. Guess who built the tallest tower in Dubai? I am not talking about the guys who drew the sketches. I am talking about the guys who actually turned the sketches into the real thing. Not to be confused with developers either. It was Samsung of South Korea. Many of us know Samsung only as the manufacturer of some fancy mobile phones and LCD TVs but apparently they also build impressive stuff like this. Of late, they, along with other Korean companies such as Hyundai, formed a consortium to build first nuclear reactors in the region, beating off France and the US in the bidding process. People here berated their success saying they(the Koreans) only got it on the cheaper price but hey, the Arabs are not that dumb. They could not have gone to the Koreans just on the price alone. After all, we are talking about nuclear reactors.. There must be something else we don't know about. Time for reflection for all of us here.

Hello and Happy New Year 2010. This is a personal humble reflection of Sheik Muhammed of Dubai. He and his country hosted the Breeders' Cup 2008, here, in Arcadia, California at Santa Anita Race Track. I wagered on one of the Sheik's Thoroughbreds in the last race. The horse showed. Notwithstanding Burj Dubai, its immensity and financial statement to the world, the Sheik has powerful love and passion in his soul for Thoroughbreds and poetry. Have you read any of his poetry regarding his love for horses and the people who love them as well.? He is profoundly sensitive. I would love to meet him personally to share with him: "May Allah bless you always. "

Al Shamps Burga
Arcadia, California

The images of the building are spectacular. I could see people wanting to rent the top floors just to escape the heat.(?)

Though, in order to achieve higher buildings, I think there needs to be a change in concept from an office building. There are too many empty floors and then the traffic issue. Higher structures without all the floors -- maybe that is what we need to shoot for in the US.

"bean-stock" is that some kind of soup??? ;-)
Try bean-STALK!

Anyway, Beeeutiful building.

Its simply gross. A gross waste of money and resources. Its just another tower of Babel. In fact, its just a stone's throw away from the location of the original tower of Babel in Iraq.

Nothing more than an international version of the Tower of Babel backed by Muslim money. Humanity, humility and wisdom need to be the plateau, not the size of a building.

1 2 3 | »


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.