Thursday, January 22, 2009

High-rise cycle

Today's Times of India carries a story about plans to build a 101 storey high-rise in Wadala. The piece begins by hinting the time isn't right to conceive such a grandiose project. However, considering the usual length of business cycles and the years taken for large buildings to be completed, the middle of a downturn might be the perfect time for these sorts of proposals.
High-rise buildings are the ultimate architectural sign of business confidence, even hubris. They tend to be conceived at the peak of business cycles, and completed at the trough. The Empire State building, the first habitable modern structure to be the tallest edifice in the world (setting aside the few months that the Chrysler Building held that honour) was completed in 1931, as the Great Depression really began to bite. It remained largely unoccupied for years.
The Sears Tower was first envisioned during a retail boom in the 1960s. By 1974, when the tower was ready to be occupied, the owners discovered their revenue projections had been very optimistic. Sears Roebuck eventually had to mortgage the property.
Margaret Thatcher took over in hard times, but by her second term in office the British economy was growing at a healthy rate. That's when bankers dreamt up an ambitious regeneration scheme for the docklands, with a showpiece tower that would be Europe's highest building. Canary Wharf hung out the To Let signs in 1991, running smack into a massive recession, meaning that, like the Empire State and the Sears Tower had done, it lay half-empty, causing bankruptcies and changes in ownership.
After the World Trade Centres were attacked, many people suggested the era of tall buildings was over. The exact opposite happened, as a housing bubble led to a slew of dizzyingly high structures being proposed and passed. So now we wait for Burj Dubai to open the doors of its 5 billion dollar, 800 meter plus tower in mid-2009. Something tells me the promoters of the project aren't thrilled about their timing.
On the plus side, as economies eventually turn around and demand for office rentals creeps up, the tallest buildings begin to seem like icons of a city rather than white elephants. Who can imagine Manhattan without the Empire State Building?

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