Vacant stare

“One of the odder, more complicated moments in the history of architectural symbolism will arrive Monday with the formal opening of the Burj Dubai skyscraper. At about 2,600 feet high — the official figure is still being kept secret by developer Emaar Properties — and 160 stories, the tower, set back half a mile or so from Dubai’s busy Sheikh Zayed Road, will officially take its place as the tallest building in the world.

“Designed by Adrian Smith, a former partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Burj Dubai is an impossible-to-miss sign of the degree to which architectural ambition — at least the kind that can be measured in feet or number of stories — has migrated in recent years from North America and Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It is roughly as tall as the World Trade Center towers piled one atop the other. Its closest competition is Toronto’s CN Tower, which is not really a building at all, holding only satellites and observation decks, and is in any case nearly 900 feet shorter.

“Monday’s ribbon-cutting, though, could hardly come at a more awkward time. Dubai, the most populous member of the United Arab Emirates, continues to deal with a massive real estate collapse that has sent shock waves through financial markets around the world and forced the ambitious city-state, in a significant blow to its pride, to seek repeated billion-dollar bailouts from neighboring Abu Dhabi. Conceived at the height of local optimism about Dubai’s place in the region and the world, this seemingly endless bean-stock tower, which holds an Armani Hotel on its lower floors with apartments and offices above, has flooded Dubai with a good deal more residential and commercial space than the market can possibly bear.

“And so here is the Burj Dubai’s real symbolic importance: It is mostly empty, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, virtually all were bought three years ago — near the top of the market — and primarily as investments, not as places to live. (“A lot of those purchases were speculative,” Smith, in something of an understatement, told me in a phone interview.) And there’s virtually no demand in Dubai at the moment for office space. The Burj Dubai has 37 floors of office space.

At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence…

“Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied — it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score — it’s fair to assume that like many of Dubai’s new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest — and biggest — in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

“Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied — it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score — it’s fair to assume that like many of Dubai’s new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest — and biggest — in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

“The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence…”

LA Times: Culture Monster

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