Source: Emaar Properties

A New Battle to Build the World’s Tallest … Marketing Platform?

Two projects in the Middle East promise to deliver the skyscraping-est building ever.

The Dubai-based developer Emaar Properties has plans to build what would be the world’s tallest building by 2020, in time for the Dubai World Expo, and of course the renderings from architect Santiago Calatrava Valls are stunning: a slender, minaret-like spire supported by cables that appear to drape the structure.

“We’re looking for a tower and a monument that adds value to the world,” said Emaar Chairman Mohamed Alabbar in a video last week announcing the project. He didn’t say exactly how tall the building would be, only that it would be “a notch taller" than another Dubai tower, the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, at 2,717 feet.

There's just one wrinkle not mentioned in the announcement: A rival developer, Kingdom Holding, is also building what it claims will be the world’s tallest skyscraper, and it's scheduled for completion in 2019. This one will soar above Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and like the Dubai project it doesn't have a specified height. The Jeddah project is already under way, while the new Dubai plan exists on paper.

History is littered with abandoned plans for “tallest” buildings, including a 2,000-foot Chicago spire intended to be the tallest in the U.S. until the project was abandoned amid the financial crisis. Dubai itself can already claim the distinction of the world’s tallest unbuilt skyscraper.

The tower planned for Dubai appears to be less a functioning building than a platform for observation decks and the centerpiece of a planned mixed-use development slated to span six square kilometers. The mega-skyscraper under way in Jeddah, sometimes called the Kingdom Tower, is conceived as a traditional skyscraper, with more than 2.5 million square feet of floor area divided between office space, luxury condominiums, and a Four Seasons hotel. While the developer hasn’t announced a height, there's widespread speculation that it will top one kilometer, or about 3,300 feet, nearly twice the height of anything built in the U.S.

It’s hard not to catch a whiff of competition between the two projects, given the completion dates and the undisclosed heights. There's even some overlapping personnel: The architect for the Jeddah project, Adrian Smith, designed the Burj Khalifa while working with Emaar Properties. A spokeswoman for Calatrava referred questions to Emaar Properties, which declined to comment beyond the press release announcing the new tower. A spokeswoman for Smith declined to comment, and Kingdom Holding, an owner of the Jeddah Tower, didn’t respond to email.

Skyscraper-measuring contests are nothing new. “If you go back to medieval times, building the tallest cathedral was a way of proving your village loved god just a little more,” said Judith Dupre, an architectural historian and the author of a forthcoming book, One World Trade Center. In the most famous modern example, the developers of the Chrysler Building constructed the top section of that tower inside a fire shaft as a way of concealing the building’s intended height from a competing developer. In recent years, developers have jockeyed to build New York's tallest residential tower.

It's more expensive to build so high, a cost that developers justify in part by the publicity they get for their efforts. In the Middle East and Asia, said Dupre, the economics of super-tall buildings often depend on larger building plans.

“The governments see these skyscrapers as a means for land development,” she said. “They give builders the right to build a skyscraper and another 30 buildings, and the skyscraper becomes a loss leader for the larger project.”

Along those lines, Smith noted in a recent interview that Dubai apartments with a view of the Burj Khalifa fetch higher prices. The new Dubai tower intended to overshadow Smith's work would be at the center of a mixed-use development. Whether the project winds up being the world’s tallest structure, it will probably wind up as a towering feat of marketing.

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