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 World’s tallest tower infographic
Graphic shows Downtown Burj Dubai area and the progression of the world’s tallest buildings.


World’s tallest tower

By Duncan Mil

January 4, 2010 - The world’s tallest building, the 818m Burj Dubai tower, opened on the fourth anniversary of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid becoming the Ruler of Dubai.

Once upon a time, fans of skyscrapers argued over which was the tallest in the world and how to measure them. Should one include antennae or spires, or count only to the uppermost architectural detail -- or the highest occupied floor?

But now, all the squabbling is at an end. By any yardstick, the $4 billion Burj Dubai -- centrepiece of the Gulf city's $20bn Downtown development, a collection of more than 60 high-rises, mosques and the world's largest shopping mall -- is head and shoulders above any other building on the planet.
According to criteria set down by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, since 2004 the Taipei 101, 509 metres from the ground to its "architectural top", has been hailed as the world's tallest building. Supporters of the 442m Willis (nee Sears) Tower in Chicago point to its vast antennae, which they say stretch the structure's claim to 527m, but to purists that's cheating.

It is also now academic. At a height in excess of 818m, the Burj -- a Kurdish word meaning tower -- is about 300m taller than its nearest rival, by any measure. It also has far more floors -- 160 compared with the Taipei's 101 and the Willis's 108.

Burj superlatives abound; the elevator serving the spire is the highest in the world. The double-decker cabs that each whisk 21 visitors at a time to the 124th-floor observation deck at 40mph are the world's fastest.

The shape and form of the building -- a central core with three "flying buttresses" that grow ever more slender as the building rises higher -- is said to have been inspired by a desert flower, the Hymenocallis, and the traditional geometric patterns of Islamic architecture.

However, according to the Highrise Building Division of the Samsung Corporation, which worked on the Burj, the tapering, wind-tunnel-tested design is as much a product of its environment and driven by the need to tame the desert's "dynamic … powerful wind forces". The top of the building moves up to 1.5 metres horizontally.
Up to the 156th floor, the Burj is made from traditional reinforced concrete -- enough to build a sidewalk 1,900 kilometres long, with sufficient steel "rebar" to stretch a quarter of the way around the world -- but from thereon up it has a steel frame.

The building is clad in 27 acres of hand-cut glass, steel and aluminium panels, made in 200 different sizes, to 18 different strength specifications. There are 24,348 of them; the last, a six-metre-long section, was manoeuvred into position in August.

Work started on the building in the spring of 2005 but fell a year behind schedule when the contractor supplying the specialist cladding went bankrupt. Fittingly, as the ultimate symbol of the astonishing progress made by a country whose impoverished, pre-oil inhabitants lived in tents and huts within living memory, the Burj is now expected to open on December 2, the National Day of the United Arab Emirates.

But while the Burj has been made possible by Emirati money and ambition, it is also a monument to American architectural design flair, South Korean engineering know-how -- and the sweat of labourers from the Indian sub-continent. At the height of activity, 10,000 were working on the site. In June 2007 one man fell to his death from the building.

Emaar, the UAE developer, has been secretive throughout the project, consistently declining to release its final height, widely believed to be 818m. However, as soon as it became clear it was the tallest building in the world, base-jumpers vied to become the first to fling themselves off it. The honour went to a Briton and a Frenchman, who successfully parachuted from the building in May last year, when it was a mere 650m tall, and posted a video of their achievement on YouTube.

Jumpers aside, the mixed-use tower will be home to a select group of residents and commercial tenants, including offices, shops and the world's first Armani Hotel (six stars, naturally). The facilities available to the residents of the luxury apartments include four pools, fitness suites, a library, a cigar club and 26 terraces with breathtaking views across the city and the Gulf -- the region's frequent dust storms allowing.

The Burj also houses more than 1,000 specially commissioned works of art. Pride of place in the main residential lobby goes to "World Voices", an installation by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. It consists of 196 cymbals, embossed with the names of the nations of the world and mounted on titanium "reeds" rising out of twin ponds. The cymbals, which will be "played" by falling drops of water, are gold-plated. Dubai: never knowingly under-blinged.

The Burj makes some effort to be green; exterior condensation is collected in a tank, providing 15 million gallons a year to water the building's landscaped gardens. But peak electricity demand is equivalent to 360,000 100-watt lightbulbs switched on at the same time and the building's air-conditioning output equates to the chill provided by 10,000 tons of melting ice a day.

In a post-9/11 world, the building has its own Crisis Command Team and a "defend in place" strategy to cope with fire. Apartments are equipped with a sophisticated automation and communication system; residents in no immediate danger would be told to stay put, others would be directed down the emergency stairs to fire-resistant "refuge" areas, pressurised to keep out smoke. Specially protected "lifeboat" elevators would remain in operation to allow rapid evacuations.

The ascendancy of the building might not last for long. According to the Council on Tall Buildings, by 2020 the Burj could be languishing in fourth place, behind planned towers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait -- and just down the road in Dubai. If the proposed Nakheel Tower becomes a reality, it will rise 200 storeys and be in excess of 1,000m tall.

PUBLISHED: 09/11/2009; STORY: Graphic News; PICTURES: Golden Section Graphics