Monday, January 4, 2010

The Infernal Tower

The emirate of Dubai on the Persian Gulf, one of the seven sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, celebrated the completion of what is now the tallest building in the world. The 160-story Burj Khalifa tower stands at 2717 feet tall, which is roughly half a mile high and nearly a thousand feet taller than the Freedom Tower in New York will be if the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ever actually builds the darn thing. So, the Port Authority wanted to respond to 9/11 by building the tallest building on earth at the site of the World Trade Center towers, but they lost their bid to do so before they even got started.
It's a Pyrrhic victory for Dubai, which planned the skyscraper in better times while trying to become the glamour and leisure destination of the Middle East but finished it (except for a few floors, many of which still have exposed drywall) just as the real estate bubble there burst in the middle of a global recession. I don't think the Burj Khalifa tower - named after the president of the U.A.E. as an act of gratitude to the Abu Dhabi, of which the Emirati president is also the emir, for helping Dubai through its financial crisis - is going to become the kind of iconic landmark that the Empire State Building in New York became once the Great Depression ended. I don't even think the new skyscraper will be redeemed like the World Trade Center towers were once the American economy recovered from the malaise of the seventies. For Dubai has already spent so much money on foolish things like artificial islands and indoor ski slopes, and it's produced so much surplus real estate, it's hard to imagine the Burj Khalifa project breaking even, despite insistences from the developers that much of it is already rented. Consider also the fact that the global economy still hasn't quite recovered from the crashes of 2008, along with the fact that Dubai has few natural resources of any value, and you have yourself the mother of all white elephants.
And they can never hire enough foriegners to keep the place clean.
This skyscraper is a monument to ego, not just to the self-love of Dubaians or other Emiratis, but to the self-love of all humankind. There's some kind of germ in the human psyche to show how clever and capable we are by building such structures to prove that we can in fact build them. It's been that way as far back as the construction of the Tower of Pisa, which, in an ironic twist, has been leaning to one side as if to demonstrate that we humans are not in fact infallible. Skyscrapers - even the most beautiful, best-engineered, and most beloved of them - have all huffed and puffed in their own different ways, their very existence seeming to express the pride and self-absorption of their builders: "Look and see what we just did!" The Burj Khalifa is a continuation of this self-love, taken to the extreme. But this latest variation on the Tower of Babel is bound to fail. It may not get destroyed by terrorists, but the exorbitant costs and labor necessary to maintain it, never mind what it took to build it, will humble its builders and be its undoing. It's likely that no grandiose projects of this nature will ever be attempted afterwards.
We may never love like this again.

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