Monday, October 17, 2011

Towering Above

What is it about towers that fascinates us? Is it the ancient, religious notion that by reaching skyward we grow closer to God? Is it a show of cavalier, egoist mischief? Or perhaps the ultimate form of dramatic artistic expression?

This year the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in the city of Dubai (rather unsurprising), reaching a staggering 828 meters, that's 2,717ft - or 8,151 hands for those horse enthusiasts out there. Unsurprising because of the current sheer, unfettered - and largely oil-related - wealth lying scattered around the United Arab Emirates, although the structure itself is breathtaking.

This building is however scheduled to be outshone (at least where height is concerned) by the planned mega-structure in the works known as the Kingdom Tower, which will become a centrepiece of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and is due to be completed in 2017. This bizarre feat of human engineering and architectural implausibility will reach an unprecedented height of over one kilometre high, the first building ever to do so, and will include a slew of thornily complex mechanisms to ensure that the simplest of things, such as water, will be delivered to every floor (apparently the air conditioning system will generate so much condensation that the resulting water will be utilised to service the upper floors).

The Burj Khalifa (left) and the planned Kingdom Tower (right)

It's not all that hard to imagine that buildings will keep growing like our own cultivated super-plants up out of the Earth for the forseeable future. Humans have always taken that extra effort to make something which shocks and awes, the pyramids of Egypt and South America, the cliff Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the dubiously debated Tower of Babel which by biblical accounts landed humankind in it's current (deplorably?) multi-lingual state are all examples. Clearly wherever there is room for improvement, we will find a way, and at the rate technology is changing there appears to be no slowing down.

One of the possible causes for a stratification to occur however is of course, money. The Kingdom Tower is being financed by King Abdullah's nephew and the current wealthiest Arab in the Middle East, one Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (incidentally, Al's boat, the Kingdom 5KR is currently the second biggest Benetti yacht in the world. First place goes to the Reverie, a no-bars held luxury cruiser which I had the pleasure of seeing first hand on a recent trip to Italy. The Kingdom 5KR features in James Bond movie Never Say Never Again albeit using it's altered name Nabila). Yet like the pyramids, once the monarch disappears, they remain as a solemn reminder not so much of the person buried within, but the once great prosperity of the region they inhabit.

So, will the imposing precipices dotting the world have the same fate? Possibly. Our civilisation is the largest and could be the most stable in all of recorded human history if it continues on the current track, so it's hard to see it vanishing like the Egyptians' did, but if oil is to run out (and estimates put that at between ten to forty years - erm, goodbye cars) then the vast fortunes of many a royal Middle Eastern family will perhaps do the same.

At least one result could be that this money is spent with much more caution, and these buildings will cease to be made with such flagrant zeal. If you are familiar with the new Star Trek movie (J. J. Abrams 2009) that could be a depressing thought, as the buildings seen looming in the dusty horizon of Iowa a couple of hundred years from now will be a mere pipe dream.

In any case, the buildings of today aren't built with the same raw lastability of the pyramids or Buddhas. Anyone who has watched one of those ridiculously dramatic National Geographic pseudomentaries knows that our buildings today may last just a few hundred years, and after that, they'll all come tumbling down with exceptionally poor special effects to the earth from whence they sprouted.

Let's hope Hollywood is, like these crazy builders of the past and present, just hooked on exaggeration.


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