What’s wrong with towering ambition?

Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest manmade structure in history, stands in glorious contrast to the pessimism of the West.

Karl Sharro

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Topics Politics

On Monday, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, unveiled the much-anticipated Burj Dubai in a spectacular ceremony. The tower immediately took its place in the record books as the tallest manmade structure ever built.

Standing at 828 metres tall, the tower surpassed the previous record-holder, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, by more than 300 metres. It has 164 floors containing more than 1,000 apartments, 49 floors of office space and an Armani hotel. The observation deck on the 124th floor is the highest in the world, providing a view for about 80 kilometres on a clear day. The building has state-of-the-art lifts that can go from the ground to the top in about 50 seconds, reaching a speed of more than 40 kilometres per hour. The tower also has the highest swimming pool in the world and the highest mosque. At the ceremony, Sheikh Mohammed renamed the tower Burj Khalifa, after the president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of neighbouring Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, who helped with a financial bailout.

There’s more to the Burj, however, than all those records and figures. It is an astonishing work of architecture that is inspired in its simplicity and elegance. There is a timeless quality about it that is reminiscent of ancient works of architecture like the pyramids of Giza and the Pantheon in Rome. Much like the pyramids, it seems scaleless. It is almost impossible to appreciate how tall it is when viewed from the ground – and I’ve spent hours doing that. Because the tower dwarfs everything around it, there is no obvious reference to compare it with. It simply rises infinitely into the sky, an impression reinforced by its tapering design, which plays a big role in reducing the effect of wind on the tower. As an architect, I would have given an arm and a leg to work on its design – not my own, of course, but I would have gladly offered the limbs of Prince Charles, say.

You have to be seriously lacking in imagination not to be impressed by Burj Khalifa. During the opening ceremony, there was a status-update frenzy on Facebook about the Burj, mostly from friends living in Dubai, but also from people watching it on television. There was a palpable sense of excitement, with expats congratulating each other and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Turn to the Western media, however, and the story was completely different. The Telegraph called it ‘The New Pinnacle of Vanity’, The Times (London) predicted that ‘Towering ambition always comes before a fall’, and Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian called it ‘a gaseous burp in the desert’. That was the polite version; online commentators fantasised about al-Qaeda flying planes into the tower, while visions of the building’s failure and Dubai’s financial ruin abounded. What is the source of all this antagonism?

On the surface, most of the attacks on Dubai seem to stem from environmental concerns and a desire for social justice. Dig deeper, however, and it is clear that a fair bit of this is driven by the contemporary Western anxiety about progress. It is not a coincidence that almost every single critic felt the need to fall back on biblical metaphors; the favourite, of course, was the Tower of Babel. Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times: ‘But if the urge to build higher, wider and more elaborately is a constant across human history, so too is the idea that building a self-aggrandising monument is an invitation to disaster. Cultures in Central America, Nepal and Africa all have variations of the Tower of Babel legend, in which human architectural excess is rewarded with divinely instigated comeuppance.’ Environmentalism has always been laced with a fair measure of superstition, but this is comically apocalyptic stuff.

Macintyre wasn’t alone in predicting the imminent end of Dubai because of its ‘excess’ and the financial problems it is now experiencing. The Wall Street Journal predicted that its prosperity is built on ‘foundations of sand’, and Simon Jenkins salivated at the thought of its demolition. What these sages forget is that history cannot be written instantly. It would have been easy to write off New York in the 1930s, when skyscraper mania also coincided with economic crisis. But the city prospered again, and so will Dubai. There is an energy about the place that is hard to miss; the Burj is but one of the manifestations of this energy. It attracts talent from all over the world to come and contribute to its success. Dubai’s current financial problems are directly linked to the global recession, but whereas Western countries are preparing themselves for long years of austerity, you can bet that Dubai will try to dig itself out of this situation more energetically.

It is precisely because of this can-do attitude that Dubai seems anachronistic to observers in the West, where a culture of low expectations prevails and fear of change is dominant. Many of Britain’s best engineers and architects are doing their finest work in places like Dubai and will rarely have the chance to do similar work in the UK. For example, the technical challenges facing the designers of the Burj were immense. Every single aspect of its design and construction, from structure to lifting to wind mitigation, required an innovative solution. More than a thousand professionals were employed to solve these challenges, and thousands more skilled and semi-skilled labourers worked on the construction site for more than five years. Was all this effort really as pointless as cynical commentators suggest?

Another recurrent theme for Dubai’s detractors is the poor working conditions for migrant labourers. A few months ago, a columnist for the Independent wrote about the Dark Side of Dubai in a rather shoddy attempt at emulating Dickens: ‘This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.’ Conditions in Dubai are harsh indeed, but the workers there have little need for Western journalists’ tears. The reason why hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have come to Dubai and other cities in the Gulf is because they can earn more than in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the countries where the majority of them come from. The remittances that they send back home sustain thousands of families. What other options do they have with Europe and America’s doors firmly shut to immigration and the West going out of its way to restrict industrialisation in developing countries?

Dubai undoubtedly has its problems, but what society progressing at such a fast speed doesn’t? And why would we assume that Dubai is devoid of social dynamics that would allow it to solve these problems and become better? Dubai represents the polar opposite of the model being preached in the West today: an ambitious, fast-growing economy based on mass immigration. This, remember, was a model once espoused by the West before excitement about the future gave way to anxiety and apprehension. Dubai insists on looking towards the future. As Sheikh Mohammed once said: ‘Anyone who does not attempt to change the future will stay a captive of the past.’ A few decades ago, this was Europe’s motto too, but its elites now have little appetite for modernity. Even worse, they insist that others shouldn’t want the benefits of development, either.

When it comes to Dubai, most people choose to see it through its outlandish signs rather than for what it really is. They dwell on the artificial islands and the enclosed ski slopes, and reduce the city to its most visible spectacles. This is like saying that Paris is the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, or that London is ‘Big Ben’ and the London Eye. The Burj does not sum up Dubai, but it is a manifestation of its ambition and energy, as the Eiffel Tower and the Crystal Palace were at the height of the Industrial Revolution before Europe lost its guts. Dubai is a city with 1.5million residents and should not be reduced to a few landmarks.

Like all great cities, Dubai will bounce back from its problems to surprise us again and again. As I look at the slender profile of Burj Khalifa rising elegantly to the sky, I pity those who lack the imagination to feel excited about it. As Oscar Wilde said ‘we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.

Karl Sharro is a London-based architect and writer. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Vicky Francis reviewed Dubai: the Vulnerability of Success. Alastair Donald talked to the architect of the world’s first rotating skyscraper. Brendan O’Neill felt that for secular miserablists, Dubai was their Sodom and Gomorah. He also compared Beijing 2008 to London 2012 and asked ‘Can only dictatorships dazzle?’, and after a terror attack wondered if Mumbai is hated because it is modern. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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