Resist the Urge to Diss the Burj

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Burj_Dubai_20090916.jpgThink before you gloat. The indiscreet charm of the Burj Dubai, now officially renamed the Burj Khalifa in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who rescued the project, is a ready target for critics -- of big projects, of the real estate business, of the superrich, and especially of the ambitions of the United Arab Emirates. The Atlantic Wire has a sampling of opinions, largely though not entirely negative.

Now comes a counterblast from the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National. Amid a review of pre-completion scorn, John Gravois writes that journalists and critics omitted

pretty much anyone who is not a rich, boorish westerner, an Emirati, or an immiserated low-wage worker. Entirely missing from most accounts was the Dubai of Indian shopkeepers, Filipino professionals, Lebanese restaurateurs, Iranian artists, Keralite longshoremen, African gold traders, Palestinian bankers and Pakistani estate agents. Between the facade and the so-called underbelly, an entire city went missing.

In the end, what so many of these articles offered was not analysis but catharsis, sometimes of the ugliest variety. In some cases, Dubai was simply written out of the future. "As they did Ozymandias, the dunes will reclaim the soaring folly of Dubai," was the headline on Simon Jenkins' March 20 column in The Guardian. His 1,200-word essay culminates in a kind of prophetic vision whose language is a little more sensuous, a little more enthusiastic than a punishment fantasy should probably be in polite company.

(Thanks to aldaily.com for the link.)

The United Arab Emirates are no utopia, but who are we Americans and Britons to condescend? It isn't only the fees earned by the Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, illustrating America's global competitiveness in services and bringing petrodollars home when our currency is imperiled. The project is part of a response to the absence of a historic great city Islamic Middle East that can fill a role similar to Hong Kong or Singapore as a node of international trade and culture, and as a model for its region. The rulers of the Emirates deserve thanks for doing something about this. That has meant creating a destination city rapidly, with all expedients available.

As for the drop in prices of Burj apartments and other Dubai real estate, there are no public statistics on purchasers available, but I'll that most buyers aren't hurting as much as the critics suppose. The very rich are constantly buying and selling houses and apartments in world cities and resorts, and like John McCain, can't always keep track of how many they own. They take the long view and are used to big drops and jumps of individual assets.And in good times or bad, they're usually somewhere else, as this Wall Street Journal report about New York City luxury buildings at the peak of the real estate bubble illustrates.

Apparent architectural follies often turn out far better than we assume. Peter the Great's creation of St. Petersburg was the beginning of Russia's rise as a world power, even if it had no natural geological foundation and was built under working conditions that make the lifestyle of the Gulf's migrant laborers look princely. Many Parisian intellectuals ridiculed the originally non-functional Eiffel Tower.The New York skyscrapers planned during the Roaring Twenties and completed at the beginning of the Great Depression initially seemed white elephants -- the tallest was dubbed the Empty State Building -- but were more than vindicated after the Second World War, as was the Chicago Merchandise Mart (1931), the world's largest building at the time, becoming a foundation of Kennedy family wealth from its purchase in 1945 to sale in 1998. And unlike many other major developments in history, and Beijing's reconstruction today, the Burj did not (as far as I know) replace historic quarters.

And what of Simon Jenkins' invocation of Ozymandias (Pharaoh Ramses II)? Ramses' immense statue remained so awe-inspiring even in fragments that it sparked one of the most widely anthologized poems in world literature, extending the ruler's fame across millennia to television and the Web, and achieving immortality, if not exactly the sort his religion promised.

Hubris has something to be said for it.

(For a more extended view of the pluses and minuses of megaprojects, see my Xanadu Effect, published in early 2001, two crises ago.)

Photo credit: Imre Solt, via Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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