Tuesday, January 5, 2010 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Burj Khalifa opens for business...with spectacular opening ceremony

(source: Toronto Sun)

Yes, for those following this blog and this story, the Burj Dubai has been renamed to Burj Khalifa, in order to appease the rulers of neighbouring sheikdom, Abu Dhabi, who came to Dubai's aid. Dubai is often attacked for using, what amounts to, modern-day slave labour—if you are not familiar check out this opinion piece by Johann Hari in The Telegraph earlier this year—but let's leave that aside for a moment. Let's also ignore the fact that this building, like many built during booms, will be major loss for the original financiers. Let's, for the moment, reflect on this spectacular accomplishment.

Rises During Tough Times

Regardless of what one thinks of the circumstances surrounding Dubai, Burj Khalifa is one of the greatest architectural achievements in the last century. It is on par with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in New York, which were completed under a similar economic cloud right after the stock market crash in 1930. The Economist had an interesting graphic showcasing tall buildings, along with their economic growth rates during completion and 5 years prior to completion:

Investors shouldn't be surprised with so many tall buildings being completed after the economy heads south. In fact, it might even be a minor indicator of peaks. This should be expected because cost of capital, especially debt, is very cheap during booms. You can't undertake these massive projects if bond investors weren't on a high ;)

At least the bondholders can console themselves in knowing that the project appears completed on time—real estate is notorious for cost over-runs and delays—and seems to have cost a lowly $1.5 billion. I believe some of the projects on the drawing board like the Freedom Tower in New York is supposed to cost 2x to 3x more, be shorter, and have less surface area. Obviously the lower cost comes from cheaper labour (some of it bordering on slave labour), lower cost of living (not expensive like New York), and lower taxes (taxes on input materials can be a big portion of the cost.)

Most Important Architectural Achievement of My Life?

Burj Khalifa rises far above any prior building built by humans. Prior to this, the tallest freestanding structure was the CN Tower, in my beloved Toronto :) Here is a comparison (following images from Burj Dubai Skyscraper):

Unlike the CN Tower, which is largely a tower with small usable area, the Burj Khalifa is a massive skyscraper where businesses, individuals, and others can locate. I haven't looked up the numbers but it wouldn't surprise me if the area in Burj Khalifa is as much as half of the commercial building space in downtown Toronto.

Burj Khalifa also rises far above anything else on the drawing board or under construction. The second tallest in a few years will likely be the Shanghai Tower and the Burj Khalifa rises far above that:

The following graphics, courtesy Burj Dubai Skyscraper, compare various buildings already completed and on the drawing board:

Given my bearishness for the economies of the world and capital markets in general, I suspect we are seeing the dwindling glory days of skyscrapers. We have probably witnessed the last glamourous buildings being built for the rest of our lives. Sure, there will be some building going up here and there, but I don't think we will see a major boom with 3 or 4 skyscrapers competing for the 'Tallest Earthling Building' title ;) A similar thing happened after the 1930's, when a concerted boom in tall buildings didn't repeat for a long time. We are seeing several spectacular buildings going up in China but they may be the last of them.

A Special Accomplishment

I'm not into architecture but I have the following point also places the Burj Khalifa into a unique category. Not only does the Burj Khalifa beat skyscrapers and other free-standing structures, it also seems to have surpassed the tallest communications towers in history. This is a special accomplishment because radio towers are easier to build and aren't really buildings per se. Yet, we have the Burj Khalifa rising above the now-defunct Warsaw Radio Mast:

It's possible that we may see taller communications towers but it's still amazing to think about how a skyscraper with actual floors, elevators, washrooms, etc, is able to compete against these towers.

Lasting Legacy

Some say it will last for 300 years—well beyond my life. This is quite possibly the most prominent skyscraper that will be built in my life time. Yes, there will be other buildings that will be more aestheticaly pleasing—people who are into architectural art will definitely encounter better ones—but they won't be pure skyscrapers. I have already commented in past about the engineering innovations, including the massive spider-like robot to clean the windows.

The building apparently sways around 1.5 meters at the top! Yikes. Here is a video from the tallest man-made location on earth... so silent, lonely, and scary:

It's too bad all this was built with quasi-slave labour, in a totalitarian country, with dubious economic merit. But, as I have pointed out before, even with all its warts, Dubai is more liberal than most of the Middle East.

Just to top it off, Burj Khalifa enters history with one of the most amazing fireworks show I have ever seen (try playing this full screen in HD; let it load/cache fully first):


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