YESTERDAY Dubai formally opened the highest thing yet built, the next generation of skyscraper: the heavenscraper.
At 818m (or thereabouts, secrecy on this subject being part of its artificial mystique) it will be both the tallest man-made structure and the tallest inhabited building on the planet. At least for the time being.
This is the Burj Dubai, the physical expression of Dubai's towering ambition, a modern Tower of Babel. It is a beautiful object, a remarkable testament to human ingenuity, engineering and megalomania.
As Dubai's economy totters and sways, it might turn out to be a monumental folly, the latest example of man's need to build ever upwards regardless of cost, need or sense.
The glass-and-steel exterior of the Burj Dubai would cover 17 football pitches. Its cooling system could freeze 13000 tons of ice a day. The air temperature at the top is up to eight degrees cooler than the bottom; 54 lifts hurtle up it at speeds reaching 40kmh. Its facade was shipped from China, its marble from Italy, its veneers from Brazil. It can be seen from oases more than 90km inland.
"The earth has a new centre," proclaims the PR fanfare. The design and technology are indeed new, but the idea is as old as time.
"Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves," say the Tower of Babel's builders in the Book of Genesis.
Archaeologists believe the original Tower of Babel, built in the 3rd century BC at Babylon, between the Tigris and Euphrates, was perhaps 90m high, a tenth of the size of its modern counterpart, but a comparable miracle for the time.
The biblical tower, of course, symbolises man's overreach, his presumption in building a monument to himself. The modern parallels are inescapable.
Dubai's real estate market, once a roaring engine of growth, is in deep trouble. Prices on the Dubai stock exchange dropped dramatically last year. Dubai has amassed $80billion in debt, more than half of which will mature in 2013.
Abu Dhabi has stepped in with billions of dollars in financial aid to bolster the economy of the neighbouring emirate.
There is a striking correlation between projects to build the world's tallest building, and financial crises. The construction of the Empire State Building (381m) was conceived in the run-up to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression; the Sears Tower in Chicago (442m), built in 1974, came with the oil crisis and stagflation in the US; the Petronas Towers (452m) in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 coincided with the Asian financial crisis.
The correlation between the highest buildings and lowest economic moments would be eerie were its reasons not so obvious - excessive credit, overconfidence and the culture of ostentation.
As in finance, so in politics. Rulers, particularly autocrats, tend to succumb to what has been called the "edifice complex", the urge to build on a vast scale, often just before being toppled.
In the Berlin bunker Hitler was said to still be poring over plans for Germania. - The Times, London