White Elephants

By Khaled Abou Alfa • 1st of January, 2022

Gem of the Sky

Throughout his colourful lifetime, P.T Barnum wore a number of flamboyant hats. Circus owner. Prototypical showman. Mastermind behind a number of hoaxes and elaborate displays of theatre. The inherent risk of failure was of minor consequence, as the perceived rewards far outweighed these. This was the case for one of his most publicised acts. Instead of basking in a glorious achievement, Barnum would find himself becoming an integral part of one of his more expensive acts, smothered in irony.

In 1884, P.T. Barnum announced that he had purchased an elephant direct from King Thibaw of Burma. The elephant was called Toung Taloung” (“Gem of the Sky”). A sacred white elephant. In the East, the white elephant was (and remains) a symbol of good fortune, peace and prosperity. Barnum did not get his hands on one easily or cheaply. Using the mass media of the day, Barnum would ride the hype train, from Rangoon, through the Suez Canal, up to Liverpool before arriving in New York. By the time the animal had reached the UK however, the stories about it’s actual colour started to surface. The elephant was not an snow white colour, rather it was had a slightly different pigmentation to other more traditional elephants. Toung Taloung had a number of pink spots. The reality was not going to capture the imagination of his patrons.

Following this incident, the West would adopt the term to describe an expensive burden that failed to meet its original expectations. Within the built environment this term would be used to describe a category of project that is not limited to one form or located within one geography. Across the built world, there are herds of white elephants imposing their girth. While the moniker is a completely undesirable one, we continue to produce these projects with alarming regularity.

Defining the Herd

White elephant projects differ in size, scope and function. They can be completed projects or remain under construction, sometimes indefinitely. They encompass both the very best and worst of technical engineering achievements. They are usually politically driven animals. Oftentimes they are driven by financial greed. Sometimes the targets are domestic; sometimes they are international. This makes the white elephant category vast, best exemplified by the range of example projects:

  1. Empire State Building. Built in the 1930s, it lay empty for its first 20 years, gaining the nickname, Empty State Building’. It would become a symbol of New York, but it had an inauspicious start to life.
  2. Montreal Olympic Stadium. Too large for any ongoing function in Montreal. Too expensive to tear down. On track for its third roof replacement. Still being paid for. The quintessential white elephant.
  3. Berlin Brandenburg International Airport. Over 3 decades (and six billion euros) in the making - with no commitment from the major airlines in the country. Also the central character in the hilarious podcast, How To F#@k Up An Airport
  4. Brasilia. The largest of all the white elephants, as this is the administration capital of Brazil. Built 50 years ago to draw more people to the centre of Brazil, this is still a work in progress. As if that wasn’t enough, this city even has its own white elephants.

While the range is vast, all these projects have common elements. The first is their reason for existing in the first place, which is to attract attention. These projects are intended to be symbolic of the engineering prowess and reach that a nation can or has achieved. The more audacious the project, the more attention demanded. As previously discussed, this form of architecture was made popular with the Eiffel tower.

What makes white elephant projects infuriating is the cost. This is a wager, that comes with a number of different costs. Extensive maintenance costs that prohibits a sensible commercial business model. The monetary cost is usually fronted by taxpayers to maintain these projects years after both their conception and completion. The cost extends beyond the monetary kind. The cost of natural resources and materials. The environmental cost - by their very nature, these are not sustainable projects. Opportunity costs - what could have been put in place instead.

With the odds stacked against many of these mega projects, the sensible question is why? What motivates those in charge to take the risks, knowing full well what the outcome is likely to be? The reasons come in many guises and provide a diversity to the herd.

Sports Elephants

Sport has the power to transform the world.
Nelson Mandela

There exists a dichotomy in the sporting world. Global sporting event bring joy and connect people across the world. Yet within the construct of these events is the demand of resources that are far beyond anything that is reasonable. The two largest sporting events in the world (the Olympics and the World Cup) occupy a special place in this regard. They are white elephant generators. Every 2 years. In different geographical location.

Since the 1960s Olympics of Rome, the number of new Olympics venues built/required to host the summer Olympics hover around 30 venues for every event. We don’t need to imagine what happens after these events have been successfully completed. There are countless examples for us to reflect upon: Athens, Beijing, Brazil, Sarajevo, Soichi and the list goes on. Unused and abandoned.

On the back of continued negative publicity many are turning to temporary facilities/structures or using existing venues to host these events (as recently done for the 2020 Euros). The biggest fear host nations/cities have for these events is the legacy of adding to the herd and keeping a few of their own for decades to come. Understandably this is causing many to rethink their desire to host such an event. While the celebration of sport and togetherness of people across the world is truly magical, this should not come at the expense of the planet.

Pressure should now be exerted on the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to concentrate on venues that already exist. This appears to be the case for Brisbane in 2032, although the main stadium is being built on the grounds of an existing cricket ground which will need to be demolished. While it is exciting to see new venues in different places, this is unsustainable. A more considered approach is necessary that not only takes the embodied carbon used during the construction (around 50% of the whole-life emissions of a building are emitted during construction) and what the alternatives (permanent venues for events) could mean.

Political Elephants

Political elephants do not subscribe to any particular political ideology, rather they exist to do the exact same thing. Designed to demonstrate power in the short term and provide a lasting legacy in the long term. That is the aim at least, which doesn’t always work that way.

The range is shocking. Pyongyang’s contribution to this herd is the 330m tall Ryugyong Hotel. Standing imposingly, and unfinished (reportedly does not have any building services provisions) since 1992, the exterior was completed in 2012. Now being used as a glorified propaganda billboard. An entire airport in Spain sits idly with no flights. The largest legislative building in the world in Romania, remains 70% unoccupied.

These projects, and the rest of the herd like them, did not transform countries. They did not reshape cities. At most, then impacted areas in a negative manner. They allowed some to work towards a cliff, contributing nothing but a scar on the built world that needs constant attention. As long as there are political parties, with hearts and minds to conquer, these projects will continue to be used by irresponsible and uninventive leaders.

Future Elephants

Sometimes plans take a little bit of time to settle onto their intended target. Some rare white elephants don’t always maintain this status. One such example is the Millennium Dome’. It took 6 years before it decided what it wanted to do when it grew up and eventually has become the most popular music venue in the world. Barcelona and Sydney were host cities that were able to curb the general trend and achieve something longer term with the opportunity’ given. These are however all outliers, most elephant projects are not as fortunate.

These types of projects are not limited to one kind of politically inclined nation. Like many things, they are unevenly distributed, but exist across in some capacity most countries. Borne of greed or delusion there is no policing entity that will stop the generation of these projects. They are the unimaginative solution to kickstarting economies, generating excitement. Drawing attention for all the wrong reasons.

Quick Hits

Publications of Note

After Dark

Coming in the summer of 2022, After Dark by Liam Wong explores global cities after midnight. Stunning photography. Available for pre-order.

Tools of the Trade

House 4 House

Created by four Danish architects. House4House has an intriguing model. They donate 1/3 of their profits to Kiva 135 Euros is steep for a toy - compared what you could be getting for that cash but I like the overall direction this is heading in.

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