The improbably thin shaft of the 828-meter (2,717-foot) Burj Khalifa, a tour de force of architecture and engineering, is a reflective-glass icon of Dubai’s triumphant arrival on the world scene. Or it’s a towering monument to easy-money hubris. Take your pick.
Architecture stands at the mercy of changing expectations when a design strives to be the biggest, the most lavish, the most significant. Now many pundits predict the end of spectacle and glitz. The post-crash reality is looking more complex.
Burj Khalifa developer Emaar Properties PJSC may make money even on deeply discounted sales of its high-rise homes since the building cost only $1.5 billion, thanks to labor practices so allegedly exploitative they drew the wrath of Human Rights Watch. (Could the labor corner-cutting be responsible for elevator problems that closed the 124th-floor observation deck soon after opening?)
The elegant execution of the tower by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with ex-partner Adrian Smith wows critics and visitors alike -- helping people forget how it was made.
The credit crunch has slowed or stopped any number of super-tall towers in Asia and the Middle East. Yet in St. Petersburg, the Okhta Tower at 400 meters (1,300 feet) may still rise to glorify Gazprom OAO and reflect the source of Russia’s economic and political power today: oil and gas. For now, the tower has been approved, though construction has yet to begin.
Out of Love
America fell out of love with super-tall skyscrapers years ago. Now it faces a commercial-property meltdown that’s more about delusional debt than the building frenzy seen in Shenzhen and Dubai. The Spire, a tapering 150-story residential tower at 610 meters (2,000 feet), by Santiago Calatrava, was supposed to become a new icon for Chicago. Now it’s just a massive hole in the ground. The Chicago Architectural Club is soliciting ideas for the pit.
The only boom-era building likely to make a lasting impression on Manhattan’s skyline is the Beekman Tower, a 76-story apartment building with a shining crumpled-metal facade by Frank Gehry. Topped off last year, it barely avoided losing half its height as the luxury-housing market contracted. Otherwise, megaprojects in New York and Los Angeles barely show a pulse, and progress on the World Trade Center site is glacial.
Construction began last year on what will be London’s only skyscraper to break the 1,000-foot mark. The Shard, a mix of offices, hotel and luxury apartments has been bouncing around for almost 20 years. If you were the developers, Qatar and the Sellar Property Group, wouldn’t you plow ahead, economy be damned? A revised design has cost this 87-story pyramid of overlapping glass planes a considerable degree of elegance. Get used to it. It may dominate the skyline for decades.
Rising on a four-block site and standing on gigantic 32-story haunches, the CCTV, headquarters of Chinese state television, looks as if it is scanning Beijing’s cityscape for Googling dissidents -- if only they could get this daring feat of engineering opened. Designed by Rotterdam-based OMA for a 2008 Beijing Olympics unveiling, OMA now says it doesn’t know when it will be done. (A high-rise hotel next door, largely destroyed by fire, is supposed to be rebuilt.)
The scale of growth in countries like China and India has spurred plans for eco-cities. Masdar, being built from scratch in Abu Dhabi for as many as 90,000 residents, looks most likely to succeed. Master-planned by London’s Foster & Partners, it will be 85 percent solar-powered and rely on light-rail, walking and personal rapid transit. Phased construction is well under way for 2018 completion.
In recent years museums have replaced churches and town squares as social meeting places. They’re also the focus of much innovation within architecture. Having bailed out Dubai earlier this year, Abu Dhabi still has cash to build the Saadiyat Island development studded with major museums (including Guggenheim and Louvre branches) designed by five Pritzker Prize-winning architects.
For sheer jaw-dropping splendor, visit Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi contemporary-art museum in Rome, opening later this year after 11 years of design and construction. Its lusciously curved tubular galleries overlap each other like giant strands of pasta. Curators are figuring out how to make you notice the art.
HafenCity, a $10 billion rebuilt port district in Hamburg has made headlines for the budget-busting, two-years-late Elbphilharmonie, the new $500 million home for the NDR Symphony by Swiss celebrity architects Herzog & de Meuron. But the hall’s travails will soon assume second place to HafenCity’s impressively flood-resistant design (tuned to climate-change effects) and handsomely serviceable low-energy architecture, such as the new waterfront Unilever headquarters by Stuttgart architect Stefan Behnisch.
In this century’s teens decade, carbon neutral is architecture’s new holy grail -- perhaps its savior.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)