10 July 2013

From On High

A new “world’s tallest” building seems to crop up every year, with a frequency that calls to mind the home-run champs of the nineties, each attaining new, unthinkable heights with less and less meaning. Since 1998 alone, Petronas Towers 1 and 2, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Taipei 101 have all briefly claimed the title. 

But even among this craze of ascendance, the opening of Dubai’s reigning world’s-tallest, the Burj Khalifa in January 2010, did, in fact, seem meaningful. For one, the Burj is dramatically taller than the nearest world’s-tallest contender (if you stacked the Chrysler Building on top of the Empire State Building, the resulting behemoth would still not equal the Burj’s height). It is also beautiful.

Many skyscrapers, while yearning quite obviously for style points, serve a clear utilitarian mission: to maximize office space in a crammed chunk of commercial real estate. This is true of the Empire State Building, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, and Shanghai’s World Financial Center. This is deeply untrue of the Burj, which houses even less commercial space than the much shorter World Financial Center and must fend for room not in the heart of midtown Manhattan or downtown Shanghai, but in the middle of a vast desert. Its clear lack of usefulness seems to indicate its status as an art object. While most contemporary towers tend toward the hulking, the Burj Khalifa—designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—is tapering and fine. Like a sorcerer’s wand, it seems it might, at any moment, channel the force of the heavens or snap meagerly in half.

I had the chance to visit the Burj on a work trip to the UAE last summer. Since its opening, the skyscraper has served as visual shorthand for the city in television ads as well as the climactic moment of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. It is to Dubai what the overlapping N and Y are to the New York Yankees: an insignia and insta-metonym for a desert land drunk on the superlative. To visit it was to visit the intended essence of the city.

As I drove into town on the Sheikh Zayed Road, the high-summer heat set the tower’s tapering edges ashimmer, a distortion the Burj, notched by design, seemed not just to anticipate but to welcome. It took much appreciative gawking at the building’s silvery glint and twitchy rise to a near-disappearing point before I realized that the tower resembled, above all, a mirage. That is, a fake mirage. It’s made to look like it isn’t there at all. 

There are sound formal reasons for this double bluff. For one, the mirage-effect lends the Burj a kind of compositional sense within the scattered skyline of the city. From movies and ads and popular imagination, I was expecting a sci-fi hellforest of never-ending skyscrapers. Dubai is this, and it is not. A row of tall buildings does line the Sheikh Zayed Road, but these can scarcely rival the flatness of the desert, and so seem barren or at best loosely connected, like abandoned works in some giant sculptor’s atelier. In these strewed surroundings, the Burj might look outlandish. As a mirage, however, it makes perfect sense. 

The building was modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright’s Illinois, a famously improbable, unrealized design for a mile-high tower in downtown Chicago. A mile-high tower is as preposterous as it sounds: fully twice the height of the Burj and proposed by Wright, it seems, as a kind of heady gag that has since lingered as myth, architecture’s equivalent of the Northwest Passage. As such, the Illinois is a loaded allusion: with it, the Burj declared itself crown to a historical moment (the peak of a global real estate bubble) and to a place (Dubai) where the impossible might finally be realized. 

As one approaches, however, the Burj becomes decidedly more probable, which is to say, it gains in reality and diminishes swiftly in allure. By the time I parked in the sun-hounded lot outside, its notched edges had smoothed to a crop of vertical hubcaps, the whole edifice coarser and more earthbound. In this way, the Burj inverts the disillusionment of a mirage: it disappoints by materializing. This was a massively giant building after all and not, as it appeared from afar, a sliver of possibility pasted against the sky.

Still, a building like the Burj exerts a magnetic pull, much of which derives from the prospect of its view. Such is the question posed by a tower: is it made to be looked at or out of? “Vista,” as a word, has come to have it both ways, denoting not just the view itself but the perch that affords it, as if the latter attained the status of lookout simply by purveying one. When one gazes upon the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, this is literally what one is looking at: a view of a view, a vision of a vision, and that distinct, dread-soaked awe known to any passerby must derive, at least in part, from imagining the view from up there. Like the face of a visionary, these buildings draw much of their power from what they look upon.

By this logic, a building like the Eiffel Tower defines Paris not only from without (crowning the skyline) but from within, too (totalizing the city with its view). It is a metonym, and favorite of souvenir hawkers, because a whole city can be seen from it. In this sense, a postcard of the Eiffel Tower sneakily implies a picture of Paris by a kind of reflection, celebrating the sole, ascendant vantage from which the entirety of the place can be seen. In other words, I was looking at the Burj, but I wanted to look out from it. So I walked three blocks to the Dubai Mall, to pick up my ticket. 

This, of course, meant existing, however briefly, outside. Dubai is often mistakenly believed to possess dry heat because of its location in the desert. In truth, the humidity of the city is transcendent and parodic. Its average percentage of humidity per month rarely dips below 80, and often cracks 90, which experientially is very close to the choked, need-to-take-a-deep-breath feeling of a particularly unpleasant steam room, with the addition of a desert sun mercilessly unshielded by even the slightest lick of cloud. Several times, my sunglasses fogged up the nanosecond I quit a building. A five-block walk could leave a person as drenched in sweat as a 5K. This gives Dubai, in the summer, a sort of barren, Martian feel. Just as in certain sci-fi movies, astronauts may have to escape a hostile environment but, because of the gravity-free atmosphere, can only escape slowly, so that they seem to panic almost calmly, shambling along in their bear-sized suits—this is the feeling of outdoor existence in Dubai in high summer. One must move slowly (because of the heat) and yet urgently (because of the heat). 

It was in this kind of languid panic that I traversed the distance to the mall. Like so much in Dubai, it is the biggest in the world, boasting such baroque diversions as a skating rink, aquarium, and giant indoor skiing facility as well as a hellacious infinity of international shops: Bloomingdale’s, PinkBerry, and Magnolia Bakery among them. (This, in addition to 150 escalators, ninety-five elevators, and a meteoric fountain-light show that, according to the voice emitted happily from its homepage, can be seen from space). Like a cruise ship, or any other vessel of programmatic fun, the mall seems to house everything you could ever want in a way that excludes so much of what you would actually enjoy. Of course, Dubai does exclude much of what people would want when it comes to seedier pleasures, and for this reason the place projects a certain airless quality. Breeze, possibility, the whiff of chance seem to have been meticulously evicted from the city, along with petty theft and peach Schnapps. The mall is clean, safe, and boring. As a totalitarian realization of the consumerist experience, it represents capitalism stripped of any dynamism, vibrant hucksterism, barker-y verve, spontaneity, or camp. 

Inside the mall, I picked up my ticket. Throughout the process, I was aided by the delicate-voiced women in retro stewardess headscarves who often materialize in Dubai to facilitate consumer enticements with an unsettling joie de subservience absent in my experience of the West. All are migrant laborers. As a class of people, these workers (from India or Southeast Asia, mostly) represent roughly 90 percent of the Dubai population. Generally, they are riven with a panic to serve, larding their speech with “sir” in the places an American teen would use “um.” I was ushered swiftly to the metal detectors. 


In my visits to the Empire State Building as a school kid, the blustery wind presented the scariest and most primeval force, and the surest sign that humans were not meant to hang around 1,450 feet above the Earth, taking photos of each other. Yet the Burj, at every level, seems wholly sealed, like a snow globe. To enter, one glides through a tunnel along a moving walkway; an animated mural shows the Sheikh, falcon on his arm, looking wise and visionary. In the lobby, marshmallowy white walls furnish information about the Burj’s construction along with diagrams that help conceive of its height. A tiny skylight offers a glimpse of the very top of the Burj, which, even from the structure’s base, seems impossibly far away. Then one is whisked, by fiendishly solicitous staff, into an elevator and—voila!—after a minute-and-a-half long elevator ride, stands atop the tallest building in the world. The distance is not so much traversed as negated. 

But we were not quite at the top. It was here I discovered that the mystical 160th floor, the highest point, was inaccessible to the viewing public. That I would not ascend to the wind-swayed tippy-top of the Burj seemed the kind of negligible detail that is also deeply and day-ruiningly sucky. I was still standing on the third-highest observation deck in the world (behind the Shanghai World Financial Center’s and the Canton Tower’s in Guangzhou) and the added boost of thirty-odd stories would not at all have altered the view at such a radical height. And yet the entire point was to look out of from the highest tower in the world. To have been thwarted in realizing this goal, by a mere twenty-nine stories, was to be on the wrong end of a bait and switch with the building’s raison d’être.

This is not to say I did not feel monstrously high up. I ambled around in a hesitant, stultified way, for the view itself was the weirdest thing about the visit. Now, and this may have been a fluke of the weather—which, on a clearer day, might have afforded views of the Palm Jumeirah, the palm-shaped manmade islands laid atop the Persian Gulf, or the Burj Al Arab, the famously sail-shaped hotel—but on this day, besides the clutter of the much lower skyscrapers along the Sheikh Zayed Road and the resort hotel directly below, there was absolutely nothing to see. It is a 360-degree view from the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck, and I would say about forty-five degrees of that semicircle looked out at the plots of ordinary skyscrapers. The rest of the view—approximately 330 degrees—was of flat, low urban developments shading into the varied browns of the desert. To the west, a hazy view of the Persian Gulf. All of which would have been mostly unchanged at a much lower height. The irony—a simple one, perhaps, but one I could not get over—was that this building was the city’s most meaningful sight and we were now inside it, looking out at the very little that surrounds it.

This was not the intended view from the Burj. When construction began in 2004, Dubai was still in the grip of fiendish development. By 2009, with the Burj partially completed, Dubai had plummeted into apocalyptic debt, requiring a $10 billion loan from oil-rich Abu Dhabi to complete the project. (Originally titled the Burj Dubai, it is now named after the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, presumably part of the deal.) No doubt more architectural wonders would have enlivened its view, if not for this financial catastrophe, caused in no small part by the erection of the Burj itself. Less a phoenix rising from the ashes, it is a phoenix whose rising helped cause a financial wildfire. The homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, in this sense, has come full circle: the Burj is impossible, no less fictional for having been made.

And yet this strange panorama makes a trip to the Burj inadvertently sublime. Every monument, at its inception, gives rise to its future ruin, and yet few face the prospect as directly as the Burj. From its state-of-the-art observation deck, one beholds the ageless, ungoverned desert. Futility is never more futilely refuted than with a monument. The Burj seems to have been erected to elucidate this fact.

Looking out from its 124th floor, I couldn’t help but think of “Ozymandias,” Shelley’s contribution to grade-school syllabi everywhere. There are stark differences between the modern marvel and Shelley’s wreck, the latter amputated and time-ravaged, the former brand-new, sleek. The pharaonic enjoinder, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” has undergone a 21st-century face-lift: “Enter my works, ye wealthy, and consume!” But to despair and to consume ultimately differ very little; both furnish the same barren view. After being ushered out of the Burj, I left the mall to join the slow traffic out of town, a huge red sun beginning its descent. In no time the horizon had reclaimed the tower, beginning to shimmer again.

Image: Photo by Naeem Ebrahimjee via Flickr.

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