Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mega-tower is Dubai's last hurrah

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- When work began in 2004 to build the world's tallest tower, Dubai's confidence also was sky high with a host of mega-projects on the drawing board or rising from the sands.

That swagger seems positively old school these days. It's been tripped up by a debt crunch that has humbled Dubai's leaders and exposed the shaky foundations of the city-state's boom years -- leaving the planned Jan. 4 opening of the iconic Burj Dubai with a double significance of hello and goodbye.

It will be both a debutante bash for a new architectural landmark and a farewell toast to Dubai's age of excess.

The Burj Dubai -- a steel-and-glass needle rising more than a half-mile -- may be the last completed work from Dubai's time of the giants. Most other of the unfinished super-projects announced in recent years, such as a second palm-shaped island or a tower to surpass the Burj Dubai, are either recession roadkill or are under consideration on a far smaller scale.

If they are still considered at all.

Dubai last week dropped what amounted to a financial bombshell -- announcing its main government-backed development group, Dubai World, needed at least a six-month breather from creditors owed nearly $60 billion.

World markets had known a day of fiscal reckoning was creeping up on what was once the world's fastest-growing city. But the depths of Dubai's red ink seemed to surprise everyone.

The Burj Dubai gala is now a welcome diversion. And one without a direct political sting: the building was developed by Emaar Properties, a state-backed firm not linked to the current debt meltdown.

"This tower was conceived as a monument to Dubai's place on the international stage," said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain. "It's now like a last hurrah to the boom years."

The brakes also were slammed on hundreds of Dubai projects -- from residential towers that stand half-finished to a desert Xanadu that included a Universal Studios theme park and a "city of wonders" with full-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and other famous sites.

"Buildings like the Burj Dubai are born from the optimism of the moment," said Carol Willis, director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York. "That may not necessarily be the mood when the project is finished."

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