Rising imperiously skywards at the southern end of Sheikh Zayed Road, the needle-thin Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building. The Burj opened in early 2010 after five years’ intensive construction, finally topping out at a staggering 828m and comprehensively smashing all existing records for the world’s tallest man-made structures, past and present. Among the superlatives it took were those of Taipei 101 in Taiwan (formerly the world’s tallest building at 509m), the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota (the world’s tallest extant man-made structure at 629m), and the Warsaw Radio Mast, at Gąbin in Poland (previously the tallest man-made structure ever erected, at 646m, before its collapse in 1991). The Burj also returned the record for the world’s tallest structure to the Middle East for the first time since 1311, when the towers of Lincoln Cathedral surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza, which had previously reigned supreme for almost four thousand years. Not surprisingly, the tower also accumulated a host of other superlatives en route, including the building with the most floors (163, plus an additional 46 maintenance levels in the spire), the world’s highest and fastest elevators (those to the observation deck, which travel at around 10m per second), plus highest mosque (158th floor) and swimming pool (76th floor).
The tower was designed by Chicago high-rise specialists Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whose other credits include the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, in Chicago, and New York’s One World Trade Center. The building consists of a slender central square core, surrounded by three tiers arranged in a Y-shaped plan. These tiers are gradually stepped back as the building rises, forming a series of 27 terraces, before the central core emerges to form the culminating spire – a plan which makes the optimum use of available natural light, as well as providing the best outward views. The shape of the tower has often been compared to that for Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary (but unrealized) plans for The Illinois, a mile-high skyscraper designed for Chicago, while chief architect Adrian Smith has said that the tower’s Y-shaped footprint was inspired by the flower Hymenocallis – although perhaps more important is the way the three buttresses supplied by the arms of the “Y” help support such a tall building constructed on such a relatively small base.
The astonishing scale of the Burj is difficult to fully comprehend – the building is best appreciated at a distance, from where you can properly appreciate the tower’s jaw-dropping height and the degree to which it reduces even the elevated high-rises which surround it to the status of undernourished pygmies. Distance also emphasizes the Burj’s slender, elegantly tapering outline, which has been variously compared to a shard of glass, a latter-day Tower of Babel and, according to Germaine Greer, “a needle stuck in the buttock of the Almighty”.
Most of the tower is occupied by some nine hundred residential apartments (these allegedly sold out within eight hours of launch, and subsequently changed hands, at the height of the Dubai property market, for a cool US$43,000 per square metre); lower floors are occupied by the world’s first Armani hotel.
The biggest surprise at the Burj’s spectacular opening party in January 2010 was the announcement that the tower, previously known as the Burj Dubai, was to be renamed the Burj Khalifa, in honour of Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. Announcing the name change, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed stated: “This great project deserves to carry the name of a great man” – although the naming rights to the world’s tallest building may owe less to Sheikh Khalifa’s personal qualities and more to the US$15-billion-plus bailout that Abu Dhabi provided to cash-strapped Dubai following recent financial difficulties. Oddly enough, Sheikh Khalifa himself didn’t bother showing up to the unveiling of the building that will now make his name familiar to millions.
Access to the Burj Khalifa is strictly controlled. Most visitors take the expensive tour up to the misleadingly named “At the Top” observation deck (on floor 124, although there are actually 163 floors in total) for sensational views over the city. Alternatively, the seriously pricey At the Top Sky Experience gives you access to the main observation deck on floor 124 along with a second viewing deck on floor 148, although apart from the kudos of saying you’ve been almost to the very top of the world’s tallest building, the relatively small gain in height doesn’t really justify the hefty ticket price.
A plausible alternative is to take a drink or meal in At.mosphere, on level 122, just below the observation deck. If you just go up for a drink in the lounge there’s a minimum spend of 250dh per person for a window seat – not that much more than you’d fork out on a prime-time At the Top tour but in a much more relaxed environment, and with a couple of drinks thrown in for good measure.