When it opens today, the 817.7-metre Burj Dubai will become the world's tallest building, making Toronto's CN Tower look a little, well, inadequate. Carol Willis, the founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum in New York, discusses the achievement.
What do you think of the Burj?
It's phenomenally tall - a thousand feet taller than the current world's tallest building, the Taipei 101 in Taiwan. It's a real testament to innovations in structural engineering and the aspiration to build something that just goes way beyond the previous barrier. This really settles the case for the moment.
So we won't see anything taller for a while?
Five to six years, minimum, because that's how long it takes to build a building that tall. There were many designs pre-fiscal crisis that envisioned kilometre-tall towers. It's not impossible, but it's always the economics that are the ultimate proof of whether it's a viable product.
Dubai's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse of late. Is the tower just a symbol of wasted money?
Right now, I'm looking out my window at the Empire State Building, which opened on May 1, 1931, as the U.S. was sliding into the Great Depression. Twenty years from now, whether or not it's still the tallest building, the Burj is going to be an expression of an investment that was typical of its time. It's much more likely to be seen as a symbol of the confidence of an age than a predictor of failure.
I'm looking at the CN Tower right now. What does it means to a city to lose the title of world's tallest building?
People are always going to compete to build the world's tallest building because it's a measure you know you can exceed. Many cities will lose that status, but I don't think that changes the way people look at their buildings. New York for example, it not interested in having the world's tallest building. New York is confident that it's a great world city.
So are tall buildings a sign of low self-esteem?
It's not low confidence. It's a competitive spirit that wants to claim attention on the world stage. It's a way to project optimism, ascendancy and in Dubai, it's certainly an attempt to establish an identity as the centre for finance. In the 21st century, the super-tall buildings will be in the Middle East or Asia.
What's behind the urge to build on this scale?
Status is certainly a very important part of it. The branding of a building. The celebrity of the building. That's how Donald Trump trades on his brand to get people to pay an incrementally higher price for his apartments. But the traditional explanation that they're about ego or ambition or a phallic symbol, that doesn't exist. They are business propositions that are developed by teams of professionals in various different fields from plumbing to elevator technology.
So it's not a penis thing, it's a brain thing?
Totally. And a money thing.
You went to the top of the Burj in 2007, what was it like?
It was thrilling. Dubai is just a shocking place for an urbanite to visit because you go up to the top, look around and all you see is sand and skyscrapers and the Arabian Gulf. It's pure nature and this very tight cluster of very tall buildings. I'm not particularly afraid of heights but I'm not a thrill-seeker. The building felt extremely secure. The observation deck is on the 125th floor. Above that it gets quite skinny and it's all corporate suites. There was a demand for every sheik and his cousin to have an office up there.
So is it about the view looking down or the view looking up?
They say you can see some of the curvature of the earth from the very top. But I don't think they put the building that high for the view. I think they wanted people to see it from everywhere.
HOW THE WORLD'S 10 TALLEST BUILDINGS MEASURE UP:
- Empire State Building, New York 1931 - 381 m
- Shun Hing Square, Shenzhen, China 1996 - 384 m
- CITIC Plaza, Guangzhou, China 1996 - 391 m
- Two International Finance Centre, Hong Kong 2003 - 415 m
- World Trade Center, New York 1973 - 417 m
- Jin Mao Building, Shanghai 1999 - 421 m
- Willis Tower, Chicago 1974 - 442 m
- Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur 1998 - 452 m
- Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai 2008 - 492 m
- Taipei 101, Taipei 2004 - 509 m
- CN Tower, Toronto 1974-75 - 553 m
- Burj Dubai, Dubai 2010 - 800 + m
COMPILED BY ERIC ATKINS; SOURCE: SKYSCRAPER.ORG, REUTERS, COUNCIL ON TALL BUILDINGS AND URBAN HABITIAT