7 jan 10 | The Providence Journal

David Brussat: Superman, meet Dubai's superscraper

by David Brussat

Superman could not, if he were alive today, have leaped the newly opened Burj Dubai in a single bound. It is the tallest building in the world. He would have had to fly over it. And if he did fly over it, he might not, as the photo above attests, be able to see the ground (at least not without using his X-ray vision).

He would be able to see Dubai City's other skyscrapers peeping above the clouds, far below the crown of the Burj Dubai. Burj is Arabic for tower, and this tower towers over all towers. At 2,625 feet (2,717 feet counting antenna), it towers over the Empire State Building's 1,250 feet (1,472 feet with antenna). But the Burj Dubai does not yet put at risk the Empire State's record for longevity as the king of buildings, a reign of 41 years, ended in 1972 by the World Trade Center towers, at 1,368 feet and 1,362 feet, destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

While the Burj Dubai officially took title as the tallest building in the world when it opened to the public on Monday, it actually overtook its 1,670-foot predecessor, Taipei 101, about 2 1/2 years ago. The timing was lucky for me and my wife, Victoria. We visited Taiwan in May of 2007 and toured the world's tallest building just two months before it became the world's second-tallest building. The Burj Dubai inched past it on July 21, 2007.

The Burj Dubai may or may not break the longevity record. The proposed Burj Mubarak al-Kabir, in Kuwait, is expected by its backers to top out at 3,284 feet (1,001 meters -- think a thousand and one nights). An even taller proposal, in Dubai, is designed to rise a stratospheric 4,600 feet. It was announced in 2003, a mere two years after the 9/11 attack, which put a damper on the idea of skyscrapers. The damper was gone by 2005. Supertall skyscrapers were rebranded as "superscrapers." But a new damper has kept both superscrapers from leaping off the drawing boards. They remain proposed superscrapers, leaving the Burj Dubai unchallenged, at least for now.

The new damper is the global financial crisis, or in local terms, Dubai World, the superdeveloper whose financial woes threatened to bankrupt Dubai. The emirate was bailed out by neighboring Abu Dhabi. When the Burj Dubai opened on Monday, reporters learned that it was now to be called the Burj Khalifa, after Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.

Some say that the Burj Dubai opened in time to set a new world record for the longest "Wall Street Crash"-type busted tycoon leap. Such speculation is abetted by the tower's architecture. Viewed from a distance its 160 stories look seductively slender. But one of its setbacks, on the 78th floor, has a big swimming pool, so a superhuman leap must surely be required to reach the ground. That's assuming one must reach the ground to set the record. A visit to the world's highest mosque, on floor 158, might be advisable.

The Burj Dubai's architect, Adrian Smith, formerly of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, told Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne that "its profile . . . grows more slender as it rises, like a plant whose upper stalks have been peeled away." To me it seems more like a Manhattan skyscraper of the old school, stretched to the utmost limit of attenuation, its setbacks obeying the famous 1916 zoning law intended to prevent buildings from blocking sunlight from the street.

The Burj Dubai strikes me as the most graceful skyscraper of the modern(ist) era. Most recent skyscrapers look like refugees from a Fisher-Price toy factory. Yet the skyscraper is the only type of building in which modernism may plausibly be said to challenge the superiority of classicism.

Unfortunately, unless you enjoy modernarchiphobia (the feeling that a building is about to fall on you), skyscrapers require a distance to appreciate. If you are up on its observation deck, you cannot see the building itself, only its neighbors. And if you are on the sidewalk far below, you are too close to see much of it. In fact, a skyscraper may be defined as any building that cannot be seen in full from the bottom or the top.

Even if you can see the Earth curve from the Burj Dubai, the view from the Empire State is likely to retain forever the world record for taking the breath away, because it is surrounded by New York. Ask Superman. Ask King Kong.

By the way, observers of the Providence development scene with long memories will recall that it was none other than Adrian Smith himself who designed the version of Providence Place (1999) that was jettisoned after Lincoln Almond defeated incumbent Gov. Bruce Sundlun, in 1994. Smith's version of the mall -- as long as the Empire State is tall -- was a work of monumental classicism. I still miss it. Friedrich St. Florian's design is splendid, especially for a shopping mall, but the Smith version still dominates a corner of my heart.