Travel can be a reminder of the aspirant genius of humans all over the world. Wherever people can be found, the drive to surpass and to exceed can also be found, which might be why there are so many impressive monuments all over the place.
For every Eiffel Tower, Petra or Machu Picchu, though, there are also the eternal legacies to misguided ambition. For every glorious success, humanity has at least one epic failure. They just don’t get as much guidebook attention or tourist traffic.
In 2009 the tallest structure ever built, the Burj Khalifa, was officially opened. At 828 metres high, the tower is more than 100 metres taller than its nearest competition, which leaves you wondering just what is the point of the last 100 metres of Burj. A lot of borrowed money, wasted energy, and exploited labour could have been saved if the Burj builders hadn’t been quite so intent on tempting fate. By the time the tower opened the global recession had already hit; apparently a good part of the structure is still empty and waiting for someone to give a damn.
Cruising through downtown Detroit is an eerie experience. Traffic lights hang dead from their wires, boarded-up houses brood among vacant lots, barbed wire garlands surround industrial ruins. It’s kind of like an apocalypse film, except even the zombies have given up and quit town. There are of course still people living in Detroit, but the city’s population is about half what it was when the American auto industry was booming and Detroit offered many thousands of people a new vision of the American Dream.
The city is slowly overturning decades of decline, but large parts of the city still stand in creepy testament to the near-sighted auto barons who couldn’t see the writing on the wall, and so squandered the virtual monopoly Detroit once held over the global automotive industry.
Today Detroit is still home to some of the most grandiose ruins in the world, testaments to the ‘bigger is better’ mentality that drove the car companies for so long. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, for instance, is an 18-storey shell full of rubble and graffiti by a slippery character known as Catfish.
The Sphinx is a mystery that has taunted visitors for hundred (and probably thousands) of years. We can have no beef with whoever built such an enduring icon. The more recent wise-asses who decided to immortalise themselves by defaming such a monument are a different story. Whether it was a wave of idol-smashing fanaticism or Napoleon’s cannons that broke the Sphinx’s nose, the missing proboscis is an eternal mark of the philistinism that usually comes with conquest.
Travelling through Egypt Paul Theroux remarked that “the defacings are as fascinating as the finished sculptures, giving the figures the eeriness and mystery of a mutilated corpse at a crime scene”. Fascinating yes, but that doesn’t mean we need to see any more pointless destruction. The quote may also shed light on the mysterious Paul Woz Ere and Take Theroux Less Travelled graffiti that turned up on the Sphinx a few years ago.
Mexico City is probably one of the greatest cities on Earth, but it is also a city beset by five hundred years of hubris. When Hernán Cort