Burj Dubai, the first superscraper
The worldâ€™s tallest building opens for business this week â€” if it can find any
By John Arlidge
For years, Dubai boasted that whatever bling project it embarked upon, from carving its coastline into palm-tree-shaped resorts to building vast ski domes in the sand, it would be the â€œnumber one in the worldâ€. After the credit crunch, however, it looked like the only record the Gulf city state would claim is the biggest boom and bust.
Tomorrow, though, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al- Maktoum, the emirateâ€™s ruler, will celebrate at least one global milestone he can be proud of when he opens the tallest building on the planet.
The Â£1 billion Burj Dubai is at least 2,683ft from its base to the tip of its spire â€” thatâ€™s more than half a mile, the equivalent of three-and-a-half Canary Wharf towers or two Empire State buildings stacked up. Its final height is being kept secret until tomorrow, but architects who have worked on the building have hinted it could break the 2,700ft mark.
The tower is more than 1,000ft higher than its nearest inhabited rival, Taiwanâ€™s 1,671ft Taipei 101. It is also the tallest man-made structure in the world, surpassing the 2,063ft KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, America.
The steel-ribbed, glass-clad structure looks like a giant hypodermic needle piercing the desert sky. As the 169-floor building rises, it passes through several climatic zones. The temperature at the top is up to 10C cooler than at the bottom.
It has the highest swimming pool in the world, on the 76th floor, and the most elevated place of worship with plans for a mosque on the 158th floor.
The Burj Dubai â€” â€œburjâ€ means tower in Arabic â€” is the culmination of Sheikh Mohammedâ€™s vaulting ambition for the emirate. It is the first time the Arab world has claimed the title of the worldâ€™s tallest building since 1311, when Lincoln Cathedral exceeded the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
However, after the economic downturn ripped through Dubai â€” sending property prices plunging 50% and forcing Sheikh Mohammed to go cap in hand to his wealthy neighbour, Abu Dhabi, for a $25 billion (Â£15 billion) bailout â€” critics are already dismissing the tower as a gaudy memorial to a lost decade of uncontrolled speculation. â€œItâ€™s the last blast of the Noughties in a city that got too big for its dishdasha [robes],â€ said one local banker.
The Burj is so tall that architects are calling it not just a skyscraper but a â€œsuperscraperâ€. It is mostly residential. There are 900 studios and one- to four-bedroom flats and 144 apartments, designed by Giorgio Armani. The tower also houses the Italian designerâ€™s first hotel, which means fashionistas can live in a branded home and go on holiday in chic surroundings without leaving the building.
Emaar, the developer, has made Â£700m selling apartments in the Burj since building work started in 2004, but investors are nursing losses totalling hundreds of millions of pounds after the property crash. Many may be forced to sell their new homes at below purchase price. There is also 300,000 sq ft of office space in the tower. None is occupied yet and observers question how many tenants will move in.
However full the building turns out to be, it is an undoubted engineering triumph. Summer temperatures of up to 50C, desert dust storms and the towerâ€™s extreme height forced builders to go to extraordinary lengths to complete the job. Surveyors had to take their measurements just before dawn when the building was â€œat restâ€ â€” not expanding in the heat of day or contracting in the cool hours of night.
Human rights groups and workersâ€™ organisations say the tower has been built using â€œslave labourâ€. Construction workers, mainly from India and Pakistan, toiled round the clock for as little as $5 a day.
Environmentalists have criticised the buildingâ€™s power consumption. Its air-conditioning system is the equivalent of melting 12,500 tons of ice a day, and it will consume millions of gallons of desalinated water â€” in a city that already has the worldâ€™s highest per capita carbon footprint.
The Chicago-based architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, deny the claim. â€œTall buildings are inherently energy- efficient because they are high-density,â€ said Bill Baker, chief structural engineer. He described the Burj as an affirmation of the power and importance of tall buildings following the 9/11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center in New York. â€œItâ€™s a symbol of optimism. It says, â€˜We believe in the futureâ€™.â€
Very unfortunate timing for the opening; in 2006 the empty offices (with tenants) may have been worth $900m you would wonder what they would fetch now?
If the expression too big to fail were ever apropriate it is probably this, whilst the owners may take a bath a little like the channel tunnel it is isn't going anywhere.