Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A View That Yertle Would Love

Jacob Rubin ponders the view from atop the world's tallest building:

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 . . . . Its clear lack of usefulness seems to indicate its status as an art object.

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. [...]

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.

Steve Clowney

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

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