Paul Blakeway considers the ideology of building higher and higher.

In 2017 Dubai started laying the foundations for Dubai Creek Tower, which, at a planned height of 928 metres, will become the world’s tallest tower when it opens to the public in 2020. Given that the Emirate is already home to the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, the desire to beat one’s own record could be considered curious. However, in the face of a competing project in Saudi Arabia, and rumoured projects in India and China, Dubai is not only working to pre-empt the snatching of its current, proudly held record, but continuing a strong history of developed nations trying to claim the biggest and the best – a history which has even resulted in an alleged fifteen design changes to the Empire State Building during its construction in the 1920s with the intention of stealing the title from the then tallest building in the world, the Chrysler Building. It has also lead to tricks such as increasing the height of antennas, resulting in the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat creating a myriad of different criteria by which to designate the height of a structure.

But why is having the tallest building in the world such an important goal? Given the significant price tag of these developments, it cannot be bragging rights alone. The motivation can actually be far more ambitious:

  • In the first instance, it can arise from a desire to be seen as being at the forefront of technological and construction advancement, particularly in a city like Dubai where a building less than 30 storeys can be considered “low-rise”. The desire to build higher represents a significant engineering challenge which pushes the construction industry forward in a way not dissimilar to the way the Space Race advanced developments in computing and technology.

This push-forward in construction techniques can be witnessed particularly in crowded cities where the need for a building and its services to be contained within its own footprint, and causing minimal disruption to the rest of the city, raises unique challenges. Take, for example, the Shard, which is the tallest building in the European Union – the constraints that arose simply due to the location over a main transport hub and in the narrow streets of south London resulted in advancements of so called “jumping cranes” and also resulted in the significant feat of laying the foundations in one continuous 36-hour pour (which set its own UK record in and of itself).

  • The affiliation with a headline-grabbing project can also provide a lasting legacy for the people behind it. The completion of the Burj Khalifa, for instance, cemented the reputation of its developer, Emaar, as a company of both ambition and ability on the global stage. It also highlighted that the United Arab Emirates is a country which allows leading architects to imprint their vision and ambition on the country’s skyline, offering a playground which will not limit their vision. This has resulted in architects such as the late Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava being invited to leave their own mark on the UAE’s built environment.
  • A landmark project can also be used as a catalyst for property development and investment, benefiting the wider economy. The Burj Khalifa was designed as the shining centre-piece of Dubai Downtown, an entirely new district where the prestige of being in the shadow of the world’s tallest building not only encouraged continued development of residential properties, but remains a selling point for people looking to invest in property in Dubai. The growth of the immediate population has also encouraged the local economy through the opening of shops and restaurants along the boulevard, a benefit which could also be argued to have spilled-over to neighbouring Business Bay district where the views of the building remain a key highlight for any residential property. Dubai is hoping to replicate the success of the Burj Khalifa by making the Dubai Creek Tower the centrepiece of the new AED 3.65 Billion Dubai Creek Harbour district.
  • The effect on tourism also cannot be underestimated. Buildings such as the Burj Khalifa, Taipei 101, the Shard and even the Empire State Building (which lost its title of the World’s tallest building nearly 50 years ago), remain year-round tourist destinations in their own right with tourists flocking to these sites to make sure they have the perfect picture for their Instagram.

The construction of projects of such ambition can also be seen as a high-water mark for economic confidence. Whilst certain observers have noticed a correlation between the completion of the new world’s tallest building and a financial crisis, that is beyond the scope of this article and does not appear to have discouraged anyone from continuing to participate in the age-old race to the top, and in no way makes these projects less impressive.