Beyond Buildings


Every Inch a Soaring Thing

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Buj Dubai opening

The Burj Khalifa


9-11 becomes an orgasm in a Triumph of the Will: those were the perhaps less than fortunate overtones of the spectacular opening this evening of the Burj Khalifa, at 824 meters now officially the tallest building in the world. After the skydivers and the video portrait of Dubai, and after Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has unveiled a plaque renaming the tower, formerly the Burj Dubai, for the sheik of neighboring Abu Dhabi, who bailed Dubai out, the bombs burst not just in air, but off of the skyscraper’s every floor and angle, while Klieg lights shot not only up, but in every direction, until the top ejaculated its fiery celebration of development. Obscured by the firework’s smoke and the lights extending into the farthest reaches of the Emirates, into Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf to Iran, was the fact that the Burj Khalifa is actually an astonishingly beautiful building.


Its height alone creates the kind of perceptual tricks that redefine your notion of the relationship of an object to its context. It is so much taller than what is around it that you forget that those little midgets are between 30 and 60 stories tall. Seen from a distance, it makes the edge cities of Dubai look like mountain ranges leading up to the one peak that is the mother of all human-mountains, the Mt. Fuji of speculative real estate, the anorexic Tower of Babel that does reach up into the heavens.


What makes all that work is not just the facts of the tower’s height, but also the stepped bundling of a mass that moves from a spreading, triangular base through endless panes of faceted glass set in aluminum moldings up to a spire that just keeps moving up and around beyond what seems possible. The whole thing is perfectly in proportion and balanced in three dimensions, while the curvature carries throughout the building’s every aspect, making it coherent and singular in its appearance. As a result, it is the skyscraper Louis Sullivan called for more than a century ago: “Every inch a soaring thing.”


The Burj Khalifa’s developer, Emaar, had the freedom to set the building off in a giant circle of several hundred acres they control completely, so that they could site it along an artificial lake with the obligatory dancing fountains, next to one of the world’s largest malls and surrounded by an Arabian Nights fantasy of New Urbanism, filled with luxury hotels and residential buildings huddled around heavily guarded courtyards. They had the sense to let architect Adrian Smith, formerly of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, take all of this and the desire to revenge the replacement of the pyramids of Giza by the Lincoln Cathedral as the world’s tallest building in the 13th century, and let him and his team concentrate on making the purest expression of the skyscraper possible.


Given the economic situation, and especially Dubai’s severe economic problems, the Burj Khalifa will probably hold onto its title for quite a while (though the world’s second tallest building, in the Dubai Marina district, is now under construction), so we should be lucky that it is such a good representative of a type many of us had given up for dead many years ago, when the lumpy Taipei 101 Tower managed to hoist itself to the top of the tallest erection heap. Will it change anything? Not likely, but tomorrow we gather under its shadow to discuss “Sustainable Societies,” in a conference sponsored by Brand Dubai. Stay tuned—I’m sure the Burj Khalifa is tuning in some cosmic frequencies.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.