Masters of the universe

Domus India|March 2020

Masters of the universe
The creation of a new capital should express the aspiration of a new nation, and yet increasingly we are seeing a phoney history dictate their design.
Reinier de Graaf

I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present. That’s where the fun is. Donald J. Trump, Twitter

There is no point in planning. Planning gets in the way of opportunity: the lifeblood of a world dependent on global capital flows which — unpredictable as they are — render futile any attempt at control. Whether it is the economy or the management of ever-growing cities, the prevailing political mantra has been to disavow planning. Yet, no politics exist without planning. Nothing speaks to this more clearly than the political sphere’s planning of its own centres of power.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least ten governments have embarked on ambitious plans to construct new capitals. Since Trump’s tweet, another four have declared the intention to do so. Indonesia has announced the intention to move its capital from swampy, traffic-clogged Jakarta to a yet-to-be-determined location on the island of Borneo, an effort much akin to the Philippines’ plan for a back-up capital in the form of New Clark City; Egypt has launched a plan for a new administrative city east of its current capital Cairo; and even the war-torn, poverty-stricken emerging nation of South Sudan has announced a new capital to mark its fragile autonomy (in the shape of a rhinoceros).

The relocation of capitals to new, purpose-built cities is by no means a recent phenomenon, of course. In 1913, Australia, to resolve the rivalry between its two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, decided on the construction of Canberra as its new capital; in 1960, Pakistan, to diversify development across the country, relocated its capital from Karachi to the new city of Islamabad, and then there is of course the classic example of Washington DC.

Such decisions can bring serious consequences. The creation of Brasilia in the early 1960s by the Kubitschek government brought an already fragile Brazilian economy to the edge of bankruptcy and, as the joke goes, Kazakh oil wealth could have made millionaires of its citizens had it not been for the creation of Astana. What motivates governments to leave their countries with such grandiose legacies even with the economic odds overwhelmingly stacked against them? While earlier efforts might have claimed a certain naivete in terms of the economic repercussions, more recent ones can hardly profess the same innocence.

Still one persists. And still one runs into trouble. More than ten years after its founding, Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new inland capital, looms like a ghost town; Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s political and administrative capital since the 1980’s is yet to acquire the institutions it was built for and, even before its realisation, Cairo’s new administrative city has already acquired the reputation of a corrupt real estate venture.

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March 2020