Skyscraper Flattery

Posted: January 7, 2011 in Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Skyscrapers

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, China is reportedly about to embark on the mother of all fan projects: copying the Burj Khalifa (formerly the Burg Dubai, just as the Willis Tower was formerly the Sears Tower). I’ve blogged before about copying the twisted building design but left the topic of skyscrapers alone for some time now. China’s new gambit, however, pushed the topic back to the front of my mind.

Dubai has attracted some dubious attention (here and here and here, for instance) for its apparent craziness, namely, building so many skyscrapers concentrated in one place so quickly. Pictures from as recent as 1990 show a mostly empty landscape in Dubai. China is ripe for similar criticism, as it appears to have embarked on similar building projects spread all around the country, especially the notorious empty cities. This unstated competition calls to mind a similar rivalry between Chicago and New York in the early days of the skyscraper. Kazakhstan may be a late entry into the crazy building sweepstakes.

Although it may be a fallacy to peer into the minds of entire cultures to tease out their motivations, the triumphalism associated with supertall buildings and their supposed prestige suggests a fairly obvious demonstration by both Dubai and China of their arrival on the international scene as formidable economic forces. Looking solely at what they’re able to build do, the world has to take them seriously, right? (A similar observation was made about the Beijing Olympics.) If I understand things correctly, Dubai’s economic power is derived primarily from oil, making the United Arab Emirates essentially a lottery winner like other desert countries of the Middle East, whereas China’s economic ascent is the result of fast, recent industrialization and adoption of a commodity culture, although without the rights and freedoms associated with Western liberal democracies.

How long the infatuation with really, really tall and expensive buildings will persist is anyone’s guess, but proposals continue to be added at Speaking only for Chicago, the financial failure of 7 South Dearborn (once intended to be the tallest in N. Amer.), the stalled Chicago Spire (dormant since 2008), the lowering of the height of the Trump Tower prior to construction (though still pretty darn tall), and other abandoned or barely begun projects might prompt some soul-searching about whether such projects really deliver the cachet they promise.

  1. James says:

    I agree that supertall buildings are an expression of triumphalism, but is it really “China” and “Dubai” that are the acting agents here? The competition between Chicago and New York seems more like a competition among independent individuals, with whom other residents of those cities sought to identify. I could be wrong, but it seems that China and Dubai are sufficiently capitalist that the building boom is more of a competition among owners, architects, entrepreneurs, etc. than the societies themselves.

    • Brutus says:

      China and Dubai, like Chicago and New York, are understood as metonyms for the peoples of those cities, and in the context of multibillion dollar construction projects, the movers and shakers responsible for such projects. I agree that it’s more properly the owners, architects, entrepreneurs, and business entities driving these crazy building projects; it’s merely shorthand to refer to the cities where the craziness is taking place.

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