One of the best investment history books I have read was Jim Grant's The Trouble with Prosperity. I didn't quite finish it—had to return it to the library and never got around to signing it out again—but it was amazing to read how the worst excesses (in terms of commercial real estate) were completed just as the Great Depression was unfolding. In particular, the Chrysler Building* was completed in 1930 (the book focuses on a different building but it does mention the building.)
Well, the Burj Dubai, a spectacular building being built in Dubai, reminds me very much of all those New York skyscrapers from the 1930's. Like the American counterparts, the Burj Dubai will stand the test of time. It will outlive me. It may even outlive some nations. But it will be financial disaster for anyone that came close to it.
The Globe & Mail has a story summarizing the building:
When work began in 2004 to build the world's tallest tower, Dubai's confidence also was sky high with a host of megaprojects on the drawing board or rising from the sands.
That swagger seems positively old school these days. It's been tripped up by a debt crunch that has humbled Dubai's leaders and exposed the shaky foundations of the city-state's boom years – leaving the planned Jan. 4 opening of the iconic Burj Dubai with a double significance of hello and goodbye.
It will be both a debutante bash for a new architectural landmark and a farewell toast to Dubai's age of excess.
The Burj Dubai – a steel-and-glass needle rising more than 800 metres – may be the last completed work from Dubai's time of the giants....
It's not the first time a skyscraper has gone up as the economy swooned.
New York's 102-story Empire State Building was designed as the world's tallest building just before the 1929 stock market crash and opened in 1931 as the Great Depression was taking hold. In 1999, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, officially opened to claim the world-tallest crown – two years after the financial meltdown of the once-soaring Southeast Asian economies....
A barrage of statistics – vital and trivial – are pouring out as the $4.1-billion (U.S.) building gets its finishing touches: more than 160 storeys topped by a spire that reaches a reported 818 metres, well above the runner-up skyscraper, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, at 508 metres. The Burj has even pushed past other giant structures taller than Taipei 101 such as the CN Tower in Toronto and the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota.
The Burj – designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings&Merrill – is billed to have the world's fastest elevator at up to 64 kph and can be seen as far as 95 kilometres away. It takes three months just to clean all the windows.
Reading Grant's account of New York city towers circa 1930's, I get the feeling that one of the most innovative accomplishments were the elevators. Without major innovations in elevator technology, the New York skyscrapers wouldn't have been so high. Burj Dubai no doubt has some fancy elevators. But my feeling is that the big accomplishment will be the window cleaning systems. The official site (check out fact & figures, facade maintenance) says that there are 3 machines, each able to service 36 meters x 45 meters, and able to clean the whole building in 3 to 4 months under normal conditions. Just imagine the size of each machine, with arms spanning 15 meters when folded in the storage position. That's a machine that is 5 stories high! Needless to say, these machines will be working overtime for the rest of their "lives" given the dust and sand in that region of the world.
Burj Dubai is a great accomplishment; but like most architectural wonders, a complete waste of money in the short to medium terms.
* I have fond memories of the Chrysler Building. Nowadays, I appreciate its unique Art Deco style. Apart from that, when I was a kid, I had a big puzzle set—1000 pieces or something—of the New York city skyline. Needless to say, the Chrysler Building was one of the standouts—other buildings all looked similar but not this—and was one of the key sections that was easy to complete.
** Don't quote me on that because I don't remember exactly. All I remember was that it took a long time for the original projected rents to materialize. If it wasn't the 80's, then it was something like the 60's, which was still 30 years after the completion of the building.