The skyscraper curse hits again

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The skyscraper curse hits again

The Pyramids are the tombs of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Since it has been revealed that some of the pharaohs built additional tombs besides the ones for themselves, some suggest that there were pyramids built for employing the unemployed or for public works purposes. British economist John Maynard Keynes said the legendary wealth of ancient Egypt was indebted to two activities: the construction of the Pyramids and discovery of precious stones.

Large-scale public works brought both benefit and harm according to circumstances. A story is found in the Old Testament that people started to build the Tower of Babel but stopped, having brought the wrath of God.

This story can be interpreted as a warning that large-scale construction works undertaken by arrogant humans can result in disaster.

Sixteenth-century radical theologian Tomas Muntzer, the German author behind several anti-Lutheran writings, spoke out with the phrase “Bibel, Babel, Bubel!” It may, perhaps, be interpreted that “the Tower of Babel in the Bible is a bubble,” because myopic arrogance is a characteristic of human beings said to live “in a bubble.”

The modern version of the Tower of Babel is the so-called “skyscraper curse,” where a disaster occurs after or while a skyscraper is being built. According to analyst Andrew Lawrence, the skyscrapers of our time are planned during an economic bubble and completed after the economy goes through a crisis. One typical case is the 102-story Empire State Building. It was planned right before the Great Depression, and its construction was completed in 1931. As the building was half empty after its completion, it was once called the “Empty State Building.”

In Korea, too, there is a curse related to new company buildings. It is said that a company which enjoys good business will collapse if it promotes an ambitious plan to build a nice, new office building. When the economy is in a boom, people get complacent about their achievements and promote, on an optimistic assumption, a more ambitious plan than before. In the end, they are driven to catastrophe by their greediness, overconfidence and excessive desire.

Dubai, the construction site of the world’s tallest building, is now facing a crisis. It was only a few days ago that its leader was praised for his “leadership with imagination and vision.”

I wonder whether Dubai will recover from its crisis, shining again. Perhaps it will see cataclysmic change, as the Pyramids brought wealth to ancient Egypt, now remaining but a brilliant reminder of that country’s history.

Will it end up a house of cards built on sand?

It is time for the people who praised Dubai, not to mention the people of Dubai itself, to contemplate an answer.

The writer is a deputy business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Hoh Kui-seek
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