The Burj Dubai opened yesterday. It is staggeringly tall. Yes, the record for the world’s tallest building is broken every few years, as politicians and engineers try to inch their way ahead of their rivals. But this is not an incremental step, it is a quantum leap. This building is hundreds of metres higher than anything within shouting distance. At 828m it is about twice the height of the Empire State Building, and nearly three times higher than the Eiffel Tower.
We’re going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn’t scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It’s only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower’s top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.
The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It’s a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.
But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn’t this how we’ve responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York’s Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.
I remember building towers as a child, out of alphabet bricks, wooden blocks, lego pieces, cardboard boxes – anything at all. And digging holes in the sand on holidays to see how deep I could go: deeper than my own height, deep enough for it to get dangerous. Dad broke my heart by ordering me to cave them in when we left the beach, in case anyone fell in during the night.
There is something primeval about height and depth (and span…bridges again!). There is a purity about the sense of wonder one experiences within these encounters. I recognise all the social and economic and political ambiguities, but I am still awestruck by this building.