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

This is the end

pleaseturnouthelight

“The world was ending then, it’s ending still, and I’m happy to belong to it again….”

The author of these words, the novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen, titled his 2002 book of essays How to Be Alone. He’s not. A check of books published between 1998 and October 2002 and received by the Harvard University Library reveals that we are at the end of agriculture, the American century, anathemas, the art world, the Asian miracle, the Asian model, authoritarian regimes, the beginning, baseball, books, boxing, business as usual, capitalism, certainty, change, cinema, class politics, class war, the Cold War, crime, development, empire (five), economic democracy, economic man, ethnography, Eurasia, evil, fashion, finance, foreign policy, gay, globalization, the growth paradigm, history (four), homework, human rights, ideology, illiteracy, imagination, an illusion, innocence (two), innovation in architecture, internationalism, kings, law (two), man, masculinity, marriage, marketing, the Microsoft era, modern medicine, the modern world, Modernism, money, natural evolution, nature (two), nomadism, North Korea, the oil era, the past, patience, the peace process, philosophy, the poem, political exceptionalism, politics, print, privacy (two), race, the revolution, secrecy, shareholder value, the standard job and family, the story, style culture, sweatshops, theology, time (six), tolerance, torture, utopia, welfare (two), welfare rights, the welfare state, and, last but not least, the world (eight). Certainly the spirit of the millennium inspired much of this outpouring of work on the “end of” theme. But there is more to it than just reaching a new mark on arguably the world’s most important calendar. Among other things, it signals a general willingness to entertain the prospect of a fundamental turninging point in society and culture…”

Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass./London: The MIT Press, 2004.  p 55

We’ve been here before

KITCHEN DEBATE

“… [The] more we speak of the future, the more we have need of historical perspective. We have, of course, (always) been here before, given long history of visions of how ‘new’ technologies were going to transform the world. As early as 1893, Answers magazine enthused about how the electrical home of the future would be ‘fitted throughout with … electric stoves in every room [which] can be lighted by pressing a button at the bed-side … [its] doors and windows fitted with electronic fastenings’.’ In the context of contemporary excitements about cyber-shopping, one can readily see the transformative potential in a situation where:

the inhabitant of London could now order … sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth and reasonably expect their delivery upon his doorstep; he could, at the same moment, and by the same means, adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages.

However, this is in fact John Maynard Keynes writing in 1900, describing the potential significance of the introduction of the landline telephone as a tool for home shopping and virtual commerce . As long ago as 1909, the Futurist Marinette was convinced that ‘we stand on the last promontory of the centuries! Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed’. Ten years later, in 1919, Le Corbusier announced that ‘the problem of our epoch is the problem of the electronically mediated home’, and by 1928 Paul Valery was speculating on the possibilities of ‘a company engaged in the home delivery of sensory reality’. In 1959, the designers of the ‘Miracle Kitchen’ which went on show at the American National Exhibition in Moscow promised that ‘household chores in the future will be gone for the American housewife at the touch of a button or the wave of a hand’.

“There is also a long history of visions of how it has been imagined that technical advances in communications — from the telegraph to the telephone to the Internet — will somehow lead to ‘better understanding’. The telegraph — or the ‘Victorian Internet’ , as it has been redescribed by Tom Standage — was heralded as ushering in an era of world peace, for this very reason. In fact, the hysteria, or ‘telegraph fever’, that surrounded the laying of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 surpassed even that surrounding the coming of the Internet today: it was the occasion for 100-gun salutes, celebratory flags were flown from public buildings, bells were rung, and there were fireworks, parades and church services. The whole event took on a religious aura and there were claims that the fact that, as the new invention now allowed people to ‘see and hear everyone else in the world’ , it would somehow lead to a uniting of the human race. Even the august Scientific American referred glowingly to the new invention as an ‘instantaneous highway of thought between the Old and New Worlds’, and there were bold claims that it was now ‘impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should … exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth’ .”

David Morley, Media, Modernity and Technology.London/New York: Routledge Press, 2007. pp 236-37.

Image: Today’s Highlight in History:
Fifty years ago, in 1959,
during a visit to Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon engaged in his famous “Kitchen Debate” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. (The impromptu exchanges occurred in the kitchen of a model home at the American National Exhibition, with each man arguing for his country’s technological advances.) Nixon and Krushchev defend their systems.