may 07 | Architect

Arabian heights

By Dan Halpern

How does an emerging global power announce itself? With the world's tallest building.

George Efstathiou was wondering if, after the building was finished, you'd be able to see Iran on a clear day. "I mean, it's really not that far over the Gulf," he said. "Seriously--standing at the top, at the final height, how far do you think you'll be able to see?"

"I think you'll be able to see until the curvature of the earth stops your line of vision," said Eric Tomich, laughing a little.

In fact, if the evening had been clearer, spotting Iran might already have been close to possible. Efstathiou and Tomich, both architects at the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), were standing on a wooden platform floating more than 1,300 feet above the ground. Below them, the Persian Gulf lay a few miles to the north; about 60 or 70 miles on the other side of it, the coast of Iran.

The platform was balanced on 115 floors of the half-built Burj Dubai--which means in Arabic, simply, "The Tower of Dubai"--an ultra-tall tower that, when it is completed, will be the tallest man-made structure in the world. At 1,335 feet, or 406 meters, it is already taller than the Empire State Building and a few weeks from rising above the Sears Tower.

And this is only somewhere around half the height it will ultimately reach. The Burj sits on a three-legged, Y-shaped base and spirals up into the sky, tapering as it goes, its cross-section decreasing as it rises, with setbacks at different levels. There's a bit of a rocket look to the renderings, as if at any moment the building might fire its engines and just launch itself into the atmosphere.

And in effect, it will. The height is already slightly dizzying, but when you consider where it's going--take the Sears Tower and stack another Sears on top of it, and you'll have the idea--it seems as if it might just touch the edge of space.

The small patch of desert land that sits under the Burj has, of late, conducted one of the most remarkable (and most exhaustively publicized) overhauls of national reputations in the history of the world. It is the capital city of the emirate of Dubai, one of the seven states that make up the nation of the United Arab Emirates, a place that has learned the most efficient lessons of modern advertising: Once a tiny, practically unknown spot, with only a tradition of pearl-diving and piracy and a bit of oil to recommend it, Dubai has thrust itself to the center of international consciousness by constantly insisting on attention.

It is now, of course, the West's favorite example of its own simulation, the Orient appropriating the economic blueprints of the Occident. (Not to mention being the only spot in the region that has appropriated certain cultural particulars: If you find yourself in the Middle East wanting a whiskey at an Irish bar, it's not advisable to try Riyadh.) After 15 years of explosive development, Dubai now outdoes Las Vegas in strange spectacle, from its indoor ski range in a mall to man-made islands that replicate the earth's landforms; from the sail-shaped, "seven-star" service Burj Al Arab to the world's first underwater hotel.

Because Dubai's oil reserves are far, far smaller than its neighbors' (and predicted to run out within the decade), the emirate has hit on a different strategy for a sustainable economy, based in tourism and spectacle, with the aim of holding a prime spot at the table of international trade. Dubai is betting that, by remaking itself as a garden spot, a financial center, and a gateway to the Middle East, it will become a nexus of the global economy.

The tower being built, thus, is an announcement. It is meant to say: Here we are. You've watched us coming, and now we have arrived. We have reached the center, drawn the center to where we are. Man has come closest to the heavens here. You cannot possibly choose to look away.

At least the tower itself will be something worth looking at. Its final height is a closely kept secret--mostly in order to prevent competitors from trying to beat it, though probably also to encourage breathless speculation--but it is likely to go up at least 2,300 feet. Many guesses go well above 2,600; one website, based on a report by a subcontractor that had so far supplied 170 tons of aluminum to the project, has estimated more than 3,000 feet; one particularly excitable guesser, at has e,stimated 1,011 meters, or more than 3,300 feet.

Whatever the final height turns out to be, one thing is clear: The Burj Dubai will rise far, far above the tip of the current title holder, Taipei 101, which hits its apex at 1,667 feet. (The construction schedule calls for it to pass Taipei on July 4, Tomich says.) The initial plan, however, didn't start with an idea to make a building almost twice as high as the tallest buildings in the world. The original conception for the Burj, in fact, was a paltry 1,800 feet.

Mark Amirault, a Canadian who is group senior director for development at Emaar Properties, the developer of the Burj, says the company had considered a tall tower as early as 2000, but in a different location, a few miles down the coast at the Dubai Marina. It was in February 2003 that the concept for the Burj Dubai--and its enormous attendant development--came into full being when Amirault, along with another Canadian, Robert Booth (who is now executive director at Emaar), and Mohamed ali Alabbar, Emaar's founder and chairman, held a late-night meeting to hammer out the idea.

"We looked at the success of KLCC [Kuala Lumpur City Centre]," Amirault says. "Not only did they build the Petronas Towers, but they added in a major shopping center, a large man-made lake and park, [and] a hotel, and created the new center of Kuala Lumpur." Emaar hired the master planner who had designed the Malaysia project, David Klages of RNL, and began to envision a new city center for Dubai on essentially the same model.

Emaar was founded in 1997 and is still run by Alabbar, a former chief of Dubai's Department of Economic Development. Its reported profits for 2005 were just under $1.3 billion. This, obviously, has made Emaar a significant player in the extraordinary free flow of money driving the emirate's growth. But the development of Dubai has hardly been a capitalistic dance solely choreographed by entrepreneurs. These are projects directed from the top: Alabbar is not only a private businessman, but also director general of the Dubai Department of Economic Development and a member of the Dubai Executive Council, the supreme government body that coordinates all growth initiatives in Dubai. He is also very close to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who is generally credited for the massive expansion and new directions the emirate has taken.

What's more, Emaar--valued at $25 billion dollars two years ago, and surely worth more today--recently exchanged 27.9 percent of its stock in return for land from the massive Dubai Holding. Dubai Holding is owned by the emirate itself, and thus, since Sheikh Mohammed's government already owned 32 percent of Emaar stock, the state now controls a majority 51 percent of Emaar. This wasn't the case when construction began, obviously, but that hardly matters. The direction of development has always had a clear guiding hand. And that guiding hand has directed development to go up, up, up.

"Whatever I presented to the sheik, he said to make it bigger," Farhan Faraidooni, a leading Dubai architect, has said. When Alabbar was negotiating with SOM, the sheik made sure Alabbar kept him informed. What he wanted to know above all, again and again, was: Is it the tallest?

The soon-to-be-tallest building in the world sits on a concrete-and-steel podium with 192 piles that go down about 150 feet into the earth. The bottom floors will house a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani; above that will be a thousand apartments, as well as restaurants, pools, fitness areas, cigar lounges, and, toward the top, office space. (Sheikh Mohammed has reportedly reserved five floors.)

The gigantic development gathered around the Burj, built on land that was formerly a military base, is clearly intended to shift the focus of the whole city. Called Burj Dubai Downtown, it will draw considerable commerce and attention from the Sheikh Zayed Road, a prestigious chain of massive, luxurious hotels and office buildings that stretches along the city's main highway thoroughfare, as well as from the swank resorts and malls along the coast, not to mention from what is essentially the older version of a downtown, known as Bur Dubai.

The new downtown around the Burj will include a built-from-scratch man-made island (in a man-made lake) hosting a new "Old Town," a low-rise development that will blend traditional and modern styles, according to the Emaar website. It will also include the world's largest mall--covering 12 million square feet, with 16,000 underground parking spaces, it will have an ice rink and a "world-class aquarium"--as well as 30,000 homes, nine hotels, six acres of parkland, and 55 residential towers. The 500-acre development is well under way, to be completed at the same time as the Burj itself, in late 2008. All in all, the entire thing will cost about $20 billion.
In New York in March 2003, Amirault and Booth met SOM partners Adrian Smith, Bill Baker, and Efstathiou for an initial interview. Soon after that, Emaar invited SOM--with its long history of skyscraper design, from Lever House to the Sears Tower to the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site--to enter a competition for a new 1,800-foot residential building in Dubai. Also invited were Kohn Pedersen Fox, Cesar Pelli and Associates, Carlos Ott, and Denton Corker Marshall. They gave the firms two weeks to make a proposal.

"SOM was the unanimous winner, and everyone's favorite design," Amirault wrote to me. "It had the heroic, romantic massing qualities of the great New York skyscrapers, but had a modern skin and was technically state of the art. They also picked up subtle references to Islamic architecture in the arched plan shapes, which appealed to our Emirati staff [who] worried that the building would look like it could belong anywhere."

The first week of the competition, SOM came up with the original design; the second week, they made the drawings. Smith, the lead designer (he has since left SOM to open his own practice, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill), says he knew what he wanted to do from the start. At that initial meeting, he says, "We showed them projects we'd done: the Jin Mao tower in Shanghai, Sears, Hancock, 7 South Dearborn, and some other schemes that didn't get built. And one of the comments they made was that they really liked the Tower Palace 3's Y-shaped plan--they thought it looked great for residential." (They were referring to the Seoul tower Smith designed for Samsung, a project that briefly held the title of the world's tallest residential building.)

Smith agreed with them. "I knew what I wanted to do right off the bat: step back and spiral it up," he says. The final design, as it turned out, would resemble the original idea fairly closely: a tapered tower, with asymmetric steps to protect against wind forces, with three legs at the base.

The tapering effect is an attractive look, but it's also a structural tactic. "The biggest force on the building is wind," explains Efstathiou, who is managing partner at SOM and is overseeing the project from start to finish.

"When you start changing the profile of the tower as it goes up, you start confusing the wind forces; they never get organized. So our design keeps changing profile, and the wind never achieves a harmonic movement."

In addition to the tapering, the SOM team designed a buttressed core--a six-sided core within the three-footed Y shape. "Take buildings, for instance, that are long and rectangular--slab buildings," says Bill Baker, the chief structural engineer on the project. "Those buildings are strong in the long direction, but challenged in the short. So we took three and put them together, essentially, so two wings are catching the wind and the third is holding the other two guys up."

The challenge facing Smith was to design a 2,000-plusfoot tower that, because of its desert site, lacks much in the way of an urban context or cultural references. He started with the onion dome shape, widely used in traditional Islamic architecture. "But I didn't want it to be overt," he explains. "So I tried to use it in plan, but not in section. The onion dome is always done in section, seeing it against the profile of the sky. I didn't use it in that way, except when you're close to the building and you look straight up. I was hoping people would see it that way and say, 'Ah!'"

For his part, Baker had been spending some of his time thinking about issues of scale, looking at everything from Galileo's comparisons of human bones and dinosaur bones to the botanist D'arcy Wentworth Thompson's studies on why organisms are structured and shaped the way they are. Later, after finishing the structural design, he was asked to lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile-High Tower, which led him to do a comparison to satisfy his own interest. ("His building would have twisted, I think," Baker said, adding that Wright's tower did have similar scaling to the Burj.)

Emaar took two weeks with the proposal, then announced that they liked the design and wanted to begin a conversation about fees. Efstathiou flew to Dubai to negotiate a price (which he declines to reveal). The deal was done at Vu's, a bar that sits on the 51st floor of one of the Emirates Towers, a pair of buildings finished in 1999--still the 13th and the 27th tallest in the world--and which, at least while the Burj remains unfinished, are sometimes referred to as the most prestigious addresses in the Middle East.

Efstathiou was ecstatic and called Chicago to break the news. "Most of our buildings are well-known, very visible, but this one is the most visible ever," Efstathiou said. "This only happens once."

According to Efstathiou, redesign began almost immediately after making the deal. On his next trip, he says, he heard the same words he would hear repeatedly over the next four years. Can we go a little bigger?

There is some disagreement over who, or what, drove the height increases--Smith says Emaar wanted to reserve the ability to make the Burj taller if another, bigger building were announced, but the developers were satisfied initially with 1,800 feet, or 550 meters; it was he who wanted to make it bigger. "It wasn't finishing properly at 550," he told me. "I needed more height to complete the stepping and the reduction of the tower's mass as it went up."

Efstathiou says the impetus came from Emaar. "We start doing the working drawings. And they say stop again: 'We want to go a little higher.' The other thing that was happening," he continues, "I can't even talk about the number, but we're getting close to Mohamed Alabbar's lucky number, and so why not go to that number? We're above 700 meters at this point, I can tell you. And then you look up a little higher, and you say, 'Look, a half-mile's not that far away! What about a kilometer? We could go to a kilometer!'"

(They're both right, says Amirault: Smith and Alabbar both wanted to make the top third of the building more slender, "and our chairman wanted to get to a higher figure than the earlier 705-meter design.")

What is certain is that the building just kept getting taller. "So we finally," Efstathiou concludes, "came to a number, and we're almost done, and then they say again, 'Can you crank that spire up?'" Emaar asked about height increases as recently as December 2006, he says, with construction already over 100 floors.

Despite its celestial reach, back down on the ground, the Burj has not escaped its share of political controversy. Last March, laborers working on the Dubai Mall rioted over wages and working conditions, causing an estimated $1 million in damages. None of the laborers working on the Burj itself took part, apparently, but because it is part and parcel of the same huge project, the riot called unwanted attention to the building.

What the riot mainly did was galvanize human-rights groups to criticize Dubai's treatment of its workforce. There are 4,000 laborers working day and night on the Burj itself, 20,000 on the whole project. These workers come almost exclusively from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh--some 80 percent of Dubai's residents are foreign, and the heavy work is done almost entirely by temporary workers from South Asia. Laborers are paid around $4 a day; skilled carpenters make a little less than $8.

The fact that Dubai has hundreds of thousands of poor immigrant workers building the city from the ground up hardly distinguishes it from a host of world cities throughout history. But although no nation is eager to display its lowest social and economic rungs for public scrutiny, the attention here has been so skillfully focused on the wealth in the sky that these issues tend to be largely ignored. This is another marketing triumph, of course--Dubai has capitalized on, and to some extent manipulated, a version of the West's imaginary East, essentially the picture of Arab chieftains in white robes and sandals, talking on cell phones encrusted with diamonds.

It's no surprise, then, that the marketing language for the Burj Dubai is overheated. Even the sign outside the worksite announcing the current floor level (it changes by about a floor every three days) proclaims: "HISTORY RISING." As Emaar and, by extension, Sheikh Mohammed have it, the Burj Dubai is an inspiration for mankind, a beacon of progress; it is the endpoint of a story that stretches from the pyramids through the great cathedrals of Europe to the skyscrapers of America; it's the beginning of a new story, the crowning of Dubai as a prince of cities. The development is, simply enough, the "most prestigious square kilometer on the planet."

Part of the genius of Dubai's self-assertion is its coupling of modernity with myth: The form of its opulence is at once a business model and a fabulous dream. And mythmaking has, obviously, been a large part of the marketing of the Burj Dubai itself: an instant landmark; sign and symbol of a new global emphasis. (Although Emaar claims, for instance, that Adrian Smith took his inspiration for the building design from a six-pointed desert flower, Smith admitted in 2005 that the flower idea had come after he had completed the design--that it was, essentially, a marketing tool.)

So far, the marketing has worked. Before even the first floor was built, every residential unit had been sold over two evenings of an invitation-only sale. Well before the building is finished, Emaar has reportedly made back its investment.

And Dubai, you could say, has made back its investment as well. Its campaign of construction was supposed to compete with the great cities of the world. But already, it has begun to compete mostly with itself. Another Emirati developer, Nakheel Properties, is preparing a tower project. Still in the design concept stage, some reports have announced that it will be called Al Burj, and that it will reach 4,000 feet into the sky.

"I think it will probably happen, once Burj Dubai is up," Smith says. "They'll wait to see how high it is, and then start building higher."

Dan Halpern has written for magazines including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine.