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The ghost town Ai Weiwei built

The Western media mock the emptiness of the vast Chinese city of Ordos, but the true failure is Ai Weiwei’s disastrous attempts at development

Ordos in Inner Mongolia, north China is synonymous with the phrase ‘Ghost Town’, a term used to describe cities that are apparently built on a whim, with no one to occupy them. With China having already started to fulfil its pledge to build 400 new cities in 20 years, innumerable articles have emerged in the Western press to laugh, pity or gloat at the emergence of such tragi-comical examples of urban desolation.

Forbes magazine is typical of many (although its tone is particularly contemptuous) when it asserts that ‘Ordos is one of the most egregious examples of Chinese Late Stage Growth Obesity’, while The New York Times says that it is a ‘New City with everything but the people’. In order to get a sense of this looming urban disaster, I went to Ordos to see for myself.

Empty homes

While locals say that most of the houses and apartments are finished and have been purchased, many of these homes are empty.

‘Western press laugh, pity or gloat at the emergence of such tragi-comical examples of urban desolation in China’

What I found is hardly a definitive refutation, but it is a handy counterweight to those who rush to condemn the hubris of rapid urbanisation, in China or elsewhere. In recent years, throwaway criticisms of China’s urban pretensions − a country that has grown from 20 per cent of its population living in urban areas in 1978, to over 50 per cent urbanised today − are rife.

In essence, China is deemed to be a country that is developing too fast. This is a fundamental criticism given the fact that the new Premier Li Keqiang looks to increase the pace of urbanisation to reach 70 per cent by 2030. China built 4.2 million homes in the first six months of 2012 alone.

Sculpture

A pedestrian walks behind a giant sculpture of two horses Kangbashi’s Linyinlu Square. Founded in 2004, Kangbashi is the political center and primary district of Ordos, a nine-year old city of 1.5 million people.

What is called New Ordos is actually the city of Kangbashi in the administrative region of Ordos. To add to the confusion, the Old City of Ordos is actually called Dongsheng. Both cities are in a desert twice the size of Switzerland. A number of myths have grown up around the Ordos phenomenon, as a cypher for other Chinese ghost towns.

For example, the latest to attract attention is Tianducheng, near Hangzhou, where thousands of empty faux Haussmann-style apartments overlook a replica Eiffel Tower. Ironically, as the houses quietly fill up, the cut and paste of these replica ‘news stories’ is less remarked upon.

Building site

Workers working on a residential building site in the ‘Kangbashi New Area’ of Ordos’.

While some commentators grow misty-eyed about Old Ordos, it is worth noting that it was built in 2000. In fact, the oldest residential areas are the slums created by the first migrant labourers who built the city. These ramshackle hutments may look ancient, but they date from 1997. Built over a watercourse that was infilled with waste material, the area is now home to a new generation of construction workers (ex-farmers) who are holding out for a higher sales price (as even this land is ripening for development).

Indeed, Old Ordos shows no signs of winding down and becoming the feeder city to New Ordos. Dongsheng continues to grow. It now has over 1.5 million people and is a huge sprawling metropolis in its own right. Kangbashi is 30km away and is a new city altogether. To speak of them as the same thing − the mythical city of Ordos − simply feeds the confusion.

Road to nowhere

One of the many roads just across the reservoir from Kangbashi. As Kangbashi continues it’s development, roads are in place before buildings are constructed.

‘Dongsheng continues to grow with over 1.5 million people and is a huge sprawling metropolis in its own right’

Kangbashi (New Ordos) is an example of the Chinese belief in ‘predict and provide’ − a planning concept that has been dismissed in many countries in the West in favour of ‘patch and repair’. It is ironic that China is criticised for its speed of development, which is regularly equated with short-termism.

Actually, any visitor to Shanghai’s Planning Museum will recognise that Chinese urban-scale proposals are regularly framed out on the basis of 20+ years development models (and it has made a national brand out of its Five Year Plans − nowadays called a ‘Five Year Guideline’ for the touchy-feely generation).

In fact, it sometimes seems that the West is the more short-termist. Kangbashi ‘seems’ to be doing the same thing. Since the discovery of huge coal and oil deposits, which have turned parts of Inner Mongolia into Texas, the dynamics of city building are different from what we experience in the recessionary, anxious Western world.

Apartments

A view of densely built residential developments near the Kangbashi New District.

Kangbashi is being built for one million people and already − according to recent figures (which may be contested) − 500,000 occupy the vast arrays of apartments and gated villas. Many more residential buildings have been bought and lie vacant, waiting for the city to develop.

The urgency of providing mass housing is, on the whole, a good thing, even if lots of it is unattractive. After all, accommodation has to be built for an unknown quantity of displaced farmers and government officials; migrant workers and business executives; family homes and luxury flats.

Sometimes these experiments don’t work out but at least they are prepared to take the risk. Describing a similar project called Dantu New District in central Jiangsu, one researcher notes that: ‘though it took the better part of a decade, this district was making the transition from ghost city to living city.’

Cultural Museum by MAD Architects, Beijing

Cultural Museum by MAD Architects, Beijing

‘Many more residential buildings have been bought and lie vacant, waiting for the city to develop’

Aside from the supply-side residential development, which has been the focus of all criticism (as if a city is simply about houses), the civic buildings are truly impressive, although a little eerie at this early stage of development. Admittedly, your design appreciation palls somewhat when the ‘concepts’ behind the architecture are explained. For example, the huge National Library is shaped like a row of books; MAD’s cultural museum like a desert pebble; the National Opera House like a Mongolian hat, etc, etc.

That said, it’s nice to see cultural buildings taking centre stage. Indeed, the urban centre has echoes of the formal planning layout of, say, Washington DC’s National Mall. Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, says that ‘China looked for imitation rather than innovation in the period of trying to quickly find a way of adapting to the market and urban design challenges.’

One crucial difference is that Washington’s centre is a designated public gathering point; whereas the huge central mall in New Ordos is planted with millions of flowers, presumably to dissuade public gathering. This is China, after all.

Another difference is that instead of the Smithsonian Museum’s lining the perimeter of Washington’s central green; Kangbashi has two huge (quite empty) shopping malls. I leave it to the letter-writers to make barbed comment about China’s worship of consumer capitalism.

‘China looked for imitation rather than innovation in the period of trying to quickly find a way of adapting to the market and urban design challenges’

Plan for Ordos 100 project masterplanned by Ai Weiwei and architecturally curated by Herzog and de Meuron

Plan for Ordos 100 project. Masterplanned by Ai Weiwei and curated by Herzog and de Meuron

One final issue remains: the much-vaunted Ordos 100 project 10km outside New Ordos. Set up by everyone’s favourite wealthy dissident, Ai Weiwei, this ambitious scheme predates Kangbashi by a number of years but has never really been put under the microscope. It was/is a project to invite 100 architects to propose architectural fantasy housing for a vacant riverside site.

Its launch and submissions were followed by most architectural magazines; its demise, less so. Indeed, it may come as a surprise that this project is now dead-in-the-water. An attractive Art Museum by DnA Architects is the only completed project sitting visitor-less in a vast, open, desert wilderness.

The Art Museum by DnA Architects is the only completed project

The Art Museum by DnA Architects is the only completed project

Of the other 99 project proposals approved in 2005-6, none has been completed. A mere five building shells lie derelict in the desert sun: unfeasibly huge (and I mean ‘huge!’), they have been left to fill up with wind-blown sand. Little is said of this scandalous waste of time, money and effort.

It is as if being sold a pup by a company called ‘Fake Design’ is too embarrassing to bear. One way of coping with the shame − a strategy adopted by a number of architects and journalists − is to tour the conference and webinar circuits pretending that everything is going on as planned.

When Color magazine spoke of ‘an absurdist example of growth for the sake of growth’ it was speaking of Kangbashi, not here. But this is the real Ordos Ghost Town, even though it seems that the architectural ‘community’ doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

Photographs: Gu Mengxue, Ruogo Zhou

Readers' comments (3)

  • what does this have to do with Ai Wei Wei?

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  • All these buildings (with scarcely a human being about), looking as if extruded from some giant 3D printer, each isolated from the next, conversing with frozen gestures, a conversation of nouns without verbs.

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  • China is at the state of development where there demand normally outstrip supply- while at least in most less developed places. That led to the mentality of developers and gov that what ever that is build will be taken up or eventually taken up. But as shown in some of these cases, that may not be always the case especially in new areas. May be there need to be more caution and slow down the scale and speed to allow better control, adjustments to the socioeconomic needs as it develops.
    Another thing about these centrally planned development or city, they are essentially a car city inline with the early 1900s American cities. Buildings are like trophies within a large network of huge roads.
    That thinking need to change, human beings need to put back into their rightful position in a city again.
    Image- while the 2 large horse sculpture may be grand and appropriate (for Mongolia), imagine having 10,000 live size horses in the the same square- grand still but a lot more human scale.

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