The view is clear, the air is soft and silky, and only a thick strip of red separates the sky and the sea at sundown. The boundary between grandeur and kitsch becomes blurred here, halfway up the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest tower.

It smells of paint, varnish and new leather, and the steps of female visitors on parquet and marble produce an elegant-sounding echo that suddenly disappears when they step onto soft carpets. An artificial island in the shape of a palm tree is visible to the southwest, and farther to the north is a man-made archipelago that looks like a map of the world.

But only the furniture, the carpets, the smells and the sounds are real. The rest is an illusion. The visitor isn’t gazing out at the Persian Gulf from 400 meters (1,312 feet) up in the air; in fact, he or she is standing at ground level—in a model apartment with an enormous mural stretched outside its floor-to-ceiling windows—at the foot of a hermetically sealed building.

The model apartment is located at the recently closed sales office of Emaar Properties, the real estate development company behind the Burj Dubai, which has over-extended itself—with projects from India to Morocco—and is now selling some of its condominiums at half the list price. After falling by 32 percent in last two weeks, Emaar’s stock price gained 15 percentage points again last Thursday. Emaar, like the entire city, is on the brink of ruin, and yet it behaves as if nothing has happened.

Dubai, like no other place in the world, epitomizes globalization, “innovation” and “astonishing progress,” as US President Barack Obama said admiringly in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. But it also stands for mind-boggling excess. In Dubai, utopias almost feel real sometimes, and reality is sometimes nothing but a mirage.

The tower, at any rate, is real. With its 160 habitable stories, it juts 818 meters (2,683 feet) into the sky. Tourists have to kneel down on the sidewalk to photograph the building in its entirety, from base to tip.

The Burj Dubai is so tall that Bedouins can see it from their oases 100 kilometers (63 miles) inland and sailors can see it from their supertankers, 50 nautical miles out in the Gulf—at least on the few winter days when the air is as clear as it’s portrayed on the mural in front of the model apartment window.

The tower is so enormous that the air temperature at the top is up to 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than at the base. If anyone ever hit upon the idea of opening a door at the top and a door at the bottom, as well as the airlocks in between, a storm would rush through the air-conditioned building that would destroy most everything in its wake, except perhaps the heavy marble tiles in the luxury apartments. The phenomenon is called the “chimney effect.”

An Army of Immigrant Workers

An army of immigrant workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who make up about two-thirds of Dubai’s residents, built the Burj. Only one in five residents is considered a “local” entitled to a United Arab Emirates passport. Scores of marketing strategists take steps to ensure that no one scrapes away at the silver varnish of this architectural marvel.

Security guards quickly remind anyone who comes too close to the construction site of the meaning of the word “unauthorized.” Those who are invited to tour the building, or even just the grounds, are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the terms of which are to be obey “finally, irrevocably and unconditionally.” Anyone who violates the terms can expect to face a judge in Dubai.

All of this will apply for only a little more than two weeks, until Jan. 4, 2010, the official opening date—already rescheduled several times—when the developers hope that the tower will begin serving its purpose as a magnet for a two-square-kilometer new development zone, where the wind was still blowing empty plastic bags across the desert sand only five years ago. And when the Burj Dubai opens, it will likely be one of the last major projects for some time in a city that has risen to dizzying heights and now faces the prospect of a precipitous fall.