Monday, December 20, 2010

Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper

Commentary by Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

If you were looking for symbolic bookends to the year in architecture, you could do worse than to start with the January opening of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper and finish with the recent run of "In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards," a musical-theater production about controversial plans to build a mammoth Frank Gehry-designed development in Brooklyn.

This was the year we began to make real sense of the fallout from the economic crisis and the boom years that preceded it. The Burj and "In the Footprint," odd as it might sound, were in that sense two sides of the same coin, two cautionary tales about Brobdignagian urban dreams unique to the architecture of the last decade.

Opened with great fanfare on Jan. 4 as the tallest building in the world, the 2,717-foot-high Burj Khalifa, designed by Chicago architect Adrian Smith, acted instantly as a kind of 160-story Rorschach Test. For some critics it was a technical and aesthetic triumph, a productive marriage between broad-shouldered American capability and Dubai's vast ambition. The trouble was that unlike its oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi — or even tiny nearby Qatar, which this month landed soccer's 2022 World Cup — Dubai built its skyline not on petroleum reserves, of which it has few, but literally and metaphorically on sand, attempting to turn speculative growth itself into an economic engine.

The bottom, of course, ultimately fell out of that Ponzi-like strategy. When the Burj Khalifa opened it was almost entirely empty, and it has stayed that way: A report last month revealed that of its 900 condominiums, a staggering 825, or 92%, remain vacant. (Most were sold to real-estate investors who now cannot find tenants.) The Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin and others have pointed out that vacancy is nothing new in the history of super-tall buildings, and of course they're right: the Empire State Building was mocked as the "Empty State Building" when it opened in 1931.

But the Burj is a different architectural animal simply because it's unclear — even now — whether Dubai will in any of our lifetimes figure out a way to fill the massive number of high-rises, gated communities, office parks and other architectural wonders it built over the last decade. ( Manhattan in 1931 was in a deep economic trough, to be sure; but it had many decades of expansive growth in front of it.) Click on the heading above for the complete story.

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