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Burj Dubai: The new pinnacle of vanity
For all the ambition of its construction, Dubai's new Khalifa Tower is a frightening, purposeless monument to the subprime era, says Stephen Bayley.Link to this video
By Stephen Bayley
6:37AM GMT 05 Jan 2010
"Less is only more where more is no good." I wonder how many guests squinting into the Gulf's blue skies before the sublime, coruscating, vitreous surfaces of the blasphemously vertiginous Burj Dubai at yesterday's opening ceremony knew Frank Lloyd Wright's sardonic remark.
Wright was the Welsh-American architect – part bardic mystic, part technophile, complete megalomaniac – who proposed in 1956 the Illinois Sky City in Chicago. This was an outrageous, mile-high building: 528 floors, each with a height of 10 feet.
Wright's business was to shock and awe all mankind while doing what he could to épater la bourgeoisie at the same time. In 1956, there was neither the technological, nor indeed the financial, possibility of Wright's Sky City being built. It was a fantasy designed to impress. So, too, is Burj Dubai – or Burj Khalifa, the Khalifa Tower, as we must now call it, after it was renamed yesterday in honour of the president of the United Arab Emirates.
And Wright was its inspiration. Burj Khalifa is the work of the grand old Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, world leaders in design of supertall buildings. SOM, as it is known, has drunk very deeply of Wright's intoxicating brew of techno-mysticism and physical daring. But, touchingly and significantly, Fazlur Khan, SOM's engineering genius whose experiments ultimately made Burj Khalifa possible, was born not in a big Western city but in Bhandarikandi, Shibchur Upazila near Dhaka.
Khan invented a new way of building tall. In the Middle Ages, masonry structures could not reach higher than the great European cathedrals: both the practicalities of hauling stone skywards with only wooden winding gear and wooden scaffolding, plus the structural requirement for unfeasibly thick walls to create stability, limited the masons' reach for Heaven.
Then, in the late 19th century, steel-framed buildings were developed in Chicago: giving the load-bearing job to structural metal made masonry redundant. Walls were there only to keep out the weather and the conventional skyscraper was born.
So Fazlur Khan created the unconventional skyscraper. Reversing the logic of the steel frame, he decided that the building's external envelope could – given enough trussing, framing and bracing – be the structure itself. This made buildings even lighter. The "bundled tube" meant buildings no longer need be boxlike in appearance: they could become sculpture.
Khan's amazing insight – he was name-checked by Obama in his Cairo University speech last year – changed both the economics and the morphology of supertall buildings. And it made Burj Khalifa possible: proportionately, Burj employs perhaps half the steel that conservatively supports the Empire State Building.
Fazlur Khan died in 1982, just a few years after he had completed Chicago's Sears Tower (then the world's tallest building), but Burj Khalifa is the ultimate expression of his audacious, lightweight design philosophy. And it is at the extreme outer limits of our understanding of structures. Some say scarily so.
There are three seismic fault zones in the UAE area, although Dubai itself is thought to be at low risk because of its particular soil structure. Yet if I were enjoying the view from, say, the 140th floor, I would not be able to help musing with a frisson of alarm that the geologically unstable Iran was not too far away. Indeed, minor tremors are often felt in Dubai.
The engineers say this is no threat, since the Burj's structure is inherently stable: its tapering profile and cautious weight distribution mean the heights may be psychologically demanding for the timorous but are, at least in theory, secure.
The summit, they say, where the residential floors are only eight metres across, is as secure as a knitting needle set in concrete. Indeed, Burj Khalifa dispenses with a pendulum-like mass-damper, which some supertalls use to moderate incidental movements.
Yet three years ago there were reports that concrete floor slabs had already cracked after suffering significant deflections. New Civil Engineer reported that carbon-fibre was urgently being used in remedial attempts to strengthen the floors. An expert told the same journal "things have to be pretty bad" before you start repairing a half-built building.
The contractors admit that Burj has already settled by several inches. True, all buildings settle and flex, otherwise they would crumble or snap, but – call me feeble – I'd be alarmed to watch standing waves in the lavatory bowl in a howling desert storm as my bundled tube creaked and shimmied its way into the shifting sands and Hades beyond.
There are other daunting technological and practical problems with such a building. Aerospace engineers will imagine the most horrible thing that could possibly happen to a wing and then design it to withstand several times as much force. But aerospace engineers are working in an older technological tradition than designers of supertall buildings: certainly, the tapering profile of Burj Khalifa helps diminish the effect of the wind, but variables and unknown unknowns remain. We have only small knowledge of how such an extreme structure responds to wind-induced dynamic torque.
Then there is the more prosaic matter of lifts, or how to shift a lot of people a vertical kilometre without a jetpack. At the World Trade Center (whose rather different lightweight design might have contributed to the vastness of the calamity) the lifts were organised into three sectors, breaking the journey. Burj Khalifa uses a similar staggered device: vertical ascents (at a nauseating 26mph) are divided into sections; passengers de-lift in a sky lobby – or what I would call a sweaty paranoia centre. Fire? Don't even think about it … or dive into the Jacuzzi.
But even more interesting than the technology is the art. Just as the great heroes of first generation Modernism were architects, artists and designers – Moholy-Nagy, Rodchenko, Tatlin – who came not from the cosmopolitan centres of Europe but its feral fringes, so the supertalls of the new century are being built in the Gulf and Asia, not in Coventry or Dortmund. And to a design principle created by a visionary Bangladeshi engineer avid to exploit his own idealised version of the American architectural dream.
In 1999, a research director at Deutsche Bank called Andrew Lawrence published an irreverent, but deadly accurate, paper called the Skyscraper Index. Here, Lawrence proposed a link – cause or symptom, could be either – between very tall buildings and economic crises. Thus, New York's Metropolitan Life building was finished just before the 1907 depression. The Chrysler Building was a contemporary of the Wall Street Crash and AT&T's preposterous Chippendale pedimented horror of 1984 by Philip Johnson only just preceded the company's inglorious unbundling.
It's all a matter of hubris. When in 1973 Gordon Metcalf of Sears opened the new Chicago building Fazlur Khan had created for him, he most incautiously said the biggest retailer in the world deserved its biggest building. Standing beneath Khan's mighty, cross-braced structure, Metcalf could not even see Kmart coming, let alone online shopping. Sears departed on a journey of value destruction and became a much smaller retailer with a very large building. (In a footnote to the history of corporate vanity, the Sears Building was recently rebranded the Willis Building.)
Burj Khalifa is the architectural equivalent of this same vanity, elevated to propaganda. Corporations want, or wanted, supertalls to exploit what Tom Wolfe called "kerbflash", that liminal effect which a dramatic architectural profile achieves. And now, rapidly developing, if structurally parlous, economies such as Dubai use architecture as advertising in much the same way as AT&T or Pittsburgh Plate Glass once did.
Height is an expression and a metaphor of ambition, but – equally – as Freud knew, falling is a universal fear. Dubai's economy will probably recover, but the Burj Khalifa will very likely be the last of its kind this particular Emirate builds.
Paradoxically, Burj Khalifa is not a truly modern building. It is a hangover of a demented spending binge. It is a subprime Great Pyramid. It is queasy nostalgia for a version of the future that looked old-fashioned a generation ago. It is kitsch retro fantasia, a glassy memorial to something not so much forgotten as never known.
Sublime to the point of being frightening, Burj Khalifa is archaically greedy with energy and resources. It is a modern building in the sense that – like Zaha Hadid's new MAXXI museum in Rome – it was built for vainglory rather than for purpose. Vast in size but small in meaning, Burj is a lot more stuff, but less idea.
I have a vision of it now, several years hence, its glossy surfaces dulled by sandstorms, embarrassing stress-fractures in its shiny, arrogant face. It will be an ancient monument surprisingly soon. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
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