World's Tallest Tower's Dazzling Architecture, Hubris

Dubai's Burj Khalifa tower officially opens to a mix of fascination and dismissiveness

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Towering at 2,712 feet, the world's tallest tower officially opens today in Dubai. The newly-renamed Burj Khalifa tower boasts over 160 stories and can be seen from more than 60 miles away. As the Times of London gushes, "Its façade was shipped from China, its marble from Italy, its veneers from Brazil." But while architecture connoisseurs geek out, others can't help but note that its home emirate, Dubai, is drowning in debt and reeling from the collapse of its epic real estate bubble. (Catch up on Dubai's woes here, here, and here.) Does the giant structure symbolize astounding hubris or unparalleled innovation?

  • Expertly Designed, writes Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine: "How delicate the unwieldy giant looks and feels (and how fast you can get from top to bottom -- in elevators that run up to 40 mph) is a tribute to designer Adrian Smith and engineer Bill Baker... [It's] taller than Chicago's Sears Tower -- even if you put the Hancock Tower on top of it."
  • Architecturally Uncanny, writes Blair Kamin at The Chicago Tribune: "The tower is remarkably tall and remarkably thin because of its innovative structural system: a six-sided core of concrete buttressed by massive concrete walls that support the three wings of the Y-shaped skyscraper. These cost-efficient, wind-resisting bones are sheathed in a sophisticated skin of double-layered glass and aluminum... At the 156th floor, the concrete is replaced by an inner structure of steel, which carries the glass-sheathed, mostly unoccupied portion of the skyscraper - all 600-plus feet of it - to the summit, which reportedly rises 2,684 feet above the desert floor." Bursting with civic pride, Kamin adds, "Thanks to its Chicago-based architects and engineers, it possesses the quality and artistry that will enable it to take its place not only in the record books but also among the pantheon of the world's iconic skyscrapers."
  • Think Excess, Not Success, writes David Roeder at The Chicago Sun-Times: "The slender, sculpted skyscraper was built for a free-spending and status-conscious class that no longer exists. Debt is crashing down all around Dubai, so the tower could become a monument, not to national success, but to irrational excess."
  • An Example of Mankind's "Edifice Complex," writes Ben Macintyre in the Times of London: "As in finance, so in politics. Rulers, particularly autocrats, tend to succumb to what has been called the 'edifice complex', the urge to build on a vast scale, often just before being toppled...It is a beautiful object, a remarkable testament to human ingenuity, engineering and megalomania. As Dubai's economy totters and sways, it may turn out to be a monumental folly, the latest example of Man's need to build ever upwards regardless of cost, need or sense."
  • Say What You Want, It Was a Profitable Venture, notes Wayne Arnold at The National. Emaar Properties, the company that built Burj Dubai, is already in the black, reports Arnold: "After selling 90 per cent of the units in the record-setting edifice, Emaar has pocketed a profit of at least 10 per cent on the US$1.5 billion (Dh5.51bn) cost of construction."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.