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Burj Dubai by Joi.

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.

Steve Rose captures some of the excitement and ambiguity about its construction:

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.

Burj Dubai Aerial Shot 103 by Sgt Caboose.

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.

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I was having lunch in a cafe this summer and went round the back to find the toilet. There were two doors facing me, and neither of them had any signs saying ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, or those stylised figures in trousers or skirts. Instead, fixed to one door, with a huge rusty nail driven through the toe, was a 4 inch stiletto; and on the other, with another nail, a black boot of the Doc Martin variety, looking as if it had spent a few years on a building site. I avoided the stiletto.

rεsılıεnt hεtεromogεnεous rhızomε . . by jef safi.

Prehistoric? Sexist? Certainly. But it embodied a cultural truth that Nicolas Sarkozy has been tiptoeing round most of his life: that women who want to be tall are allowed to show it, but men who want to be tall must pretend that they are not trying. At about 5 feet 6 inches, Sarkozy is well known for his ‘stacked’ shoes (you can’t say ‘high heeled’), and for the specially imported platforms he stands on when he speaks from a podium. But then the following story broke and made it worse:

A worker chosen to stand on the podium behind the French president at a visit to a Normandy factory last week has admitted in a Belgian TV report that she was chosen because her small stature wouldn’t make the president look short. The report on the Belgian state channel RTBF said a group of specially selected workers of smaller stature had been bussed in to stand behind the president at the Faurecia auto parts company.

“I am told you have been chosen because of your size, is this true?” the Belgian journalist asked one woman worker on the podium. “Yes,” she replied. “You must not be bigger than the president?” the journalist continued. “That’s right,” the woman said.

 

lilliput by kristinamay.The ‘sin’, for which he is being punished so mercilessly, is not wanting to be tall – it is wanting it so much that he is prepared to make others short (as it were). He, or his team, has crossed a cultural line. We all want to be beautiful, or strong, or tall, or thin, or whatever will make us more attractive to others. And not many people make absolutely no effort to care for their appearance (although it’s possible…). It’s not vain to want to present yourself in the best possible light, to want to fit in; even the desire to impress can go hand in hand with a certain humility of heart – if it is with the right motivations.

But there are two things you can’t do: try too hard, or do it at the expense of others. This is what turns an endearing human characteristic – the desire to please and to be attractive in the sight of others – into an unacceptable foible. It doesn’t at all mean that Sarkozy is more vain or insecure than the rest of us, perhaps it just means he is less able to hide it, or dogged enough to run the risk of disclosing it.

It makes one reflect: What are the hundred little things we do each day to fit in, to please, to attract? At least we can be more and more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. And that awareness might lead to a deeper simplicity and peace, so that we are glad to please others – for good and honest and ordinary reasons – without the desperation that makes us completely dependent on their being pleased.

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