Come April, the first tenants may finally be able to move into Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, now the tallest building in the world. Despite a series of setbacks since its ostensible opening two months ago, including the closing of the observation deck, the tower has already prompted an exuberant proliferation of record-breaking statistics: it soars more than half a mile high, stands twice the height of the Empire State Building, boasts views that reach 60 miles, etc. But all the hoopla misses two other symbolic milestones that should enliven the history books. Namely, the Burj Khalifa is primarily residential and its structural frame is reinforced concrete.
Why are these two facts so important? The pursuit of maximum altitude is a major technological undertaking, requiring extraordinary economic investment, significant innovations in materials and a high tolerance for risk; as we survey the monuments of architectural history, tall structures provide remarkable insights about the aspirations of the societies that created them.
Excerpted from “The Age of Concrete.” The New York Times (March 13, 2010): A17.