Opinion: The Burj Khalifa and regime insecurity


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The building formerly known as the Burj Dubai -- at 2,717 feet, easily the world’s tallest skyscraper -- opened today, and as if to explicitly acknowledge the monumental hubris surrounding the occasion, Dubai’s leaders rechristened the building for Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, leader of Abu Dhabi and financial savior to his economically ailing neighbor.

The obvious comparison here is to the Tower of Babel, which Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne notes in his article today on the Dubai skyscraper’s opening. What popped into my mind, however, while reading that the building is still largely unoccupied and may actually put more downward pressure on Dubai real estate prices, is another building -- this one in North Korea -- symbolizing the kind of insecurity that motivates some regimes to build what eventually become monuments to past delusion. Behold, Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel:


The 105-story hotel has been under construction since the heady economic days (by North Korean standards) of 1987, and there are no signs that it will ever open. Some construction resumed in 2008, although according to a website devoted to providing updates on the building, the work being done now is meant to mitigate the hulking edifice’s blight on the Pyongyang skyline.

This is not to say Dubai’s woeful economic fortunes mean it could become the next hermit kingdom or that the Burj Khalifa faces Ryugyong Hotel’s fate of suspended animation (the Dubai building is at least functional). But both stratospheric structures seem to prove an arguable truth: that government insecurity correlates positively to skyscraper height.

-- Paul Thornton