Author: Michael Alexander Ulfstjerne, Copenhagen University
The new city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic China was the venue for the 2012 Miss World Competition. At the same time as Yu Wenxia, the Chinese contestant, carried off the trophy, the ongoing epidemic of private lending deficits had real estate speculators jumping off newly finished high-rises. Situated in an ‘out of the world’ location, Ordos is a place where boom and bust co-exist and where creativity takes elusive forms. Nothing is what it seems.
In Ordos no-one seems to be quite sure about what the new city will be like in 5 years time. Currently it grabs attention on the internet, a modern metropolis built on a coal mining boom, or alternatively a Chinese version of Dubai. Is it a mirage or is it real?
One of the reasons for Ordos’ ‘extraordinary’ reputation is the ill fated Ordos 100 Desert Villa project.
The ORDOS100 Desert Villa project was launched in 2007 as the architectural flagship of the larger Jiang Yuan Culture and Creativity Zone. The project was conceived by a local developer, Mr. Cai Jiang, with the expert assistance of well-known dissident artist Ai Weiwei and the architects behind the Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. This modern ‘gang of four’ selected 100 international emerging architects who were subsequently invited to Ordos on two occasions for the purpose of designing 100 unique private villas.
Even before this project was conceived Ordos had attracted attention both nationally and abroad. Initially it became famous for its unparalleled economic growth and large-scale urban renovation. Following a boom, the city suffered a fall from grace. Its new cultural and administrative district, Kangbashi, became internationally infamous as ‘China’s modern ghost town’.
Following this, Ordos was in the news for an overproduction of real estate developments financed through an unregulated economy of private high interest lending. The ‘Ghost-town’ increasingly became the ‘lending town’.
The new frontier of experimental and non-existing architecture
Not many years ago, few would have considered Inner Mongolia to be an epicentre of state-of-the-art architecture. But with the attention ORDOS100 gained, spreading across the virtual realm of architectural blogs, art discussion forums, and urban design magazines, Ordos quickly became a popular topic in the international networks of architects and urban planners.
In fact, ORDOS100 provides a typical example of international creative networks and their capacity to disseminate knowledge across national boundaries and spur debates among both practitioners and scholars. However, questions of design aside, taking a closer look at the actual reality of the development does reveal a great deal about how private real estate developers and, to some extent, local governments appropriate the recent emphasis on creativity and clustering as a short-term strategy to accumulate capital.
My own attempts to find Ordos100 despite the available propaganda say much about its ephemeral nature. On several occasions during 2011, I failed in attempts to locate the whereabouts of the ‘culture and creativity zone.’
According to official pamphlets promoting the cultural sites of the new district most of the zone was already completed. I had spoken to migrant workers, receptionists in various hotels, taxi drivers, pedestrians and police officers. Nobody knew of the culture and creativity zone. Nor had anyone heard of the international architects who were building billionaire villas.
Finally in June 2011, a local employee in the Ministry for Land and Resources escorted me to the Jiang Yuan Culture and Creativity Zone. Upon arrival it dawned on me why I had such difficulties in retrieving the site. Apart from the museum and Ai Weiwei’s artists’ studios, no other buildings were finished. The only building under active construction in 2011 was located in front of the Museum, labelled with the odd term ‘Art Hotel’.
Of the slated 100 villas there were only five empty ghostlike structures. There was no construction going on. The ambitious culture and creativity zone was nothing but barren landscapes with a few paved streets evident in the hills of sand.
Employees in the Museum were oblivious to the prospects of the villas or the ambitious park. They had been kept out of the information loop. In response to incessant questioning they could only point me towards a large wooden scale model that set out the entire 196 acres of the creativity zone including ‘creatively designed’ housing, music halls, the aforementioned art museum, schools, and outlets for consumption.
In addition, nobody knew of the whereabouts of the mysterious developer, Cai Jiang. And because of his recent imprisonment the curator Ai Weiwei was unavailable. I was left with an impression that the whole site had been forgotten.
The Jiang Yuan Culture and Creativity Zone, including the ORDOS100 development was most likely, despite its meticulous planning, never meant to succeed. So, at the heart of the Ordos 100 debacle is the question of how might value be generated from not finishing projects? Looking at the Ordos 100, we can observe that creative industries can be a shortcut for what is nothing more than a land grab leading to further speculation.
After several visits to the idle construction site and interviews with developers, architects, urban planners and local engineers working there, it became evident to me that creativity incubation zones and developments such as the ORDOS100 are good investments even though they might never actually be built. In the initial stage, the production of images, models and plans most likely serve as feasibility criteria to convince the local government to allocate land-use rights at a bargain price.
In recent years China has experienced an upsurge of scholars, consultants and businesses making good use of the label ‘creative’: e.g. creative cluster, creative class, creative industry, and creative economy. The creativity fever not only exists on the level of national policy implementation, but is found in business language, urban planning policy, real estate vernacular and amongst creative practitioners themselves.
By 2007, creativity had become an important component of national policy making; China’s leaders even proclaimed that the nation would transform into an innovative nation by 2020. As such policy-speak reaches local and regional governments it can easily inflate with real estate frenzy and investment mania.
An employee who had worked at the building site from the initial stages of development told me that there had recently been a change of ownership. Now his employer is no longer Mr. Cai Jiang. As it turns out, Jiang Yuan Culture and Creativity Industry Zone no longer belongs to Jiang Yuan Group. It was recently purchased by another developer, a local business tycoon from Ordos, Liu Manshi. The sale included 90 percent of the property, i.e. the land use-rights to develop on the land. The transfer further included the entire collection of plans, designs, documents and licenses (and several employees) and all this with none or few of the architects ever knowing about it.
The Jiang Yuan Culture and Creative zone was re-sold even before it was built. During the heyday of real estate frenzy in Ordos (2005 – 2011), a large percentage of developers never actually built anything. They merely speculated; in the local vernacular this is known as ‘stir-frying land lots’ (炒地).
On the rare occasion when something is actually built, developers often try to shortcut the process of land assessment and acquiring legitimate licenses for building. Often, as the senior employee at the ‘ministry for land and resources’ pointed out, developers ‘build first and apply after’ (先斩后奏), a practice that often includes bribes and generates potential conflicts between different state organs.
Build and vacate – emergency shelter?
The vicious circle of construction, demolition, and new construction in China has several effects: first of all, it reflects the conditions for political ambition and promotion. Local officials need to produce to proceed. In order to move upwards in the administrative hierarchy officials are required to ‘show numbers’, usually measured by criteria as real estate prices, five-star hotels, creative industries, luxury shopping malls, cultural centres, science and developments parks, plans for sustainability, and the wide range of ‘model’ city awards including hygienic/civilized/safe/green etc.
Secondly, the short calculated lifetime of a building doesn’t require top quality material. Nor does it require long-term maintenance. Cost benefit analysis takes place between the phases of conceptual design and practical design. Usually, this means cutting off the architect from the practical design stage in order to minimize construction costs or doubling up the possible rent space of a building by adding an extra level between each floor. A prevailing strategy for developers is building in ways in which a structure can transform into other uses, e.g. from offices or hotel to become residential space, only by making minor alterations.
High-growth regions as the Ordos Municipality are regarded worldwide as ‘modern ghost-towns’ – flawed developments in an overheated Chinese economy. In particular, the Kangbashi New District is portrayed as symptomatic of how China’s growing real estate bubble and private lending has gone haywire.
But the question of the real estate mirage aside, we need to question how emerging forms of urbanism adapt to changing conditions in the urban and political economy.
As several accounts from inside the Chinese construction sector suggest, ORDOS100 is not only a case of speculative land development. Rather, it is instructive of a more general trend in which political buzzwords are appropriated by entrepreneurs and developers to gain access to land. In the process time they become benchmarks in local officials’ political careers.
In actual fact, demand does not precede production. Buildings are built to adapt, to be torn down and altered. Buildings—if they are ever built—are not built to last but rather to be modified. It’s easy to point to the failings and problems of contemporary urban forms in China. Critical analyses are flooding the media: terms as real estate bubble, ghost towns, bad loans, and overheated economy.
Still, the flexibility and capacity to adapt to the current pace, to tune into buzzwords in a global and increasingly urban economy, might eventually turn a fragile investment into a fortress.