Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Iconic 'Burj Khalifa'

Dubai's stunning 828m skyscraper is an ideal monument for an era of credit-fuelled over-consumption – irresponsible and unsustainable Dubai defies logic. Skyscrapers rear up out of the pitiless desert where, a generation ago, there was only wind-blown litter. This city-state confected from subsistence has now witnessed the opening of the world's tallest building – the Burj Khalifa, steel-ribbed, glass-clad and completely unsustainable.

The 828m (2,717 foot) skyscraper boasts the world's highest swimming pool and mosque and is said to contain enough glass to cover 17 football pitches. Not since 1311, when the spire of Lincoln Cathedral first topped the Great Pyramid of Giza, has the tallest structure in the world been located in the Arab world. Some Arabs, not unreasonably, interpret criticism of the building as resentment at Dubai's presumption in setting itself up as a world city.

Stunningly designed by the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrell, the Burj Khalifa is inspired not only by minarets and desert flowers, but also by Frank Lloyd Wright's 1956 plans for the Illinois Sky-City in Chicago. Neither the technology nor the money existed then to build such a structure. Now that it does, Dubai would like to see its audacious building as a metaphor for its role in the vanguard of globalisation, as a technocracy capable of yoking Islam and modernity.

The symbol, though, is already tarnished. Before and during construction, the building was called the Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower); its website still is. The surrounding area was to have been known as Downtown Burj Dubai. But at Monday night's launch, the name was abruptly changed to Burj Khalifa, in honour of the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Burj Khalifa's air-conditioning system is said to be the equivalent of melting 12,500 tons of ice a day, in a city that has the world's highest per capita carbon footprint. Dubai relies heavily on CO2-emitting desalination plants. The Tiger Woods golf course alone requires 4m gallons of water a day. Short-term profits have repeatedly been put before sustainability.

There remains an outside chance that the emirate may yet become capable of combining development with equity, transparency and environmental sustainability. But at the moment, Dubai is built entirely on a capitalism whose nakedness is clothed only in bling. And if that continues, the Burj Khalifa will stand as a symbol of a meretricious, credit-fuelled era in which no one with any choice would wish to live.

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