The district of Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia, China, is famous for its emptiness. Widely labelled a ghost town, it stands as a cautionary tale of over-investment, home to grand feats of architecture and real estate that rose out of eagerness and ambition, but never received the human population of which developers dreamed. Instead, it has attracted members of the media and those curious to document its surreal streetscapes. Photographer Raphael Olivier journeyed there in October and November of last year, and over the course of five days captured the lonely silhouettes of massive, futuristic buildings with barely any people around them.
His images show gleaming blocks of office buildings rising above a plaza that has no foot traffic, residential towers next to streets void of vehicles, and western-style suburban homes all in a line. No visitors frequent the various cultural centers, from the all-white, geometric mosque to the amorphous Art and City Museum by MAD Architects and a library in the shape of three giant book spines. In one image, stupendously massive, dueling horses — sculpted of bronze, no less — balance on their hind legs as an absurd, frozen sign of life in an otherwise static tableau.
Located within the city of Ordos, these sleek structures began rising in 2004 after city officials launched a plan to create a state-of-the-art metropolis. Kangbashi, built with the profits earned from the city’s coal deposits — among the nation’s richest — was intended for one million residents. In 2008, Ai Weiwei and the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron even curated an architectural project to spruce up an area just six miles away from Kangbashi’s center. Titled Ordos 100, the project invited over 100 international architects to design villas; you can watch a documentary on the planning of the project, which remains largely unrealized. The few completed buildings sit unoccupied and are already show signs of weathering.
“Just outside the few busy streets of the ‘center,’ everything is still really empty,” Olivier said. “And the crazy buildings that were probably looking brand new 10 years ago are already falling apart due to cheap and fast construction, giving way to a totally surreal, post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying monuments and empty housing projects.”
The district started receiving international attention for its deserted setting around 2010, when most of the buildings had wrapped up construction but remained largely unoccupied or unused. In the last few years, however, Kangbashi has actually witnessed an influx of new residents according to a pair of filmmakers who recently produced a documentary on the city. As Adam Smith and Song Ting, who in late 2014 premiered The Land of Many Palaces, told The Atlantic in 2013:
When we first went there two years ago, the new city was actually quite empty. When you go there now, it is a lot livelier. It’s a mix of people: people who have been relocated from the greater Ordos region, people who have moved there from the old town — for whatever reason — and other people that are there who moved there in search of new economic opportunities, whether it’s migrant workers in the construction industry, or families from Beijing looking to live in a place with more space and less air pollution.
According to Smith and Ting, about 500,000 people lived in Kangbashi then. Although Olivier observed one year later that many of the city’s giant residential complexes still remained “almost completely empty” and its art museum — one of Kangbashi’s most iconic buildings — still attracts few visitors, the population is on the rise. As Smith described extensively in the Guardian around the time of his film’s premiere, many farmers and their families are moving to the city, attracted largely by a generous government compensation package. New buildings are still being built — a sign of enduring hope despite the many desolate images of abandonment. Only time will reveal whether Olivier’s images are among the last to show Kangbashi in the state of desolation that first put it on the international map.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.