Wall Street WARZONE

“Temple of Hubris:” Newest Monument to Wall Street’s Out-of-Control Greed is World’s Tallest Building, $4.5 Billion Burj Dubai Desert Skyscraper … is Empty!

by Paul B Farrell, JD, PhD
| | 5/5/2010

Years ago I was a radar-computer tech in the Marine Corps. After that, I studied architecture, worked in construction and development. Later with Morgan Stanley’s Real Estate Investment Banking Group, advising Mitsubishi Int’l, Tishman Realty, Burlington Northern, the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. etc. Today my eyes naturally lock on fascinating news like LATimes architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne’s review of the opening of the new 2,600 feet high, 160 stories Burj Dubai skyscraper, now the new tallest building in the world. The headline, “Temple to Hubris,” is a grabber: Another dark reminder of Wall Street’s catastrophic meltdown. Sitting on the other side of the planet, this giant monument to oil wealth is also a physical symbol of what’s left of the soul of the Wall Street that has been advising American and Gulf investors. Hawthorne hit the nail on the head:

Burj Dubai’s real symbolic importance: It is mostly empty, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, nearly all were bought three years ago — near the top of the market — and primarily as investments, not as places to live. … And there’s virtually no demand in Dubai at the moment for office space, of which the Burj Dubai has 37 floors.

Yes, “mostly empty.” Both Wall Street and Burj Dubai are symbols of the blind arrogance of power of leaders and the super-rich, not just today but throughout time. In ancient Greece “hubris” was a crime. The works of Aristotle and Sophocles remind of the consequences. Today hubris also describes the behavior of our failed leaders, Greenspan, Paulson, Bernanke and the CEOs running Wall Street banks. Actually, with the Burj Dubai tower it’s less hubris and more just plain old investor stupidity, nobody was in power, no arrogance, no hubris, just ill-advised dumb money. Yes, “mostly empty,” not just that vast physical space, but the minds that led to a decision to build that monument. Hawthorne’s analysis of the economic and financial consequences was brilliant:

The extent to which the building had to battle worries about the wisdom of its construction even before it was finished — the way it seemed doomed while it was still going up — may be unique in the history of skyscraper design. In that sense, it seems impossible to write about the Burj Dubai without at least mentioning the Tower of Babel, which also, if the biblical story and various historical sketches are to be believed, combined a tapering, corkscrew design with heaps of overconfidence. …

Conceived at the height of local optimism about Dubai’s place in the region and the world, this seemingly endless beanstalk tower … is a powerful, iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest — and biggest — in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy … easy credit, during the boom years and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 have created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world.

But the real problems lie in an uncertain future, and for that Hawthorne paints a depressing picture of Burj Dubai’s as a symbol of the 21st century, by drawing our attention to the some powerful cultural metaphors paralleling the architectural context of this unique skyscraper, metaphors that raise fears we have not learned our lessons, that this cycle is far from over, that the worst is yet to come:

Rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a stream of books, movies and photos imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence … the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had sealed off two of its three towers … watch the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel “The Road,” in which a father and son wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape where buildings for the most part have been reduced to burned-out shells. … The Roland Emmerich destruction-fest ’2012′ … the upcoming Denzel Washington vehicle “The Book of Eli” are full of similar images … and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” moves its characters through a series of downsized companies where abandoned desk chairs swim in empty space … [or Detroit where] Hantz Farms is planning to buy and plant as many as 5,000 acres of land within the Detroit city limits.

Dubai’s economy will recover, at least in some chastened form. But the hyperconfident Dubai that Smith’s tower was designed to mark and call global attention to is already dead, as is the broader notion, which the emirate came to symbolize over the last decade, that growth can operate as its own economic engine, feeding endlessly and ravenously on itself. If the Burj Dubai is too shiny, confidently designed and expertly engineered to be a ruin itself, it is surely the marker — the tombstone — for some ruined ideas.

Mostly empty. Temple of Hubris. Tower of Babel. The new Burj Dubai skyscraper, the world’s tallest building sitting in a desert metropolis on the far side of the planet will always be a Greek tragedy, another reminder of Wall Street’s blind hubris. And if history is any guide, we know hubris never dies, it is a virus that simply “finds a new host” … scales new heights of irrational exuberance … blows new bubbles … triggers new meltdowns, a new catastrophe, new bailouts … dumping more debt on future generations.

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