Object 18

Two Towers

2025, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

This is a tale of two towers. One soared a kilometre and a half into the sky, a slender shard of metals and composites whose highest floors could see above the clouds. The other, a squat, functional building made from old-fashioned concrete and steel, barely reached a tenth of that height. Both remain today. One is empty and silent, the other is still filled with laughter and life.

The first building is the Burj Al Shams in Dubai, a small city on the Arabian Peninsula. The second is the NR Tower 14 in Mumbai, India’s famous Maximum City.

We normally look at single objects in this History, but sometimes we can get a better understanding by comparing two. I can't imagine two more similar yet different objects — both among the largest in this book — that symbolise the virtues and excesses of the world in the late 20s.

I'm in Dubai now, standing at the base of the Burj Al Shams looking up. With the naked eye, I can barely see its summit 1.6 kilometres above me, atop 300 floors. The Burj Al Shams, the 'Tower to the Sun', was the tallest structure in the world when it was completed in early 2025, coming amid a global ‘skyscraper race’. Newly rich countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and India were all eager to overawe their citizens and neighbours with ostentatious displays of wealth, and few things are more ostentatious than skyscrapers.

Dubai had been a frontrunner for some time, flush with oil money and a desire to build an infrastructure that would attract high-value service industries before the money ran out. The Burj Al Shams was to be their jewel in the crown. It was a self-contained and self-sufficient structure with all the offices, apartments, pools, restaurants, concert halls, and even gardens that one might desire — an 'arcology'. The Burj Al Shams projected a gleaming 'high-tech' and environmentally friendly image; it even contained its own wind turbines and power generators, with smart climate control systems.

There was just one problem: the Burj Al Shams sat in the middle of a desert with vast amounts of empty land nearby. No amount of on-board power generation and hydroponic farms could produce true self-sufficiency, meaning that the so-called arcology was still reliant on outside resources, which raised the question, why bother with a skyscraper when low or medium-rise buildings would have been cheaper? And for that matter, was a truly self-sufficient building with residents living, working, sleeping, and shopping all in the same space even a desirable thing?

One imagines that the builders of the Burj Al Shams knew it was a physical contradiction, but their patrons didn't mind. They wanted to copy the success of other cities such as New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo by mimicking their external characteristics — high-tech public transport, shiny buildings, expensive hotels, sweeping concert halls — without having to make any societal changes towards egalitarianism.

On opening in 2025, the skyscraper did attract hundreds of the ultra-rich to buy apartments, and several large government-owned firms and multinationals were persuaded to lease office space, but more than a third of it remained empty for a decade, even after rates were cut significantly. The assumption of rising real-estate prices proved to be false, and Dubai's lustre was beginning to wear thin when compared to the other ‘recompetitive’ countries such as Indonesia and India. Dubai still had money and their status as an increasingly important transport hub, but rising civil unrest made companies and individuals increasingly reluctant to make the Burj Al Shams their home.

Home is exactly what several thousand people called the NR Tower 14, a 35-storey skyscraper. Unlike the Burj Al Shams, this building is far from unique — from where I'm standing, I can see five identical towers. In fact, it has the same basic design and construction as buildings from decades earlier — a solid core to contain the vertical elevators with a light curtain wall surrounding it. There are no fancy adornments, no wind turbines, no gardens, and certainly no concert halls — just apartments and shops.

In the early 20s, Mumbai was one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million inhabitants crammed into only 600 square kilometres. The living conditions were awful. Millions lived in slums, sanitation was poor, healthcare was poor, and quality of life was poor — yet more and more people flooded into the city, lured by the prospect of higher wages and more social freedom, just as occurred in industrial revolutions across Europe and North America centuries earlier.

After the planning laws that restricted tall buildings were modified in 2022, hundreds of medium and high-rise towers sprang up in response to the severe overcrowding. At first, these buildings were far from affordable for slum-dwellers. They arguably weren't much safer either, judging by the number that had serious structural faults due to the low-quality concrete and steel used. Worse, there was resentment among those who weren't fortunate enough to move into the new buildings, and raw anger and riots from those displaced to make way for the new developments.

Yet as the government enforced improved building standards in the late 30s and helped finance the construction of affordable housing, living conditions for many of the poorest in Mumbai began to rapidly improve. Compensation was provided for the displaced. Local governments insisted that these new buildings also incorporate mixed multi-use housing, with shops and offices next to apartments, in an effort to create more liveable neighbourhoods. Gradually, the towers provided stability and safety to millions and gave the city a basis for becoming the economic and cultural powerhouse of the 40s and 50s.

The NR Tower 14 was one of those 'second generation' slum-replacements — solid and reliable, if not beautiful. What made it special was not its technology, but its lack of it. Over the years, the tower and its sisters were reconfigured and reused for a multitude of purposes, from offices to hotels to community centres, and new waves of technology were grafted on to the cheap frame. Its simplicity and versatility was a strength, not a weakness.

Today, the Burj Al Shams lies mostly empty, its tenants having abandoned it for more flexible or practical accommodation. Twenty years ago, it was given to a collective of artists under the agreement that they would take care of it — now it stands mostly as an art project, or a sculpture, depending on who you ask.

The NR Tower 14 in Mumbai, however, is still thriving as a newly renovated set of apartments and flexible community space, firmly embedded in the centre of a vibrant city of millions. In this case, simpler was better.