From the ancient tale of the Tower of Babel to the era of the modern skyscraper, the desire to build ever-taller structures seems fundamental to the human story. For nearly four thousand years, the title of ‘world’s tallest building’ belonged to the Great Pyramid of Giza. Then came a succession of breathtaking cathedrals and, in the modern era, some very familiar architectural icons: the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building.

For the past hundred years, however, determining the world’s tallest manmade structure’, has involved a great deal of technicalities. What constituted ‘tallest’ had to be qualified by definitions and categories. There were towers that didn’t have continuously occupied floors between the ground and their tourist-attracting observation decks. There were radio towers that qualified as the world’s tallest structures, but had guy-wires or supports to keep them standing. And there were the occupied, freestanding skyscrapers.

With its completion in 2010, the Burj Khalifa ended all arguments and brought the ‘world’s tallest’ title. At 2,722 feet, it is, by any measure or definition, the tallest thing humans have ever built.

It’s nearly impossible to describe the Burj Khalifa without sounding like a statistician or a tourism brochure. The building boasts 163 occupied stories. It contains 900 apartments, 37 floors of office space, the incredibly appointed 160 rooms of the Armani Hotel, and 3000 underground parking spaces. Reading about the Burj Khalifa in architectural journals, I was impressed but not fully compelled by what I saw. The technical feat was unquestionable, but I doubted that such a huge undertaking could constitute truly great design.

However, while traveling for business to the United States from Afghanistan, I was routed through Dubai. I decided to swing by the Burj Khalifa out of sheer curiosity. To be honest, I was fully prepared to dislike the thing. Dubai’s architecture is often far too gaudy for my tastes–like Las Vegas meets Disneyland, a jumble of nouveau riche, high-concept work. Plus, the ‘world’s tallest’ structures can often be disappointing from an aesthetic perspective, trading architectural aesthetics for sheer height.

But from the moment I entered the building, I could feel my resolve fading away. I was greeted with a museum-like gallery of graphics, video, and 3D models of the building describing the design and process of erecting such a marvel. The Burj Khalifa was built in six years, using 431,600 cubic yards of concrete and 43,000 tons of steel rebar. The height of the building required the invention of a new, super high-pressure trailer concrete pump. The crew onsite, which at the peak of construction exceeded 12,000 workers and contractors from more than 100 countries, put in over 22 million man-hours. The estimated cost of the project was $1.5 billion.

Above and beyond all of these figures, though, was a meticulousness of design and uncompromising attention to detail evident from walking through the building. Designed by Adrian Smith at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the building takes its inspiration from the hymenocallis flower, as the tower’s wings extend from the central core like the desert bloom’s petals. The spiral minaret, a design motif native to Islamic architecture, also plays heavily in the overall shape of the building, which grows progressively thinner as it stretches, spiraling, toward the clouds.

The Burj Khalifa is the embodiment of the “no expense spared” philosophy of development. An immaculate eleven-hectare park surrounds the building with a number of amazing fountains. The flowering trees and beds of the park are watered with the collected condensation from the building’s massive air conditioning system–which was pretty much invisible to my eye and successfully managed Dubai’s summer heat.

Throughout the building, from the joinery to the design of the curtain walls, was evidence of impeccable design. The 57 elevators zip quickly up and down and even the bathroom fixtures are impressive. The building’s fine dining restaurant, At.mosphere, on the 122nd floor, was similarly excellent, with exquisite food and, of course, breathtaking views.

As the United Arab Emirates’ economy diversifies from its oil wealth, it has made real efforts to prioritize tourism as a primary feature. The flagship development in this effort is Downtown Dubai, which includes the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, a shopping center of mind-boggling luxury. I’m no fan of malls, and I was floored by the place.

As it came time for me to leave Dubai and catch my flight home, I was surprised at how utterly won over I’d been by the quick visit. The Burj Khalifa had changed how I thought about super-tall buildings–which is great, because the Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, yet another brainchild of Adrian Smith, threatens to soon rise above even the Burj Khalifa. Rumors put that building at over a kilometer (over 3,200 feet) in height.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / SEPTEMBER 2013 – Amazing Buildings