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Everything you need to know about the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building

No development in engineering better embodies the modern world than the skyscraper. Born out of a messy conflux of aesthetic, economic, and structural needs, skyscrapers are a dominant fixture of every major city in the world. Piercing the heavens, they are a testament to man’s mastery of the fundamental forces of nature and to our ravenous ambition.

Great works of architecture are a status symbol for the cultures that develop them. Just as a banker might sport a Rolex on his wrist, the great cities of the world clothe themselves in coliseums and cathedrals. The first skyscraper was proposed in the late 1800s, and as the technology needed to build such a structure developed, these high-rises became the building of the 20th century. They now serve as imposing, tumescent symbols of power for cities like New York.

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Architecture is and always has been a competitive scene. Cities and governments want buildings more impressive than anyone else, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the increasing colossal skyscrapers of the new millennium. While artistic value is always prized (London is quite proud of the 30 St Mary Axe) height seems to be the most pressing standard for a skyscraper to meet. After all, it’s easier to measure the height of a building than to qualify its beauty. There’s just something alluring simple about a number, a figure that tells you when something is the best at what it does.

The record for world’s tallest building has been broken many times over the last century, which is no small feat given the immense costs and engineering difficulties required to stack more and more floors on top of each other. The current record holder is the Burj Khalifa, rising imperiously out of the sands of Dubai. The Burj Khalifa stands at a stunning 2,722 feet, rendering it nearly 700 feet taller than the second tallest structure in the world. That said, the structure’s symbolic place in the modern world is perhaps as noteworthy as its structural accomplishments.

Dubai: City of Gold

One of the seven emirates that form the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Dubai is one of the most impressive economic success stories of the last few decades. A minor trade port at the start of the 20th century, Dubai became one of the fastest growing economies in the world through the discovery of rich oil fields and a concerted effort to become a major commercial hub. Dubai’s opulence earned it the nickname “City of Gold,” and this modern day El Dorado certainly seems like something out of myth.

Like the other emirates, Dubai is ruled by a monarchy. Recognizing that oil wealth would only get them so far, the rulers of Dubai spent lavishly on making the city a 21st century wonderland and a tourist mecca. Among Dubai’s many attractions are the world’s largest mall (where one can spend $1,000 to eat a gold-dipped cupcake), a series of artificial islands, and of course, the Burj Khalifa.

The Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai's artificial islands

The Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai’s artificial islands

Konstantin Stepanenko/Shutterstock

In keeping with the city’s desire to be a premier tourist location, Dubai intended the Burj Khalifa to be an international spectacle. They brought in the prestigious architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the same firm responsible for projects such as the Willis Tower and One World Trade Center. Renowned architect Adrian Smith designed the building.

Structure and Symbolism

The Burj Khalifa is an example of the architectural style called Neo-futurism. Embracing the aesthetics of machines, Neo-futurism celebrates humanity’s technological achievements by incorporating themes of technology into art, including architecture. This style emphasizes linearity and simplicity, the hallmarks of user-friendly design. Buildings in the Neo-futurist style often mimic the smooth lines and bold chromatic designs of modern computers. In many ways, Neo-futurism is a descendant of the early 20th century Futurists who sought to exalt “the beauty of speed,” basing their designs on planes, automobiles, and other hot technology of the era.

The Burj at night. Note the sharp angles and lighting that suggest upward motion, typical of neo-futurism

The Burj at night. Note the sharp angles and lighting that suggest upward motion, typical of neo-futurism

Like a great crystal sword thrust up through the earth, the Burj Khalifa seems like something from a fantasy world. Starting from the base, the tower spirals inward culminating in a thin spire, a design with roots in Islamic art. You could also call the Burj a futuristic minaret, the prayer towers found on many mosques. The region’s rich past thus melds with its seemingly bright future.

While the tower is spectacular to look at, it is also an engineering marvel. In order to support the building’s weight up to such great heights, the engineers developed a concept known as a “buttressed core.”  This concept consists of a strong core with three wings stretching outward, and each wing is supported by the other two for the sake of stability. Viewed from above, this design resembles a flower with three petals, drawing on the floral shapes in Islamic art. The elongated nature of the three wings also allows for more light to penetrate interior areas, making the interior more comfortable.

Writer's (very mediocre) rendition of a buttressed core. Note how each wing is buttressed by the other two.

Writer’s modest rendition of a buttressed core. Note how each wing is buttressed by the other two.

Aside from being one of the most spectacular sights in the world, the Burj Khalifa provides a number of features designed to attract wealthy visitors. The first 15 floors of the hotel are an Armani hotel, and guests can step outside to enjoy the 902-foot-long Dubai Fountain, which shoots water up to 500 feet in the air. The Burj also features two observation decks, one of which is the highest in the world, and sky lobbies, two of which house swimming pools. Further up the tower are apartments, corporate offices, and observatories.

The Burj also features both the world’s highest nightclub and the world’s highest restaurant. Tourists without a fear of heights (or with strong faith in engineering) will find the Burj Khalifa one of the most exciting vacation experiences imaginable. As with just about anything to do with Dubai, however, it’s also one of the most expensive. According to Booking.com, a one-night stay can range from anywhere between $500 and $2,000, though the latter price tag is reserved for the “signature” suites.

The Dubai Fountain sits at the foot of the Burj Khalifa

The Dubai Fountain sits at the foot of the Burj Khalifa

Anna Omelchenko / Shutterstock

If the Burj Khalifa reflects the grandeur of Dubai — and, by extension, the international economy in which it prospered — it also sits atop the dark secret at the heart of globalization: that all this wealth is extracted from cheap labor. Stories of Dubai’s terrible labor conditions have been circulating for years, most recently surrounding its 2022 World Cup bid. The Burj was built by workers from poorer regions of Asia, who come to cities like Dubai having been promised gainful employment. In reality, they are paid very little to work in unsafe conditions, and find that leaving the country is not as easy as getting in given their passports are often confiscated by their employers.

In its Neo-futurist design, the Burj Khalifa is a towering symbol of Dubai’s opulence and its increasing prominence on the world stage and an economy based on the luxuries only the developed world can provide. Thus there is a grim irony to the fact that Dubai’s workers are so grossly exploited. Archaeologists today believe the pyramids were built by skilled workers. The Burj was built by men who are not much more than modern slaves. Progress, unlike ambition, does not always follow an upward trajectory.

An Heir to The Throne?

Jeddah Tower
Adrian Smith

Architects are an ambitious bunch, so the Burj Khalifa is unlikely to be the world’s tallest building for long. In fact, the same architect who designed the Burj — Adrian Smith — is currently working on another record-breaking building in the Middle East.

The Jeddah Tower (formerly known as the Kingdom Tower) is currently under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When completed, it will rise an astounding 3,281 feet above the Saudi city, which makes it 500 feet taller than the Burj and the first man-made building to break the one kilometer barrier.

First proposed in 2011, the Jeddah Tower was originally planned to be a mile high (5,280 feet). A thorough study of the area’s geology later showed the ground was not suitable for a building of that height, however, so the building’s height was reduced.

Construction on the building began in 2013, and will follow a similar design to the Burj Kalifa, though with sleeker sides that will give it a more glassy appearance. One of the signature features of the structure will be an observation deck — originally designed as a helipad — that sits 2,092 feet above the ground, offering spectacular bird’s eye views of both the city and Saudi desert.

Jeddah, like the Burj, will also house both residential and commercial spaces. Office floors will be located at the bottom of the structure to offer businesses more square footage. Above that will be a hotel, with residential space filling the rest of the tower.  A massive penthouse will encompass the very top, too, providing an additional touch of luxury.

Either way, Dubai’s tourism board need not worry at the moment. The Jeddah Tower is still a few years from completion, and some construction delays have pushed back its opening until 2019, a full year later than expected.