How Dubai's Burj Khalifa hit the heights

Always planned as the world's tallest building, the only question was by how much?

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They are just some of the buildings that define the UAE. But what is the story behind them? In the fourth part of our summer series celebrating the country’s architecture, we look at the history behind the world's tallest building, Dubai's landmark Burj Khalifa.

It was the spring of 2002 and Adrian Smith of the Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had received an intriguing proposal.

Dubai real estate company Emaar Properties was preparing its biggest development yet. To be called Downtown Dubai, it would include hotels, apartments and the largest shopping mall in the world.

But the Emaar team, led by Mark Amirault, who was the chief development officer, and then executive director Robert Booth, wanted something more. A building that would send a message to the world about Dubai. They wanted a building, in fact, that would be the tallest in the world.

They had come to the right firm and the right man. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had designed many of the world’s tallest buildings including Chicago’s Willis Tower, the record holder for almost 20 years.

But it was the Jin Moa Tower, a 420.5-metre giant designed by Smith for the Shanghai skyline, which had caught their eye. The mixed-use tower, drawing from traditional Chinese architecture, had a striking glass exterior rising like a pagoda to a dramatic spire.

How could something similar be achieved in Dubai, they wondered?

Smith suggested holding an international competition first, and in 2003, when a decision was made, it was Skidmore, Owings and Merrill who had won.

The Burj Khalifa was born.

Smith, now 77 and who would found his own practice in 2006, outlined the concept for the Burj Khalifa in his book Adrian Smith: Towards a Sustainable Future.

“The form is geometric in plan, starting with three branches and three pods,” he wrote.

“The specific shape of these branches is modular in nature and in function and organic and biomorphic in form. The form can be found in flower petals, leaves and seeds, in animals such as birds and sea creatures, including crustaceans.”

“The over composition is a vertical object reduced and transformed by spiral reduction of branch length until it reaches its central shaft at which point the shaft peels away to reveal a triptych configuration that erodes in a spiral manner until a single spire remains. The resulting impression is organic and plant like.”

He concluded: “As the building rises from the ground I feel it wants to appear as if sculptured from the earth and crystallised in a vertical stalagmite of glass and steel.”

From directly above, the building would resemble a flower, while in profile it would echo the design of Islamic domes.

The height, and therefore the final design, though, had not been decided. Smith recalled that some members of the design team wanted to keep the height below 550 metres, but still comfortably eclipsing what was then the tallest building, Kuala Lumpur’s 451.9 Petronas Towers.

“They felt this height would still achieve the desired goal of the world’s highest building when completed.”

Smith felt the shorter designs didn’t work, and anyway did not meet the ambitions of Emaar’s founder, Mohamed Alabbar.

Then came the news that the renowned Chinese-American architect I M Pei was proposing a building significantly taller than 550 metres. It was enough to swing the balance. The Burj Khalifa would not only be the tallest building in the world. It would look down on the new world record holder, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, by an astonishing 320 metres.

A 1:500 scale model of the Burj was built and finally approved by Emaar even as test piles for the foundations were under way. Construction began in January 2004.

Still incomplete, it became unofficially the world’s tallest building in July 2007. By September it was the world’s tallest free-standing structure, and by April 2008, still a year before completion, surpassed the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota as the tallest man-made structure.

Its great height was not the only remarkable feature of the Burj Khalifa The building was designed to minimise swaying to no more than two metres — not to stop it from toppling over but to keep the inhabitants comfortable.

Condensation on the exterior produces 15 million gallons of water a year, the equivalent of 200 Olympic swimming pools, and is used to irrigate the landscaping.

The temperature at the top of the building is typically 15°C lower than the base. The sun also sets a minute later on the 124th floor viewing platform than it does on the ground floor.

Facts such as these have only increased the mystique of the Burj Khalifa, and more than justified its estimated $1.5 billion construction cost.

“It’s very difficult to make money on a super-tall building — that’s why there are so few of them around,” said Smith.

The Burj was an exceptional case, he wrote, where the building “will justify a high premium for its space.”

Officially opened on January 4, 2010, the Burj Khalifa was attracting over 1.8 million visitors annually pre-pandemic. That same year saw Adrian Smith design the Kingdom Tower for Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, with a proposed height of at least one kilometre.

Construction began in 2013, but stalled at only one third built in 2018, reportedly over issues with the contractor. Now renamed the Jeddah Tower, five years later there is no word on when building work will recommence.

The Burj Khalifa will still wear its crown for some time yet.

A version of this article was first published on August 8, 2022

Updated: August 25, 2023, 11:05 AM