By Jethu Abraham (PEOPLE)

ulitzer- winning architecture critic Paul 
Goldberger finds the Burj more than just a tall tale

Acclaimed architecture critic and writer Paul Goldberger couldn’t be visiting Dubai at a better time. With the well-toned Burj Khalifa rising tall and proud in the background, the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of several books, including Why Architecture Matters and Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture, talks about architecture, the sustainability of a skyscraper and of course, 
the Burj.

Is this your first time in Dubai?

Yes, yes. I am still figuring things out.

Was there a culture shock?

Well, not as much as I expected. For me, it has been less of a culture shock and more of a prosperity shock, because there is a sense in the United States that everything has completely collapsed in Dubai and that nothing exists here but empty roads and empty buildings. So, discovering that it was not true and that there still appears to be an ongoing life and prosperity was a surprise.

In fact, for me, the culture shock is in the way Dubai represents western culture, as opposed to representing a different culture — an exaggerated version of the western culture.

Impressions about Burj Khalifa

I came prepared not to like it, but came around to changing my view. The Burj does have elegance to its thinness. In fact, even though it is the highest building by far, in many ways, it is more restrained than many of the other buildings.

Are skyscrapers sustainable options?

Skyscrapers are inherently sustainable by nature. If you take a typical 40-storied office building and imagine that all that’s inside is scattered across the city, those things would require far more energy than the energy required for people to get to and fro from a skyscraper. However, that thought also presumes the existence of a certain kind of infrastructure, say in New York or London, where people almost always come to a tall building by public transit.  In Dubai, that is not the case. Most people come and go by cars. By that argument, a skyscraper is usually a sustainable thing.

But is the Burj typical in character? For instance, if you were to take the structure from here, and place it in New York, would you immediately look at it and say that this is from Dubai?

Paul Goldberger
Paul Goldberger

No, I don’t think there is anything that connects the Burj to the Middle East other than the drive for great heights. It is a trend which we have largely given up in the West, partly because we can’t afford it and also 
because, the drive for great heights is more or less an obsession for newer cultures.

Newer cultures are eager to prove themselves just as the US once was, when the skyscrapers were invented. The US was pretty young to the world stage then, and was just feeling its muscles as an international force in the 20th century. So, it was tremendously important that the US had the tallest, the largest, the everything. As time went on, there was lesser interest in such things in both the US and Europe.

Besides, these buildings are very tall and are built partly as symbols, so they rarely make economic sense by traditional standards. There is almost always that element of vanity. The word ‘vanity’ can be used the way the critic in The Guardian used it: as something terrible or used to represent an image for advertising, or as an identity. Vanity also connects us to those things that are less benign.

It is striking to realise that if you measure the Burj, it is actually not very big — by square feet. It is taller than most buildings but it is not anywhere near the world’s biggest. It takes the height of a normal building and is stretched out very tall and thin, which you can do when it is a residential project as the space demand is not so great, unlike offices where people require huge amounts of office space, therefore very big square floors. This makes it a slightly different creature than most other super tall buildings like the Petronas in Kuala Lumpur, the building in Taipei and the building that’s nearing completion in Shangai.

Which are your five favourite structures?

I am giving them to you in the order I think of them which is not necessarily in the order of my favourites:

  • Chartres Cathedral in Paris
  • Falling water, White house by the great Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Unity Temple by Frank Lloyd Wright
  • University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson — our only architect 
president — one of the most beautiful and moving places in America where symbolism and pure beauty is put together perfectly.
  • Jonas Salk University in California

Is there a copyright on design?

There is no copyright on design. Different areas have different laws or copyrights on, for example, writing or intellectual property. It is also very hard to draw a line between influences and direct copy.

If that is the case, is there a statute of limits when it comes to universal property?

If I were a lawyer representing the argument of the offended side, I would probably say that the culture is diminished because the culture depends upon the values and ideas that is unique (contrary to journalistic usage) to the structure, therefore by committing this act, there is a cultural violation.

So, how was it like being on the 124th floor?

Very pleasant, I must say. It didn’t feel so incredibly high there. It was a wonderful view but I didn’t feel that it was higher than I have ever been in a building and the thing about the Burj is that the observation deck is not right at the top floor so for me, the scary thing was not looking down but looking up and realising that there are 40 more floors above me as well. (laughs)

You don’t have a chance to suffer from vertigo?

A little, yes, but not too much. There’s a glass around the deck and it’s quite protected. You can put your hands on the rail there, so psychologically, you feel much better.

You came prepared not to like the Burj. Did you spot anything that you did not like?

I don’t know if I feel this way because of the association I am about to tell you, but I did not like the fact that the outer coating or sheath of the building bore a very strong resemblance to another project by the same architect which was recently finished in Chicago — a building for Donald Trump. It is actually quite similar but it looks better on this building because it has got a more attractive shape.

Another thing that I didn’t like — and this goes back to bigger issues like planning — is that it’s almost like a country in a state. I mean, you drive in and you drive out of the entrances and go to one of the hotels, offices or apartments but there is no sense, as with so many other things in Dubai. A skyscraper in New York or London or Chicago is just out there in the street.

Would that be incidental or would that be deliberate?

I think it was a deliberate intention because it goes with the overall plan — Emaar’s whole area there, and again, while this whole building is very thin at the top, it is not very thin at the bottom. It has a large base so it is very hard to imagine it sitting in a more traditional site or street.

But would it have been feasible to put it in a traditional site considering that it is so tall and its base so huge?

Well, if you imagine that other people will come to it by car, it is a 
difficult option as there would be automobile traffic around it, which is unfortunately the fact of life here for most buildings. It would be another generation, if ever, before that changes, and I suppose you also need to keep in mind that such buildings built in the city do exist as stand-alone structures.

Dubai has had good experience putting buildings close to each other.  Many buildings such as the Emirates Towers are on their own. In Dubai, a building is seen as a sculpture as opposed to a more traditional scene where everything is kind of interwoven together, which is how it is in older cities — east or west.

When you first see a building or a structure, what are the things that you would consciously notice?

I always have conscious feelings whenever I see a structure or visit a building. I write down all the feelings because those are the things that are hard to replicate. You can look at a press release to find out the other stuff, but the subjective impressions are the things you try to write down. Of course, first impressions do not substitute serious criticism but they are something that I take very seriously. Ultimately, it’s important to see a building’s relationship with its surroundings, internal function and how it is useful to the people who use it as well.

What was your first spontaneous impression about the Burj?

It was thinner and had a kind of elegance and it was conventional in an old- fashioned fantasy sort of way. There was some strange resemblance also to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s towers, which ironically enough, was actually something that was never done seriously by Wright but something done to mock the whole obsession for skyscrapers.

What is the longevity of a skyscraper?

We don’t know yet, as skyscrapers are a relatively new building type; just that nothing super tall has been taken down so far. What we know is that, many of them have become obsolete and their mechanical functioning has been replaced. The Empire State building looks exactly as it used to but internally, it had to go through a whole lot of change. Weather can damage a structure as well. Rain, consistent heat, freezing and thawing, all work against buildings. The greatest thing that works against buildings of course is water and despite water being important for life, it is very damaging for a building. Also, buildings that were built out of brick and stone have lasted longer and though the buildings today are technologically very well advanced, these new buildings have a whole lot of other issues to deal with.

Durability is not really kept in mind, nowadays.

Sure, nobody ever repairs a mobile; everyone just gets a new one. The same thought works with buildings as well, just that the costs differ.

What would be an architect’s worst nightmare?

Probably, some building catastrophe that happens because of the design or the way it’s built. The second nightmare, of course, is not getting another project (laughs).

There has also been this constant debate that had the WTC been built differently, the impact of 9/11 would have been different.

Yes, the WTC did not have sprinkler systems and a lot of things it was supposed to have had. The Port Authority, which is a government-run system, built it and they have the right to not follow certain rigorous principles, which is very unfortunate.

However, even if there was a different structure, I doubt it would have lessened the impact, maybe it would have. No one knows. I don’t know if it would have fallen differently or bought more time. Given the enormity of what happened, there was a surprising amount of time before it crashed, so it did not perform as badly as one expected — though I doubt  any structure could have taken that kind of impact.