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We have been talking about planned cities of the past and of the future.  Almost every urban culture in history has fantasized about how to make cities better, and some civilizations have actually put these ideas into practice (or tried to do so). But when it comes to crafting cities in the mind and then actually building them in the real world, nobody rivals China.  From the 12th century BC through the present, the world’s most populous city has, more often than not, been Chinese.  Densely populated urban environments are a defining feature of Han culture. And during all that time, strong central authority and hierarchical planning of all aspects of society has been an equally prominent aspect of Chinese civilization.

As you might imagine, such a mixture has left a long history in Chinese letters. The Kao Gongji (Kao Gong Ji) was written in the late Spring and Autumn period around 500 BC (although the oldest surviving copy only dates to 1235 AD).  The book generalizes about may different sorts of practical skills and trades, but it reserves special attention for how princes should build their capitals.

The style of these ruling cities is as imperious as you would imagine: The Kao Gongji dictates a walled palace/administrative nucleus in the center of a large capital city.  This pattern was common in many early states particularly in southern China.

To quote the book directly:

“When the builder constructs the capital, the city should be a fang (a four-sided orthogonal shape) nine li on each side with three gates each. Within the city are nine longitudinal and nine latitudinal streets, each of them 9 carriages wide. On the left (i.e. east) is the Ancestral Temple, on the right (west) are the Altars of Soil and Grain, in front is the Hall of Audience and behind the markets.”

 

This idea (which literally placed the king/emperor squarely at the center of all aspects of society) was put into practice in the ancient capital of Luoyi, and it manifested again and again in the layout of China’s other capitals.  Indeed, although the Mongols and the Qing had moved beyond such rudimentary urban plans, the fundamental concept is even present in Beijing.

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Saudi Arabia…the name is synonymous with corruption, sexism, waste, despotism, and vicious religious fundamentalism of the most cruel and benighted stamp.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. One could almost wonder why this kingdom is so closely allied with the United States of America.  Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not just dream of the glories of the past, he dreams of future glories as well.  One way or another, humankind’s age of fossil fuels will soon come to a crashing end. When that happens, Prince Salman, wants his subjects to have something other than petrochemical riches to fall back on.  For all of the Crown Prince’s faults (cough, murdering and dismembering progressive dissidents), planning for the future is what a worthwhile leader should be doing, and I am impressed by the grandeur of this monarch’s plans.

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Behold the City of Neom! A futuristic wonderland of architectural marvels, Neom will be designed based on a synthesis of ecological and technological design (rather in the mode of Singapore’s artificial supertrees). Staffed by incorruptible and tireless robot laborers and security forces, the city will be powered entirely with renewable energy.  The economy of the city will be based around research, technology, and creativity.  Neom will be under its own tax and labor laws and have an “autonomous judicial system” out from under the shadows of the current criminal justice system. Because the city will be constructed from scratch, there will be ample scope for visionary breakthroughs in transportation and infrastructure.  Some of the wilder ideas being bandied about include flying cars, cloud seeding, dinosaur robots and a giant artificial moon!

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Neom lies at the confluence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.  The physical location is also between the golden desert and the rich coral reefs of the Red Sea.  It is also a meeting place of Asia and Africa.  The empty desert could indeed be a fitting place to construct a of towering dreams and miracles which would make Sinbad reel in astonishment…and yet…

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…An especially cynical person, might suggest that Neom is a ludicrous confabulation dreamed up as cover for failed social policies, misallocated oil wealth, and a genocidal war of aggression in Yemen. Perhaps by carefully reading this post, you have intuited that I am dubious concerning the House of Saud–which supports the most reactionary and extremist Wahhabi clerics, who, in exchange, prop up this aging kleptocracy from their pulpits minbars.  Well I don’t love the ideals of Saudi Arabia insomuch as I understand them (although I have quite liked the individuals I have met from there), but I do like the concept of Neom.  Could it be built without relying on slave labor?  Could it be built at all?  The current financial plans involve a massive half-trillion dollar IPO of Saudi Aramco, and it seems unlikely that will happen soon based on the oil market (and the post-Kashoggi toxicity of the Saudi government to investors).

But true reform requires audacity and the ability to dream big.  Neom is a giant astonishing dream!  I would love to see it come to fruition (and pull Saudi Arabia out of its retrograde spiral). But that is going to require A LOT more than pipe dreams, stage lighting, and kleptocrats scratching each other’s fat backs.

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Success will require international cooperation, actual social reform, and the ability to learn from failures and change course.  It will require learning, studying, and innovating far beyond what is happening anywhere right now (much less in a place seemingly designed to prevent any actual scientific or social progress).  Building Neom will require Saudi Arabia to rethink some of the foundational choices made at the time of independence from the Ottoman Empire…and it will also require the United States to rethink some of our bad habits vis-a-vis the kingdom (and to give up some of the snotty bigotry which is all too evident even among the most enlightened blog writers).  But these things are possible with bravery, near-infinite hard work, and unflinching self scrutiny. Call me, Salman, I will give you my true support.  Don’t expect me to meet you in Istanbul though.

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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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Anybody interested in Gothic art is mourning today, after a fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, one of the luminous cultural treasures of the world.  The devastation is particularly cruel since it took place during Holy Week.  As I write this, the fire has only just been extinguished and a comprehensive reckoning of what was lost in the flames has not yet emerged (and may not for some time).  It seems likely that the giant ancient pipe organ is lost as is the wooden interior (much of it dating back to the 13th century), and a good deal of the large, immovable religious artwork.  Additionally the mid-19th century spire was completely destroyed. Yet the crown of thorns (a medieval relic which may date back to late antiquity) survived, as did the great church itself.  Like the Frauenkirche of Dresden, Notre Dame will be back. It will have some blackened stones and some new plaques about reproduction and restoration. It will be missing some irreplaceable artwork, yet it will be restored to full heart-lifting beauty.

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The Seine and Notre Dame in Paris, (1864, Johann Jongkind) Oil on canvas

The cathedral sits on the site of two previous churches, which themselves were built over the ruins of a temple to Jupiter (which is a reminder that nothing is immutable).  Commissioned in 1163 by King Louis VII, the great cathedral took nearly two centuries to build and it was not completely finished until 1345.  Hopefully reconstruction will not take so long.  940.jpg

 

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Your childhood dream is fairly ludicrous clip-art!

My last post, which combined art, gardening, and Gothic architecture has made me reflect back on a treasured albeit megalomaniacal childhood fantasy.  When I grew up I wanted to live in my own beautiful castle. I was really into spooky-yet-cozy adventure stories, and the idea of living in a perfect little fortress world filled with hidden passages, charming secrets, and fairy-tale delights was irresistible.

But that was a wish from childhood: the adult world is a desperate maze filled with scams, baffling spreadsheets, impossible rules,and ersatz crap…which brings us to the subject of today’s post! The desire to have a beautiful fairytale castle for a home is hardly unique to my childhood self. Lots of people have that fantasy, however, there are only so many actual medieval keeps, schlösschen(s?), and castellets to go around. We are even running out of derelict Queen Anne villas. Plus the comforts and conveniences of real medieval castles are not in accordance with modern tastes. But, if New York has taught me anything, it is that for every dream house there is an unscrupulous developer ready to make a terrible mockery of that dream in order to get rich.

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Every man, a king!

Welcome to Burj Al Babas in Turkey! Of the many, many Potemkin villages and empty cities which have sprouted up around the world in the last decade, this is surely one of the most peculiar to behold. The town was planned and built by “Sarot Group” to appeal to affluent foreign investors who dreamed of living in castles when they were little. The project began in 2014 and was meant as a way to capitalize underused land in the distant Asia Minor suburbs of Istanbul. Each micro-castle was going to include swimming pools and jacuzzis heated by the water of local hot springs.  The target buyers were affluent middle easterners who could maybe even be lured into Turkish citizenship.

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What? They couldn’t include identical unicorns?

 

Unfortunately, the market for fake castles has been overmatched by the market for real autocrats. Turkey is sliding further and further into a dangerous spiral of dictatorship, economic malfeasance, and corruption. As the lira collapses the inflation rate has risen to 25%. Additionally, the oil-rich middle eastern who are the imagined buyers of these properties have been facing their own monetary struggles in a world awash with cheap oil.

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And notice the exquisite landscaping of dark gray mud, dead weeds, and rubble!

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even in these glum pictures of cookie-cutter despair, some aspect of the original fantasy is still recognizable. If you had one of these things on a forest mountaintop in West Virginia or Dalmatia, it might still be a beautiful home  (although they look suspiciously apt to melt when it rains). Yet, stuck next to each other like dozens of gawky cosplayers dressed as the same superhero, the dream breaks apart and the seamy aspects of the modern real-estate scheming are laid bare.  I wonder what will eventually happen to Burj Al Babas, the city of dreams.  Will it become like Columbia Maryland, where nobody even notices that they are living in somebody else’s fantasy, or will archaeologists of the future unearth its particleboard and concrete ruins with a sad frown and a sigh?

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