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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)

Well for Amerikans it was always about having the biggest everything. So I understand many will feel offended like the author of this commentary when the good 'ole US of A is being bested at it's own game. And as for Dubai sinking when the oil runs out...Well USA consumes obscene amounts of this finite resource and seemingly does absolutely nothing to prepare for the life after. So the USA will go down the drain together with Dubai in the end.

Dubai has no oil, Abu Dhabi does. They are living off the market of easy credit for speculative pomposity. America has more oil or had, than the Saudis. We are doing more, just have over 300 mil to account for, China will soon pass us for most fossil fuels burned, and already far worse as far as greenhouse gases.

We will be around, if in a less grandiose state than now, more will go towards energy, in many various forms. once the market makes it affordable, other fuels will come on line, and nuclear wil have to be a much greater share.

Dubai has nothing. And for us here in the west, as decadent as we are, its the people inside that count far more than metal and glass. That can be replaced easily, lives cannot.

don't underestimate the importance of the built environment. its a stage for living and the quality of the stage only makes the performance all the more enjoyable. its this sort of building that allows for modern life styles and these buildings can;t be created by just any one. the successful completion of this building alone speaks of resourcefulness of a society and its ability to organize and manage its wealth; financially, physically and intellectually over a long period of time. you say the value of a building is nothing compared to the value of a life. i would perhaps agree, but i would also say the experience of a life, demonstrates in the completion of such experimental buildings, shows a distinction between peoples. i know of several occasions were people have lobbied to save historically significant buildings. i think experimental buildings like this one will attract people to live in Dubai, and not just tourists but businesses, academics, students, wealthy and of course those following success; in the hope of reaching it themselves. of course Dubai never expected its resident population to invest in its projects or be the benificiaries of the project, how could they, its always been about attracting international interest. Of importing knowledge and potential for wealth. the heads of state are clearly spending money projects like this one to by a city and this speaks of foresight beyond oil. its creating a stage to attract the worlds best actors(people) in a hope that they will offer a worth while reason for the city to exist. i can see how this building offends many all over the world, but ultimalty it can only be a benifit to us a society.since it offers a place for the best to meet and test themselves. you may not say life has a price but its us who ultimately value ourselves. actually all Dubai needs now is a lot more work on the day to day utilities and ultimately less sovereign restrictions to favor and serve the desired market (people) and they could then launch a world wide marketing campaign. this is the biggest chink in Dubia's long term plan. i would say its current services are least favorable to its most significant market. and when its success is untimely built from western ideals and technologies this is pot whole. i mean who over here would move over east to a place were sovereignty does nothing for the human rights of its significant market (foreigners) and censorship takes place. to us (western foreigners) this seems like a step backwards. i don;t even think it serves those its meant to protect (local markets) since obviously the long term success of the locals is being binded to the knowledge and wealth foreigners bring. ultimately i think society does value an individual and it measures that value in what each of us is capable of producing. The Burj represents this ideal and seeks to attract those most valued and of most value. i can see how this is viewed badly, but i think if Dubia can resolve its social differences and be more open to the west then it will justify its existence and serve its self. it will attract succsess and no doubt be successful in return. either way its standing now and is a very bold attempt to develop a city were others would give it up for the fishes. i would like it to succeed, it would only speak of our ability to develop in remote places conventionally unsustainable. whether this creates morally questionable places (las vagas) is a problem to be resolved later on.

EDIT for end of previous post: the burj dubia is a symbol of weath but i don't think this this should be neccesarily be a bad thing. in the end Dubai is building the best money can buy and that is in its self a good thing. its only made bad when it takes precedent over people. i don;t think it's doing that. it is mostly harming to the existing Eastern cultural practices. but i think a lot of these practices take precedent over the people, i mean naming them is like touching fire. segragation of men and women, physical abuse, very conservative attitude to western influence held by eastern society.... the burj can be seen as a success of our values in the East and the best thing is because its a building it speaks for itself, allowing their culture to inhabit it in time. it doesn't hurt, it doesn't imprison, repress or intimidate (only through sheer size) it impresses. its a wonderful statement both of us can accept. i find it wierd when we reject it. its practically admitting self hate????

Been there for past architectural projects, and witnessed first hand of Dubai & Abu Dhabi city scene.. I asked this question way back.. 'where are they going to get the people to fill-inn these buildings?? I couldn't understand why they were building so much with no end-users to support these structures.. I was young and native to have asked that question then, but saw this coming before the global recession.. 'they said we will build and they will come', Second question was 'why would people come here (U.A.E) because...??

Dubai is a monument to consumption and excess for the sake of it.

A playground for wealthy Arabs, previously a money spigot for European expatriates, and a cesspit for everyone else.

There is no culture. They have embraced all that is bad about the West, not a thing that is good.

It's like someone making a copy of an Apple iPhone. It looks like the iPhone, and looking at it superficially, it looks like the real deal, but it sure as hell doesn't work like one. The software is wrong.

Dubai misses the point on a collossal scale. You can't throw money at architectural projects and expect a thriving, rich culture to develop. Money only papers over the ugly reality underneath. The emperor has no clothes.

Why would Dubai be the center of anything? There is no promise in that region. Once the oil is gone, so is the purchasing power of the Middle East, since they do not produce anything else of value.

Singapore and HK have the East/West gateway covered. West of Dubai is Africa. East is India. What of value, exactly, does Dubai sit astride of?

They don't produce ideas, they rehash tired ones. Heaven knows the slothful natives of Dubai don't produce any products either, that's what the South East Asians are used for, since anything that doesn't allow them to spend all day doing nothing much, is beneath them. Pity them when their money goes, and with it, their hired help.

That building is crazy! I've wanted to get into architecture for some time now, and I have a friend who is in design school who gets to meet famous and prominent architects all the time. He has even met the man who designed the Freedom Tower, which is supposedly going to go up in place of the Twin Towers at ground zero. The imagination that goes into building things like this is crazy!

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