World's Tallest Building Rises Amid Dubai's Flop

Even as Dubai struggles with its financial flop, the emirate will open the world's tallest skyscraper Monday. The Burj Dubai is nearly a half-mile high — that's taller than the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building combined. And much of this giant is vacant, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne tells guest host Mary Louise Kelly.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

When it opens on Monday, the Burj Dubai, that's Arabic for Dubai Tower, will officially become the tallest building in the world. It's been described as an architectural icon, also as a monumental folly, and an impossibly lanky beanstalk skyscraper.

For that last description, we're indebted to Christopher Hawthorne, who writes about architecture for the Los Angeles Times.

And, Christopher Hawthorne, tell us how tall is the Burj Dubai.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE (Architecture Critic, Los Angeles Times): Well, the official number, believe it or not, is still a secret. Best we can tell, it's about 2,600 feet, which is just about half a mile tall. It's about 1,000 feet taller than the CN Tower in Toronto. It just almost looks endless when you stand at the base and look up at it.

KELLY: You are an architecture critic, tell me, does this building work? Aside from its incredible height, does it work aesthetically?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, typically, the buildings that are trying to set the mark for tallest structure in the world are not particularly notable for their architecture. This building actually, I think, is rather elegant. It is very massive at the base and then it gets more slender as it goes up. And so, the impression that it gives when you're standing some distance away is that it's remarkably slender and almost delicate, which is surprising, given that it's about a half mile tall.

KELLY: Well, let me inject two words into this conversation: Dubai world. I mean, we know the economy is in deep trouble, it's billions of dollars in debt, and yet they are debuting this very glamorous tower. How should we square that?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Well, the timing of the debut is pretty awkward to say the least. The fact that it's opening in the midst of all these concerns in Dubai about the collapse of the real estate market and, really, the fate of the entire economy makes it a pretty complex architectural symbol as these things go.

There already have been lots of comparisons, given it's location to the Tower of Babel, lots of descriptions of it as a kind of folly, as you suggested, and a kind of monument to megalomania and to hubris to overconfidence, all of those things. And for me, one of the most striking things about it is that, as far as we can tell, it opens and will probably be mostly empty.

KELLY: So they built it and the challenge now will be to fill it.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: The challenge will be to fill it. And it's likely to be, I would guess, several years before they even come close to doing so.

KELLY: I assume that across the board, building in Dubai must have screeched to a halt this past year. Is that right?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: It really did. And when I was there, what was really striking was visually it looked, at least to judge from all of the construction cranes that were dotting the skyline, it looked like a place that was still expanding. But then as you stopped to listen, you notice that there was almost no sound coming from those cranes. They were all stopped and all silent.

KELLY: All silent.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: And so it really did come to a screeching halt. And it was remarkable, even when I was there in the spring, how dramatic the collapse was even at that point. And then, of course, toward the end of the year, we all became familiar with Dubai World and its troubles.

KELLY: Well, and I gather there's something of a history to this, countries racing to build incredibly tall buildings and then having huge epic financial troubles. I guess one example you could point to would be the Empire State Building. And then we saw, of course, the Wall Street crash.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Right. The race to build the tallest building in the world was always complicated symbolically. The effort always has to do more with symbolism, more with making a kind of mark and making a splash than really filling some kind of market need in whatever city or country you're talking about.

And that's been true back to the days when the United States was producing the tallest buildings in the world. But it also raises a question of the degree to which architectural ambition has migrated out of the United States, out of cities like New York and to places in Asia and in the Middle East.

KELLY: Americans aren't trying to build the biggest buildings anymore.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: We're not even coming close. We don't have that kind of ambition. One could say maybe it's not significant to us in the same way. Particularly, we've seen China really trying to make a mark with really ambitious avant-garde architecture, like the buildings they've produced in 2008 to mark the summer Olympics.

And that sort of ambition has left the United States and gone elsewhere. But part of what makes that ambition possible, I think it has to be said, is the kind of government, like the one in Dubai, like the one in China, where these kinds of projects can be done essentially by Fiat. There's not the kind of environmental review, there aren't the kind of obstacles that there are to building in American cities.

KELLY: Christopher Hawthorne is architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. He's been telling us about the Burj Dubai, which will officially become the tallest building in the world when it opens on Monday.

Christopher Hawthorne, thanks for taking the time.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Thanks very much.

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