The Future Cities project

fighting for development instead of sustainable development

Ordos’ Other Ghost Town

OrdosOrdos in Inner Mongolia is synonymous with the phrase ‘Ghost Town’; a term describing cities 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 says “Ordos is one of the most egregious examples of Chinese Late Stage Growth Obesity”. A more sober BBC still describes it as the ‘Biggest Ghost Town in China’, 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.

What I found is hardly a definitive refutation, but it is a handy counterweight to those who rush to condemn the hubris of rapid urbanization, in China or elsewhere. In recent years, throwaway criticisms of China’s urban pretensions – a country that has grown from 20 percent of its population living in urban areas in 1978, to over 50 percent 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 urbanization – to reach 70 percent by 2030. Conversely, criticism from Britain, where we will fall far short of the “4.4 million new homes” pledged by John Prescott in 1998, smacks of sour grapes in comparison to China, which managed to build 4.2 million new homes in the first six months of 2012 alone.

What is called New Ordos is actually the city of Kangbashi situated within the administrative region of Ordos. To add to the confusion, the Old city of Ordos, is actually called Dongsheng. Both cities are located in a desert which is twice the size of Switzerland. In this article I want to refute a number of myths that have grown up around this city, as a cypher for many others in China. For example, the latest city to get global attention is Tianducheng, near Hangzhou where thousands of empty apartments built in a faux-Haussman-style to overlook a replica Eiffel Tower. Ironically, as the houses quietly fill up, the cut and paste journalism of these replica ‘news stories’ is less remarked upon.

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 30 km away and is a new city altogether. To speak of them as the same thing – the mythical city of Ordos – simply feeds the confusion.

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+ year 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, forgetting that China is still 50 percent rural.

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 to what we experience in the recessionary, anxious Western world. Kangbashi is being built for 1 million people and already – according to recent figures (which may be contested) – 500,000 occupy the vast arrays of apartment blocks 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 Dant New District in central Jiangsu, one researcher sensibly notes that: “though it took the better part of a decade, this district was making the transition from ghost city to living city.”

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, one’s design appreciation palls somewhat when the Chinese “concept” school of architecture is explained. For example, the huge National Library is shaped like a row of books; MAD’s cultural museum is shaped like a desert pebble; the National Opera House is shaped 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 Museums 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 some barbed comment about China’s worship of consumer capitalism, etc.

One final issue remains: the much-vaunted Ordos 100 project located 10 km outside New Ordos. Set up by everyone’s favourite wealthy dissident, Ai Wei-Wei, this ambitious project 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 site alongside the river. Its launch and submissions were followed by most architectural magazines; it’s demise, less so. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to note that this project is 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. Of the other 99 project proposals approved in 2005-6, none have 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 spoken of this scandalous waste of time, money and effort. It is as if being sold a pup by a company called “Fake Design” is a little too embarrassing to bear. One way of coping with the shame – a strategy adopted by a number of architects and journalists – it to 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 true Ordos Ghost Town, even though it seems that the architectural “community” doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

This article was originally published in The Architectural Review