Dubai Debt

What the Burj Kahlifa—the tallest building in the world—owes to Frank Lloyd Wright.

See a Magnum Photos gallery of other famously tall buildings. 

The Burj Khalifa

First there was the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, then the Taipei Financial Center in Taiwan, and now the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, of all places, is the world’s tallest skyscraper, more than twice as high as the Empire State Building. * America, which invented the skyscraper and long held the lead in supertall buildings, hasn’t been No. 1 in this category for more than a decade. In fact, there are now five—or six, if you count both Petronas towers—new skyscrapers taller than the venerable Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), built 37 years ago.

Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of the state-owned developer of the Burj, was quoted by the Guardiandescribing the tower as a global icon. “It represents the determination and optimism of Dubai as a truly world city,” he said. “It is a powerful symbol for the entire Arab world.” But a symbol of what, exactly? The $1.5 billion Burj tower contains a 15-story hotel, 37 floors of offices, and 1,100 apartments, but as Al Jazeera has noted, “with Dubai’s debt-problems battering the local economy, nobody is exactly sure how many people will call the world’s tallest building home.” So, whether the Burj will be seen as a symbol of determination, or hubris, or merely of the Emirates’ once-deep pockets, remains to be seen.

Whatever else it may stand for, the Burj is definitely a symbol of American know-how. We may not build the tallest buildings for ourselves anymore, but we sure can build them for others. The Burj was designed by architect Adrian Smith and engineer Bill Baker of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (which is responsible for five of the world’s 10 tallest buildings); the construction project manager was Turner Construction, based in New York (although now owned by a German consortium); and the 57 elevators, which are crucial in a building with 206 floors, were built by—you guessed it—Otis. (The architect and engineer of record was British, and the contractor was South Korean.)

The Illinois

The Burj is American in another way. Most of the coverage of the Dubai tower has focussed on its height and its location, but it is also an interesting design. The form is not a minaret, like the Petronas Towers, or a stylized spire, like the Taipei Financial Center. Smith (who is no longer with SOM) and Baker have not produced an elongated cluster of shoe boxes like the Sears Tower, a high-tech-construction like Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower, or a twisty sculpture a la Santiago Calatrava. Instead, they have opted for a distinctly unfashionable organic form, a sort of stalagmite. Many observers have noted the similarities between the Burj and Frank Lloyd Wright’s unbuilt 1956 proposal for a 528-story state office building for Chicago’s lakefront, which he christened the Mile-High Illinois. Wright’s design is twice as high as the Burj, but there are distinct parallels. Both buildings are constructed of reinforced concrete; both have floor plates that reduce in area as the building rises, producing a stepped-back silhouette; both have a treelike central core that rises the full height of the building to become a spire. And both use a tripod design: The Mile High is triangular in plan, and the Burj has three wings that act as buttresses.

I’m not sure if the famously prickly Wright would have considered imitation the sincerest form of flattery, but he would have been pleased to see a version of his conception take shape in the Middle East, which was the site of one of his most spectacular unbuilt projects. In 1956, the government of the young king of Iraq, Faysal II, aiming to modernize the city of Baghdad, commissioned a number of leading Western architects: Walter Gropius for a new university, Alvar Aalto for the national gallery, and Le Corbusier for a stadium and sports complex. Wright was invited to build the opera house. The Old Wizard, as his biographer Brendan Gill called him, produced an astonishing interpretation of Scheherazade on the Tigris, a circular opera house surrounded by colonnades and water gardens, and topped by an open spire containing a statue of Aladdin and the wonderful lamp. Shortly after the design was completed, King Faysal and his family were murdered in a military coup, and the new regime abandoned the project. Fanciful proposals, such as the Baghdad Opera House and the Mile-High Illinois, are usually regarded as slightly off-key, the day dreams of a master in his dotage. The Burj suggests that the Wiz still has lessons to teach us.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2010: This article originally stated that the Petronas Towers are in Singapore. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)