New year, new symbol? Dubai's new tower fits. The $1.5 billion building unveiled in downtown Dubai Monday is the world's new tallest tower. More than half a mile high, more than two Empire State buildings tall, the Dubai tower boasts 169 stories, the world's highest swimming pool, the world's highest place of worship, and the world's tallest mountain of denial.
History repeats. Like the Empire State building before it, the Dubai tower was built in a global depression when cheap labor was plentiful, as were the dreams of the ambitious and affluent.
The engineering marvel was constructed in the desert heat by low paid immigrant workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, paid 5-20 dollar a day. (It's a state secret how many lost their lives in the process.) While the state-owned construction operation suppressed worker demands and banned unions from the site, it catered to consumer fantasy with equal extravagance. The tower features 144 apartments and a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani, the Italian designer. In the super scraper, the super-affluent can live and vacation without leaving the brand, or the building.
On Monday, Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed and his Chicago-based architects hailed their building as a symbol of future good all things great. There's just one glitch. According to the Sunday Times, that future involves melting the equivalent of 28 million pounds of ice a day for air conditioning, and the consumption of billions of gallons of desalinated water in a city-state that already has the world's highest per-capita carbon footprint.
The climate actually changes as you ride the elevator. It's way, way hotter at the bottom. The engineers are doing everything in their power to counter physics and so far so good. But rising heat of a far less metaphorical sense already struck in the form of economics.
In last minute switch at its inauguration Monday night, the Burj Dubai ("Dubai Tower") was renamed the Burj Khalifa. It was a rather ignominious concession to reality. Sheikh Khalifa, the head of Abu Dhabi, Dubai's oil rich neighbor, has repeatedly saved Dubai from financial collapse during the construction of the tower most recently, just three weeks back when devastating defaults beckoned.
It's hardly a win for the hot people at the bottom, but it's a big hit for Dubai's would-be cool and competitive leaders. Theirs is a tower of debt. How perfect. Welcome to the decade.