Thursday, 17 January 2013

Seven Non-Existent But Nationally Appropriate Wonders of the World

One of the things that has become very apparent during my studies about and travels to see World Wonders is how much a really distinct building can become a national symbol for the country it is in. An iconic building becomes a visual representation of its nation. This is a significant boost in raising the profile of any country; you could almost go as far to say that a country's greatness is, in part, defined by its icons. France has the Eiffel Tower, England has Tower Bridge or the Houses of Parliament, India has the Taj Mahal, America has the Statue of Liberty or perhaps the Empire State Building, China has the Great Wall, Australia has the Sydney Opera House, and you can scan down my list of countries and Wonders on the right hand side of this page for many more.

But it's also become apparent during these travels that some countries are conspicuous by their absence. Either they don't have anything on my list that's immediately and uniquely recognisable to them, or their lack of major icons means I'm not planning to visit them at all. These are countries with a high world profile, but a lack of visual identification and wow factor; countries that have plenty of culture and associated charms, but not slam dunk of a must-see World Wonder. In terms of the somewhat single-minded focus of my travels, these are countries that underachieve. And so here I intend to make a few suggestions to redress the balance. Architects, city-planners, and governments of the world: take notice. Adopt these, and see your country's profile soar. These are my Seven Non-Existent Wonders of the World.


Holland - "The Windmill"



There are plenty of things that Holland brings to mind when you think about it - good football, the colour orange, tulips, windmills, Anne Frank, and cannabis cafes - but fine architecture and famous buildings are not among them. Yet, the basic ideas are there. Called simply "The Windmill", my proposal is for a gigantic windmill on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It would be something in the region of 400 metres tall, with a span of about twice that. Clearly, it would be designed to resemble the traditional Dutch windmills, although due to the size the underlying technology would be state-of-the-art. Although its main purpose would be as an icon and a tourist attraction, it would certainly be a functioning windmill too, grinding grain to create dust, or whatever it is windmills do.

I wouldn't put it in the middle of Amsterdam, as that wouldn't be sympathetic to the city, but it would be visible from the centre, just a tram ride away.

Its visibility would be aided by another of the famous facts about Holland - that it's very flat. If you think of Holland, you certainly don't think of mountains. But if the Dutch don't want to take up my windmill suggestion, they have a Wonder of their own in the making - a two kilometre high man-made mountain.


This is a proposal by Dutch journalist Thijs Zonneveld, who wrote a light-hearted piece on creating a man-made mountain for the country and found himself being taken seriously. He is now actively pursuing the idea, with backing from some major engineering groups, architects and Dutch sporting associations, for a mountain 5km in diameter and up to 2km tall. Reuters and Wired have a few more details.


Japan - The Tokyo Torii, or "Shintozilla"

One of the most singular nations on earth, Japan has a fascinating culture and history, and plenty of traditional temples. It even has four candidate Wonders on my list, which I'm yet to visit. The city of Kyoto best represents traditional Japan, with the endless neon megapolis of Tokyo-Yokohama representing the futuristic Bladerunner Japan. But neither city has a single defining monument or image. So I propose the "Tokyo Torii", which in my world vision would acquire the nickname "Shintozilla".



A torii is basically a symbolic gateway to a Shinto shrine, Shinto being  kind of like the national religion, or more accurately a set of spiritual beliefs. The most famous example is the torii at the Itsukishima Shrine in Hatsukaichi, which is certainly quite iconic. I considered it for my list, but it's simply too small - 16 metres high - to qualify. Wonders aren't just about being pretty, they're about grandeur and have to imbue a slight sense of disbelief that they exist. Well, the Tokyo Torii would have this in spades. I'd leave the exact location of it to the experts, but anywhere within the metropolis would be fine, perhaps near the airport and thereby symbolising the transition from foreign lands to Japan and vice versa. Naturally, it would be done in the traditional style, but I'd make it about 800 metres tall, utterly dominating the surroundings. In terms of size, the two central towers would each be the size of two Empire State Buildings, topped with a horizontal lintel the size of three Titanics (kind of like a much bigger version of the Marina Bay Sands' skypark).

Naturally, it would push engineering boundaries, but it would still look traditional. However, in a nod to modern day Japan, at night a vast image of the Japanese flag's red sun would be projected in the middle.


I don't think the Tokyo Torii would be used for anything as such - I don't see it doubling as office space or community housing - although I would encourage the possibility for lifts to take people to the top. There's no point having an 800-metre high structure if people can't enjoy the view.


Thailand - The Ladyboy of Bangkok


What better represents the Thai sex industry than a lovely 100+ metre high copper statue of a ladyboy? As the Statue of Liberty did for New York and its arriving immigrants, the Ladyboy of Bangkok would do for Bangkok and its arriving sex tourists, who would gaze up at its copper balls in hope and awe.


I'd like to assure you that I did not at all enjoy sourcing and creating the above images.


Iraq - The New Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although the historical details are murky, was one of the original Seven Wonders. Alas, long destroyed, and without any accurate records, if it did exist it likely existed somewhere near Al Hillah in modern day Iraq. Iraq has obviously had a hard time of it recently, and it would be nice for the nation to be known for more than Saddam Hussein, suicide bombers, and something that war protesters still get excited about. Therefore I propose a reconstruction of Iraq's most famous Wonder.

 

The above picture has featured in these pages before - it was an independent submission for a new World Trade Center by an architect called John David Rulon. A double helix spiral, the step-like increments in green are actually designed to be garden terraces. It doesn't take much to imagine what this could be like with a few tweaks, mainly further "gardenification". Maybe a huge fountain at the top. Turned into a towering garden-skyscraper, this would very much be the classic Wonder of the Hanging Gardens crossed with the modern day trend for the ultra high rise. I propose to put it smack bang in the middle of Baghdad, at least as twice as high as anything else in the city.


Iran - The Desert Ziggurat

Iran has a bit of a bad reputation these days, due to a pesky government that likes to make lots of noise about being a nuclear big boy. This superficially villainous profile masks an intelligent, educated nation with a rich history and heritage. But it well and truly lacks the icon it deserves. Despite having such places as Persepolis, Pasargadae, The ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, and Isfahan Mosque, it doesn't have a showstopper. Monuments and ruins of immense historical and archaeological significance, sure, but nothing for the casual tourist to gawp at, while ice-cream drips down their chin. Hence, I propose the Desert Ziggurat.


Ziggurats were ancient terraced pyramid-esque structures built by various civilisations way back in the day, with the area now known as Iran hosting many. Time, alas, has seen most of them wear away to sand. Some ruins survive, and some have been reconstructed, but they're not of the breathtaking scale of the Egyptian stuff. And when you've got dry, dusty, blocky structures in desert territory, everything will always be compared to ancient Egypt.

So I suggest that in building the Desert Ziggurat we really go to town. It must be made entirely from authentic materials used in ancient times, but by using modern construction techniques (rather than hundreds of men pulling massive blocks) we can create a stupidly vast beast of a ziggurat. The Great Pyramid is estimated to weight about six million tons - the Desert Ziggurat would weight twenty millon tons.


As the name suggests, it would be in the desert, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. No vehicles would be allowed in the vicinity, so tourists would have to do a day's trek to see it. Maybe several days' trek. Let's earn that holiday experience, fatty.

Ziggurats were religious constructions but the religions are all long gone these days, and so the shrines that once graced the top of them can, for the Desert Ziggurat, be replaced with a souvenir stall and a coffee shop.



South Korea -The National Seoul

I lived in South Korea for two years, in 2004 and 2005, and have a great fondness for the country. Devastated in the 1950s by the Korean War, it has resurrected itself and become a global influence. It's hosted the Olympics, a World Cup, and is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But it sorely lacks anything distinct architecturally whatsoever.

In part, this is due to the devastation of the war. The country was wiped out. But even the surviving traditional buildings - temples and burial mounds primarily - don't really stand out when compared to similar and bigger structures in neighbouring China. Its traditional stuff just doesn't seem unique, and its modern stuff is just functional. Korean cities might be vibrant and bustling, but architecturally they are redundant, unless you particularly like endless seas of tower blocks.

So, to break away from this generic legacy, and to give it a visual focus in the world, I propose something utterly unique, something totally different that has never been done before, something that South Korea can call uniquely their own. The Koreans are a very proud country, and like to celebrate all things Korean, so what more nationalistic that a colossal monument of their flag?


Called "The National Seoul" - because it's obligatory to make  a "Seoul" pun when referencing South Korea - this would be a colossal statue of their flag, set against a backdrop of cascading water. Each of the black bits on the side of the circle would be giant rooms dedicated to one aspect of Korean culture. For example, one room would be filled with kimchi, another would be filled with computers and children playing Starcraft, and another would simply have Gangnam Style pumping out 24 hours a day. The cascading water would symbolise the purity of the national conscience, or something like that.


South Africa - The Stupid Trumpet

South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010. It was a decent, if slightly anti-climactic affair, but the abiding memory of the month isn't the football, or Nigel de Jong kicking Xabi Alonso in the heart during the final, it was the constant atonal drone of a billion bees. Oh, wait, it wasn't bees, it was the vuvuzela, a multi-coloured one-note trumpet, that became beloved by all the football supporters in South Africa, and fervently despised by anyone trying to watch a game at home. The horrendous din of the vuvuzelas drowned out the crowd noise, thus destroying the atmosphere of most games, and turning the experience into an almost physical test of endurance. The sound was... draining.


But despite most of the world trying to politely say "Shut the hell up", the vuvuzelas droned on. I'm not specifically blaming South African fans here, I suspect fans from most countries were getting involved, but I am blaming South Africa for manufacturing these cheap pieces of crap and not banning them outright, as well as failing to incarcerate everyone who blew into one. Defenders of the vuvuzela pointed at it being an intrinsic part of South African culture for up to ten whole years. And you can't mess with traditional culture, can you?

Thus, to commemorate this authentic piece of South African culture, I feel a monument is deserved: a gigantic multi-coloured plastic vuvuzela called, obviously, The Stupid Trumpet. Arguably, South Africa already does have a pretty iconic monument of sorts, in the form of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Natural Wonders can clearly be iconic too, and though I don't think Table Mountain is quite at the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty level, it's still fairly well known. So I think it's probably best to incorporate it into my proposal - hence The Stupid Trumpet will be on top of Table Mountain.


The Table Mountain Stupid Trumpet would include multiple mouthpieces branching off at the bottom so that anyone can blow in and make a hell of a racket, and re-live old times.


South Africa's reputation is sometimes tainted by tales of rampant crime and its chequered history of apartheid. The Stupid Trumpet is for everyone, even for criminal who can blow all their frustrations away into a big cacophony of annoyance.

4 comments:

  1. The Netherlands already has a wonder - the Delta Works, which protects a whole swathe of the country from flooding. I reckon it fits your criteria too, or at least almost:

    Technical excellence: it's a massive engineering project, designed to avoid catastrophic flooding in one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, built over a fifty year period and costing billions.

    Artistry: well, I guess it's in the eye of the beholder; for those who are into works of engineering it has a certain majestic beauty with its series of dykes, massive concrete pillars and moving barriers that stretch across various estuaries.

    Age/durability: it's recent, but it's built to last for as long as the Dutch want their country to last! I don't know of any other structure that is so linked to the continued existance of the country it is in.

    Fame/iconicity: it's not as famous to the lay person as the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum, but it's well known in engineering circles, and to the Dutch of course. Given the risk of rising sea levels this coming century, I reckon it will be referenced more and more each time a city around the world has a major flood.

    Photogenicity: It's a massive structure against a flat background (be it sea or land), so it makes for impressive photos in my opinion.

    Context: see above.

    Originality: it's the only sea defence of its kind in the world in terms of scale. Levees don't even come near it.

    Focus: well, it's a long series of sea defences so in that respect it wouldn't fit (you can't see it in one go). But it has many individual sections that alone are worth seeing.

    Je-ne-sais quoi: can't really say. I'm just reminded of the Dutch saying "God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands", and this structure plays a part in that.

    Funnily enough it plays the role that a giant windmill would - to prevent flooding! I'd like to add that it has already been considered to be a modern engineering wonder by some, and that I'm not Dutch.

    Great article, I liked the Big Vuvuzela. If it existed I would not go anyway near it though.

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  2. I've come across the Delta Works before but had never looked too deeply into it, so following your suggestion I've taken a closer look.

    It suffers from a couple of things, I feel, to be classed as a Wonder in the sense that I'm looking for. Its focus is way off - the numerous constructions are spread across a massive area. It would be like classifying all (over 100) the pyramids of Egypt as a single Wonder, rather than choosing the obvious visual focus of the biggest and best ones at Giza. In this regard, the Works at Oosterscheldekering would appear to be the Giza of the Delta Works.

    Its next problem lies in the balance in engineering over aesthetics. It is unquestionably a brilliant piece of large-scale engineering, but none of the pictures I've found convince me its something that stops the observer in their tracks to say "Wow". The world has loads of incredible works of engineering around - the Channel Tunnel, the Panama Canal, and numerous huge dams spring to mind - but they're not celebrated for looking great. That's not to say engineering works can't qualify, they certainly can, but in the absence of "prettiness", they need to have a sense of majesty or power or something that can bowl the casual observer over.

    A good example is the Three Gorges Dam, which I visited last year. A tremendous feat of engineering, and massive, but a drab visual disappointment. Its function and impact were impressive, but it wasn't much to look at, and its currently bottom of my list.

    Another way of looking at it is to imagine visiting a Wonder without knowing anything about it. The history, technical effort, and story behind a Wonder will certainly enhance it, but ultimately it should be able to blow you away just from looking at it.

    Have you seen the Delta Works in person, Piltup?

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  3. I have only seen a small part of it (I didn't go specifically to visit it), and the part that I saw was little more than a long dyke. I agree with what you wrote above, especially in terms of esthetics: while many people would find a gothic cathedral awe-inspiring without having an interest in religion or architecture, it probably takes an interest in engineering to see "beauty" in something like the Delta Works.

    I'm not an engineer myself, but have an interest in these kinds of things (as well as architecture, urbanism and industrial sites and machines).

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  4. Love the ladyboy monument. On the contrary, it looks like you had a ball (or two) sourcing and creating said image.

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