Ordos: A Failed Utopia photographed by Raphael Olivier

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Photo essay: photographer Raphael Olivier was drawn to the Chinese city of Ordos to capture "spectacular" architecture, but when he arrived he encountered a "ghost town" (+ slideshow).

In the economically prosperous area of Inner Mongolia, close to some of China's largest mines, the Chinese government set about constructing a new city in the early 2000s. The plan for the Kangbashi New Area included giant cultural venues like MAD's completed Ordos Museum, and landmark projects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Wei Wei's Ordos 100 villas.

But when he visited Ordos, Olivier found it partially incomplete and almost empty. In this exclusive essay for Dezeen, he describes his experience of photographing the city's vast structures and deserted streets.


Ordos is a city in Inner Mongolia, China, home to about one million people, which is considered a relatively small city by Chinese standards. It is located in a region rich with natural resources such as gas, coal and rare earth metals, so much that the municipality's GPD is actually one of the highest in the country.

Ordos: A Failed Utopia by Raphael Olivier
An abandoned villa from Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron's Ordos 100 project

In the early 2000s, the local government decided to build a "New Ordos", just a few kilometres south of the old city, which would be a flamboyant futuristic capital featuring state-of-the-art architecture and acting as a new cultural, political and economical centre for the region. Investment was colossal, billions of dollars, and in a few years, what was bare land in the Gobi Desert saw a gigantic city magically coming out of the ground.

Ambition was without limit and local officials were already seeing their city as the Dubai of East China. Unfortunately, such huge investment resulted in very high property prices, actually the second highest in the country after Shanghai, so people living in Old Ordos didn't see the point of moving and nobody came. Oops.

Ordos: A Failed Utopia by Raphael Olivier
Ordos Sports Center Stadium by China Architecture Design and Research Group

So the super city was now all nice and shiny but totally empty, and journalists and photographers from all over the world were coming to document this epic urban failure for the international press. That's when I heard of Ordos for the first time, around 2007, and immediately had an interested to visit this other-worldly place.

A few years later, in 2011, I finally moved to China and settled in Shanghai where I started my photography business and travelled extensively in the region for commercial projects, however I unfortunately never found the time to actually make it to Ordos. Only recently, as I decided to leave China and move on to new adventures, did I tell myself I couldn't leave this country without seeing this place.

So I packed my camera bag without too much preparation and just went for it. And I was not disappointed, the trip was well worth all the wait! Today Ordos has evolved, some people have moved in, mostly government officials and migrant construction workers, and the city even has a small commercial centre with shops, restaurants, banks, hotels and entertainment venues.

Ordos: A Failed Utopia by Raphael Olivier
Ordos Dongsheng Stadium by China Architecture and Design Research Group

However, just outside the few busy streets of the "centre" things get weird. Empty streets, deserted residential compounds, decaying monuments, abandoned museums, half-finished stadiums...

The whole place feels like a post-apocalyptic space station from a science-fiction movie. Since all construction was done so quickly, building fast and cheap, without any long-term vision and with corruption cutting corners, most of these buildings are now already falling apart.

Ordos: A Failed Utopia by Raphael Olivier
Ordos Library

I walked hours every day, mostly on empty avenues, sometimes through desert areas and sand dunes, without any public transportation. A few times I got lucky and could hitch rides from construction trucks.

Dozens of unreal sites are sprinkled all over town, even a futuristic conceptual architecture exhibition started in 2008 and curated by Ai Weiwei in collaboration with architects Herzog & de Meuron, called Ordos 100, which was supposed to host 100 villas from international architects from 27 countries. Some of these structures started construction but the project was quickly aborted and today the site is completely abandoned with only a few chickens running around.

Ordos: A Failed Utopia by Raphael Olivier
An abandoned villa by HFF from Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron's Ordos 100 project

Ordos is not an isolated case; over-ambitious poorly planned urban development is happening all over China and there are today hundreds of similar "ghost towns". Ordos is only the most spectacular and loved by photographers for its architectural features, but this phenomenon is a real problem and a serious threat to the Chinese economy.

It is being downplayed by local officials who often claim that "people will come later", but Beijing's central government is trying to limit such zealous over construction, with moderate success. On the ground, promoters are still blindly launching giant development projects which often end up uninhabited and quickly fall into decay.

  • The last villa is not Herzog & de Meuron but HHF: http://www.hhf.ch/hhf/projects/projects/034-dunehouse.html#

    • Hi Joarnot,

      Herzog & de Meuron curated the project with Ai Weiwei, as mentioned in the story text. I’ve added the credit to HHF in the captions.

      Thanks,

      Dan

      • l’oncleb

        And the first Villa is the Ordos Art Hotel by EXH design: http://ch.exhdesign.com/en/projects_detail.php?id=65

      • NoSpamThanks

        Actually, while on an adjacent site, none of these are among the Ordos 100 villas. I am pretty certain Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron didn’t have anything to do with the planning of these projects (Image #15 for example was identified as an existing building in the Ordos planning material), but was probably also organised by the China Architecture Design and Research Group prior to their involvement.

        Also, Image #19 is a restaurant by Yazdani Studio.

  • Thaddeus Zarse

    Thanks for the stunning photos and update on Ordos. I had always wondered what became of the Ordos 100 projects, especially since it was so hyped when it was first being developed.

    I’m wondering if the author can credit who designed the houses that are a part of the 100 project since Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & de Meuron didn’t actually design them.

  • Dbz112

    I think this Ordos horse has been beaten to death. I’m pretty sure everyone knows about this city. Also, countless others in China and across the world. Every story about China is either about abandoned cities or cities copied from other countries.

    If someone is going to go to the trouble of investigating something please let it be something new. A story should contribute information not just repeat it.

  • Leo

    Great photos. Scary place.

  • Urban Commentary

    Would be a great set for filming “I Am Legend 2”.

    • Thomas

      There’s a “I Am Legend 2” with Will Smith planned?! Wow! I’m telling everybody.

  • ivan.capitani

    “An abandoned villa from Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron’s Ordos 100 project”. Buahahahahahaaaa…

  • Urban Commentary

    Also as a side note, in the last sentence: “giant development projects which often end up inhabited and quickly fall into decay”. I think you mean “uninhabited”.

  • Jess Thinkin

    Ah yes, another monstrous, moribund example of a “centrally planned economy” (Socialism). Why is it, after the countless, predictable, world-wide failures resulting from this destructive ideology, the collectivists’ repetitive utopian response is always: “The system is not the issue – the problem lies in the fact that it was implemented wrong”!

  • Juanca Torres

    Very magisterial views, but the music doesn’t have the same value. It is good at the beginning but later it’s flat, without personality. Mute is better for the view.

  • ELIZABETH_NYC

    I guess any urban design that clumped all the buildings together in a walkable way leaving the countryside for the bees and the trees would have been rejected, but maybe thinking about this sort of thing afterwards could start with non-sprawl/tree-hugging…

  • Xu

    Ghost cities in China won’t be empty for long. They have built the cities in a way that will ensure future growth. I suspect they were built as a result of numerous business deals that weren’t necessarily legitimate, but the result will be space for a growing population moving to the city.

    • Yanchen Lin

      “Weren’t necessarily legitimate”, aka corruption? And are you sure people will come back just for space without any business support? Ordos is not Shanghai.

  • “Ordos is not an isolated case; over-ambitious poorly planned urban development is happening all over China and there are today hundreds of similar “ghost towns”.

    Nonsense. China is building 200 cities each for 1,000,000 people right now. Most will sell out before they’re finished. A few will take years to fill up.

  • The_Pinchhitter

    The Kangbashi Mosque looks serene and majestic!

  • Mark

    It’s a shame, that stadium is gorgeous.