What it's like on top of the world's largest $78m picture frame

In early 1993, The Simpsons aired its classic episode Marge vs The Monorail. It focused on a shyster who arrives to sell the good people of Springfield a public transport system that they neither want nor need. The episode concluded with Marge's voice listing other "follies of the people of Springfield" including a 50-foot magnifying glass, and an escalator to nowhere.

A quarter of a century later, you could be forgiven for thinking that Dubai has become a literal version of that jokey, jaundiced town.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on doomed projects such as The World, an abandoned series of islands that are supposed to look like a huge map. Elsewhere you can find entire theme parks which have been left to be swallowed by the desert. There's also an underused monorail.

I'm thinking of all these projects, and the old adage "more money than sense" as I stand at the bottom of the Dubai Frame at the edge of Zabeel Park. This is the emirate's latest enormous architectural venture that in most other nations would be laughed at, or cancelled, but here is presented with dead-eyed seriousness and an assumption that if you doubt its wisdom, you're the crazy one.

It cost around $86 million, but that could rise depending on the results of multiple lawsuits which have been taken out against the constructors, most notably by the Mexican architect Fernando Donis. The project was almost three years late, significantly over budget, and shrouded in controversy, which brings it in line with a long list of other Dubai mega projects. But like many of those, it seems a lot less daft the moment you arrive.

Yes it is a big, golden picture frame, and no, it doesn't have anything in it. Not only that, but you can't really use it as a frame - it's so huge that standing back to line up a nice panorama of the city is impossible. But you can go inside and, most importantly, go up to the top.

The Frame endeavours to tell the story of the emirate, from dusty fishing port, to nascent oil state, to glittering city of tomorrow. It begins on ground level with a mock souk in which Blade Runner-esque holograms sense your arrival and greet you at their stalls.

Then it's into the lift and up 150 metres to the top of the Frame, a 100-metre-long bridge, where the logic behind the entire project becomes much clearer. From this quite incredible vantage point, to the north you can see the city as it was: Bur Dubai and the Creek area are among the oldest parts of Dubai. To the south you can see it as it is and will be: Dubai International Financial Centre is home to an insane collection of skyscrapers which look as though they've been transplanted straight from JG Ballard's page to the skyline. The morning I visit, these colossal structures are wearing a skirt of fog, adding to the sense that they're somehow spectral - the ghosts of Christmas Future.

The stupendous view is enough of a distraction that I don't realise that the ground has opened up beneath me. I'm like Wile E. Coyote, run off a cliff, some distance from safety before I realise the peril.

OK, not peril, but the smart glass below my feet has changed from opaque to clear and suddenly, express route, the ground level, 47 floors down, is right below me. It's a vertiginous vantage point, one that leaves me giggling nervously, then stepping gingerly back onto the stonework.

The organisers predict around two million people a year will visit the Frame - the majority of them will rave about that glass. Far fewer are likely to remember the strange video waiting for them when they get back to terra firma. A room with a wrap-around video wall predicts with the tone of a sterile propagandist what Dubai will look like in 2050. There are a lot of robots and, apparently, a captive whale in a vast aquarium.

For now, things are a good deal less bizarre - especially on Fridays, when Zabeel Park hosts the excellent Ripe food market. There you can walk around and eat and drink locally made produce, or buy cottage industry handicrafts, and if you close your eyes for a second, you might believe that Dubai is a normal city.