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Steel | Concrete

March 31, 2005

$1B project due for completion in 2008

Skyscraper being built in Dubai will be world’s tallest building

DUBAI, UAE

For now, the world’s tallest building is a flower-shaped concrete slab with pilings plunging 50 metres into the earth. When it’s finished, weak-kneed visitors will swoon over this city from the stainless-steel-skinned tower’s 123rd floor Sky Lobby.

Developers say the Burj Dubai will soar 690 metres above the desert — dozens of storeys taller than skyscrapers in Taiwan, Malaysia, Chicago or anywhere else. But they are keeping the exact height a secret to flummox would-be competitors in the world’s furious skyscraper race.

“We’re going to records never approached before. Not only will it be the tallest building, it will be the tallest manmade tower,’’ said Robert Booth, a director at Emaar Properties, the local construction giant developing the pointed spire-shaped building.

Booth joked that the Burj, being built at a cost of more than $1 billion and due for completion in 2008, will sport a movable spire to keep observers from ever gauging the true height.

“Only the chairman will know how tall it is,’’ he joked.

He refused to reveal the total number of storeys, but a mock elevator at the site held a button for a 189th floor. The building’s three-metre sway in the wind means designers need to prevent whiplash in the ultra-long cables hauling up 50 elevators.

The craze for height has hit hardest in industrializing Asian countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, where seven of the world’s 10 tallest buildings are located. The world’s current tallest, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, tops out at 509 metres and 101 floors. The tallest structure, Toronto’s CN Tower, stretches 553 metres into the sky, largely because of a huge antenna.

A thriving business centre in a region better known for conflict, Dubai has staked its fame on audacious construction projects, and the Burj is one of the more extreme.

In the past, tall buildings sprouted in cities like New York where the lack of land meant there was nowhere to go but up. In Dubai, there is no shortage of empty desert for construction. The tower, like other projects here, is aimed at putting the booming city on the map.

“It’s image, clearly,’’ said Richard Rosan, president of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. “There is no practical reason for having a building this tall.’’

The Burj — tower in Arabic — is a silvery pinnacle in a style harkening to futuristic designs of the 1920s: A cluster of stair-stepped steel-and-glass cylinders that fall away as the central spire reaches into the clouds.

Giving a tour of the site, Booth took reporters in a mesh construction elevator to the open-air 37th floor of a neighbouring building, already a vertigo-inducing height that provoked frightened gasps.

“Can you imagine what it’s going to be like on the 137th floor?’’ asked Booth, chatting breezily while standing perilously close to the abyss. “You can’t be scared of heights to do this job.’’

Developers say the building will return to the Middle East the honour of hosting the earth’s tallest structure. That designation was lost in 1889 when the Eiffel Tower upset the 43-century reign of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza, at 153 metres.

The landmark also poses a tempting target for terrorists.

Designers have planned for catastrophes, manmade and otherwise, said Greg Sang, Emaar’s project manager for the Burj. Sang believes the concrete-core building could withstand an airliner strike of the sort that brought down the steel-frame World Trade Center.

“Our building is very different from the World Trade Center,’’ Sang said. “The Burj will behave very differently in a similar scenario. Concrete is much more robust than steel when you hit it. It’s also much better at resisting fire.’’

The tower owes its shape to American architect Adrian Smith, of the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Smith also designed Shanghai’s 420-metre Jin Mao tower, the world’s fourth tallest.

Workers from the chief contractor, South Korea’s Samsung, are already swarming over the slab, shaped in three rounded lobes like a local desert flower.

A hotel will occupy the lower 37 floors, with 700 private apartments — sold in just eight hours by the developer — taking floors 45 through 108.

Corporate offices and suites will fill most of the rest, except for a 123rd floor lobby and 124th floor observation deck — with an outdoor terrace for the brave. The spire will also hold communication equipment.

Whether the Burj can keep its title as the world’s tallest remains to be seen.

“We’ll definitely hold the title for a couple years, perhaps longer,’’ Sang said. “But someone, somewhere will come along and build a taller building. It’s just a matter of time and money.’’

The Associated Press

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