What 'Avatar,' Burj Khalifa can teach us

August 11, 2010

rob1_elogicRecent weeks have treated us to two “blockbuster” openings: “Avatar,” director James Cameron's gazillion million 3D epic; and the Burj Khalifa, the tower formerly known as Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building. Bear with me while I connect the dots.

Like half of the civilized world, I sat through two supersized popcorn refills' worth of “Avatar” over the holidays. Yes, the 3D was cool, but didn't those “horses” look a lot like … horses? Where have we seen those velociraptors before? Floating mountains? Gee, is that the best you can give us, Mr. Cameron?

And the story! Is this what hundreds of millions buys in Hollywood writing talent these days, a trite rehash of the noble savage theme? Alas, pauvre J-J Rousseau must be turning over in his tombe. And is it just me, or did anyone else notice the irony of a film that condemns technology being totally reliant on technology for its effect?

Allow me to compare this near-death experience to the rapture of seeing “It's a Wonderful Life” for the umpteen-thousandth time—happily, in this case, on the big screen, with a Santa sing-along thrown in for good measure.

Here is a film that rips your heart out. Sure, you know that George and Mary are going to fall into that pool, but it's funny every time. I wanted to scream at Uncle Billy—“Don't do it, Uncle Billy! Don't put that envelope in Potter's newspaper!”

If “Avatar” is the future of cinema as we know it, I'm upgrading my Netflix subscription.

How, then, does the Burj Khalifa fit in here?

As I see it, the problem with the Burj is that it sends the wrong message to the world. Just as there are thousands of film school graduates out there dreaming of directing “Avatar 13,” the publicity surrounding the Burj creates the impression that this is what architecture, engineering, and construction are all about.

In fact, mega-projects like the Burj are the grand exception. Only the tiniest percentage of AEC professionals will ever get the chance to work on a Burj Khalifa. But that does not mean that their work is unimportant or less than gratifying.

Rather, AEC professionals must look at their next project as if it were another Burj—yes, maybe a Burj Junior High, or a Burj Three-Story Suburban Hospital, but nonetheless a project deserving the same devotion, care, and excellence that Adrian Smith and company presumably brought to the Dubai tower.

It is said that good buildings are a product of science and art, with both sides of the brain at work. But I think something else is even more crucial: the heart. That's what “Avatar” lacked, and that's what AEC professionals must bring to their work every day.

Robert Cassidy


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