One of the most characteristic elements of the ruinous landscapes of China’s reform are the lanweilou
烂尾楼 (lit. buildings of rotten finishing), that is, buildings interrupted during construction that have remained as half-finished, freshly built ruins. Lanwei series
, by Hong Kong photographer Stanley Wong
(aka Anothermountainman or 又一山人) helped popularize images of these buildings in the international circuit of art and architecture (see for instance an article at Domus
Anothermountainman, Lanwei 04 / Fly Away / 2006 / China / Guangzhou (via artist’s website)
For those of you familiar with the films of Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯, there is a famous example of lanweilou in a scene of Still Life (三峡好人, 2006). Chongqing’s “Migrants Commemorative Tower” (移民纪念塔, also called “Hua Tower” because it was supposed to resemble the Chinese character 华 hua, denoting the Chinese nation), appears in the background of a conversation of the main characters, only to unexpectedly fly up to the sky as a rocket or weird-shaped flying saucer.
These aborted buildings or whole residential projects point to the real estate boom that has accompanied the reform period, in which land has become the major source of capital accumulation for local governments (The Great Urban Transformation, You-Tien Hsing, 2010). As opportunities and returns of real estate investment were high, many risked to beginning projects even when funding or authorization had not been secured.
We are now witnessing a similar phenomenon in different European countries, particularly in those where the over-heated economy of the 1990s depended largely on a real estate bubble. ‘Ghost estates
‘ in Ireland, comprising over 230.000 empty houses in 2011, reflect the over-construction that channeled the economic surplus before the recession.
Perhaps more severe is the situation of Spain, where real estate was the main economic drive for years. The reasons are diverse: the opportunity for the achievement of the middle-classes’ dream of owning a house, optimal employment rates, great tax revenues, and, as courts are growingly uncovering, a tight connivance of investors, construction companies and politicians who would approve fitting new land regulations and turned agricultural land into urban areas. With the debt & sub-prime mortgage crisis, real estate development in Spain came to an abrupt clash, interrupting hundreds of on-going projects and dragging along the entire economy.
Architect Julia Schulz-Dornburg
has documented over 60 of such aborted projects for her project Modern Ruins, a Topography of Profit
, which includes a book and also circulates as an exhibition. The contrast of the photographs with the accompanying texts, which Schulz-Dornburg has copied from real estate and developers brochures, is fascinating.
The caption on the image reads “Willing to provide the highest wellbeing for our clients, we have created houses to provide you and your family with a litte paradise”.
Similarly, the topographic inventory provides maps and aerial photographs that contrast the intended construction area with the reality. As for the photographs of different residential, touristic and entertainment projects, and while the project has a marked critical side, the author cannot scape an aesthetic exploration of the abandoned sites.
“The compound includes luxury apartments and is guarded by 24-hours CCTV”
It is interesting to note how the aesthetic fascination with ruins is able to bypass all discursive or critical understanding of the sites photographed. While references, in the book’s diverse essays (one by philosopher/writer Rafael Argullol, an specialist in the aesthetics of Romanticism), repeatedly engage with notions such as the sublime, the relationship of man and nature, etc., a crucial aesthetic debt is with Robert Smithson‘s pioneering project Hotel Palenque (1969), with which the experimental artist contributed to expand our awareness to the potentiality as ruins of derelict, abandoned and decayed buildings, regardless their architectural value, intended function, or construction materials.
Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque (1969)