A couple of years ago on a visit to New York, I was taken on a guided tour of New York’s financial district by an ex-Deutsche Bank bond trader who now specialised in showing people the buildings which told the story of the 2008 financial collapse.
The tour ended with the guide producing a diagram of the world’s tallest buildings, accompanied by the fact that a financial crisis occurred in the midst of the building of each - the Great Depression of the 1930s was underway as the Empire State Building finished, and similar financial crises accompanied the completion of Chicago’s Sears Tower, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and, of course, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
I was reminded of this last week when the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat produced its report stating that the UAE had the ‘vainest’ skyscrapers of any nation in the world.
It measured what it described as the ‘vanity height’ of buildings - the amount of non-occupiable space at the top of buildings. Of the ten towers with the most ‘vanity height’ in the world, Dubai had five, with the Burj Khalifa coming top with 244m - 29% of its 828m height - described as non-occupiable.
Dubai’s other signature building, Burj Al Arab, had the highest percentage of non-occupiable space of any tower, at 39%.
The conclusion meant to be drawn from the report is that the towers - both Emirates Towers also made the list - were built to be taller than necessary so are therefore somehow ‘wasteful’.
But isn’t the whole point of skyscrapers to be tall - and in the best cases, imposing?
Dubai also had one of the most efficient towers in the world in terms of usable space - the Foster & Partners-designed Index Tower at Dubai International Financial Centre. Although not exactly ugly, this isn’t the one you see tourists trying to squeeze into a photo.
To take these buildings and boil them down to space ratios not only ignores their impressiveness but also the contribution they make to the surrounding area.
As Steve Watt from consultancy Alinea told Reuters, towers can act as “loss leaders but catalysts for regeneration."
Emaar knows only too well the benefits that the Burj Khalifa has brought, making it the centrepiece of Downtown Dubai, which is already a spectacular piece of placemaking and is continuing to be added to with schemes like the Burj Vista, The Address The BLVD and The Address Residences Sky View.
Jumeirah Group, too, has leveraged the Burj Al Arab - a building which may never pay its way in isolation, but which has proved to be a backdrop for investment in surrounding assets like the Jumeirah Beach hotel and the expansion of the Madinat Jumeirah complex.
Perhaps the greatest contribution that the buildings have made, though, is to Dubai itself. In the tourist souks and shops, the T-shirts and little replica statues featuring the towers are the things that tourists take back to their homes as the most identifiable symbols of the emirate.