Once intended to accommodate over one million residents, the new town of Kangbashi in northern China is today home to just one-tenth of its projected population.
In the early 2000s, Chinese government officials poured over $1 billion into the development of the city, several miles south of Ordos in Inner Mongolia. The result, according to French photographer Raphael Olivier
, is a "very beautiful city, full of contradictions."
Drawn to the "post-apocalyptic" feel generated by the juxtaposition of vacant, large-scale buildings and the surrounding desert, Olivier documented the ghost town and its partially complete architectural marvels.
A failed utopia
1/14 – Is this the end of ambitious Chinese architecture?
For years, China has been an architect's playground, with lucrative funding and interest in foreign 'starchitects' giving rise to imaginative buildings. In 2016, China's State Council released new urban planning guidelines. According to the document, "odd-shaped' buildings" -- or "bizarre architecture that is not economical, function, aesthetically pleasing or environmentally friendly" would be forbidden in the future. The document follows a 2014 call by Chinese President Xi Jinping for less "weird architecture" to be built. Credit: courtesy wanda group
Entitled "A Failed Utopia" his stunning -- if oddly surreal -- collection of images focus on the city's ambitious developments, rather than its "empty streets."
"I was just keen to take my time, and walk through different districts, and almost in a catalogue way, find as many interesting structures as possible," he says of covering parts of the 355-square-kilometer (137 square mile) sprawl.
"There's the super-modern edgy Ordos Museum [by MAD Architects], the more boring, modern Chinese residential blocks, unfinished projects from Ordos 100 [a project by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to invite 100 architects from 27 countries to design for Ordos] as well as the influence of Soviet-style architecture," explains Olivier.
"This mix is only really possible in China because it's the only country that is both communist and has the money and power to attract so many architects from abroad."
Though Olivier admits the story has been covered in the news media, he feels that the ghost town tag overlooks the reality of the city's continued expansion.
"Foreigners consider the city to be abandoned. Chinese consider the city to be still developing," he explains. "A lot of the early news reports focus on it being a failed, weird place -- but it's also a huge accomplishment and people there are not necessarily unhappy, there is a huge sense of hope. You have to respect that on a certain level."