Why Dubai?

Events: Burj Dubai Lecture Series: “Extreme Building: The Challenges of Constructing Burj Dubai” and “Why Dubai?”
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 06.13.07 (“Extreme Building”), 07.18.07 (“Why Dubai?”)
Speakers: “Extreme Building”: Ahmad Abdelrazaq — Executive Director, highrise building and structural engineering divisions, Samsung Corporation. “Why Dubai?”: Robert Booth — Executive Director, Emaar North America; John Braley — Business Development Manager, Turner International; George Efstathiou, AIA, RIBA — Managing Partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago; Jordan Gruzen, FAIA — Partner, Gruzen Samton; John Mills — Project Director, Hyder Consulting Middle East
Moderator: Robert Ivy, FAIA — Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Model photo by Steinkamp-Ballogg Photography, courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

No city in history has grown as quickly as Dubai; it’s the world’s third-ranked development city, after Shanghai and Moscow, observed John Braley, business development manager at Turner International. But the others have long histories as urban centers, while Dubai has morphed from backwater to metropolis almost overnight. Presentations often show paired before-and-after photos documenting the phenomenal growth of towers along Sheikh Zayed Road since 1990. With an economy more reliant on tourism, finance, and real-estate speculation than on oil, and with $45 billion in current construction for a population of 1.4 million in a space the size of Rhode Island, Dubai has become a laboratory for hyper-accelerated development.

In his June solo talk, engineer Ahmad Abdelrazaq conveyed his expertise and enthusiasm for the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Burj Dubai’s unique challenges: stabilizing its long and light frame, maximizing both daylight exposure and privacy in the tower’s residential section, pumping the high-performance concrete to unprecedented heights despite searing local temperatures (pouring at night helps), and monitoring stresses and deformations throughout the tower (the building’s information systems include a proliferation of strain gauges and a GPS base station/rover arrangement). At such a scale, even as routine an operation as positioning the cranes requires precision and caution.

The July panelists offered many solid reasons for Dubai’s record-setting growth. It has favorable geographic position as a trading port, waterside resort, and financial hub. Wealth was transferred there out of the U.S. by nervous regional investors after 9/11. The South Asian labor force is available at low wages. Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum encourages fast, unregulated development. And, perhaps foremost, Dubai’s political stability and relative cultural openness is what Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, partner at Gruzen Samton, calls “the safe haven in a very disturbed area of the world.”

After presentations by representatives of five firms involved with the Burj and other local projects, moderator Robert Ivy, FAIA, did his best to guide panelists’ attention toward controversies such as migrant-worker abuse (a topic on which a scathing Human Rights Watch report — citing hazards, deaths, and wages unpaid for months of labor in the 120-degree heat — recently got Sheikh Mohammed’s attention). With nary a contrarian to be heard, some of the responses to the event’s critical title question were more witty and succinct than penetrating: in Braley’s words, “Why not Dubai?” or as project director at Hyder Consulting Middle East John Mills said simply, “because we can.”

Dubai has amassed the resources and expertise to accomplish amazing things, the Burj among them. Gruzen cited one waterfront plan where $3.4 billion worth of land was sold in three days. Beyond the Burj, Dubai’s developers are out-Vegasing Vegas, building not just theme parks but “theme cities” like the Falcon City of Wonders, a bird-shaped recreational/residential district featuring life-sized replicas of the seven wonders of the world. The Palm Jumeira is slated to get the Trump hotel, this one tulipoid. The indoor Ski Dubai resort is a magnet for oxymorons, being something of a contradiction-in-terms itself; Mills relayed contrasting descriptions as both “infamous” and “fantastic.”

Many of the residences going up (and rapidly selling out) are unoccupied and may stay that way; they’re merely investment properties, second homes, or emergency residences for Middle Easterners contemplating future refugee status in the event of revolution or national collapse. Questions arise about the long-range soundness of an economy grounded in condo-flipping, or the forms of ecological blowback that ensue when growth outstrips infrastructure.

Dubai’s transportation is heavily auto-dependent, the muggy climate makes extensive air conditioning mandatory, and rendering Gulf water potable requires massive desalinization (returning ever more saline water to the source); building roads in a desert climate is always easier in the short term than managing natural resources. A metro rail line is planned, but car traffic is already nightmarish, and “the only use of solar energy,” Mills drolly reported, “is for a parking meter.” There’s a lot to admire about Dubai’s building boom; there’s also plenty that one can find unnerving.