Why the Ziggurat Pyramid will fail

The Ziggurat Pyramid, Dubai

The Ziggurat Pyramid is another monument to excess and decadence planned for Dubai, land of the gold bar ATMs, in-door year-round skiing, and ridiculously tall buildings (can you say “compensating”?).  It’s intended to be a single, self-sustaining complex capable of housing one million people in non-drone-like conditions.

Honestly, it’s just the latest incarnation of Paolo Soleri’s Arcology concept (dating back to 1969), so it’s not some kind of modern intellectual breakthrough.  While I think it’s important that we keep searching for better ways to live in “urban settings,” I don’t think the Ziggurat Pyramid will be a long term success.  And I can sum up my concern in a single word: modularity.

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The Curious Case of Malmberget

It was a bittersweet experience to work on a project to save a Swedish mining community, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Malmberget (pronounced  “Malm-bar-yet” with the “r” rolled) is a small mining town in northern Sweden.  It used to be a principal hub of technological development in the 1960’s; it was the place to be.  But now it’s half empty, falling apart, a dying town.  The reason it’s dying is because a huge pit, called Gropen, is growing in the middle of the city, and is basically eating it.  Here’s a picture of the town, and Gropen, courtesy Google Maps (click on it to see a larger version).


I was part of a group of about 40 designers, from all over the world, who were invited to the City Move Interdesign 2009 Workshop.  The goal of the two week long workshop was to address the problem of a town suffering a slow, inevitable death.

The government there has been trying to move houses.  It’s moving them very slowly, and has been for 40 years or so, and it’s not happening fast enough. (There’s a nice youtube video of one of those house moves.)  It turns out that moving wooden houses is pretty easy.  But brick houses tend to break in half.  And many of the houses that will be eaten by Gropen – and are therefore candidates to be moved – are brick.

People have been leaving Malmberget.  There’s nearly no women left between the ages of 20 and 45 years.  That means no families.  Many of the people who are left are rather upset – that their town is dying, that no one seems to be helping them, that no one seems to be listening.  There is no pharmacy in the town.  There is only one doctor.  It seems that two out of three shops are boarded up.

Malmberget is halfway up the south side of a hill.  The hill covers massive deposits of iron, which are being mined at a voracious rate.  To the south of them is a valley, and beyond that is the mount called Dundret.  In the valley is the town of Gellivare (pronounced yell-i-var-eh), which is arguably doing better than Malmberget.  But, being in the valley, it gets much more winter darkness than Malmberget – this winter light is something of which the Malmbergetians are especially fond, and they are loathe to give it up.  They are also quite proud – and rightly so – of having survived in a really hostile environment for a century since the town was founded.

You might ask: What made Gropen?  The iron mine made it, and the continued mining operation is making it grow.  The company that runs the mine, LKAB, is owned by the Swedish government, and has been mining iron there since the beginning.  Through what can best be described as a comedy of errors over the past 40 years or so, a small open pit mine eventually became Gropen.

The Zero Point Tower
The Zero Point Tower: that is the point from which LKAB measures depths in the iron mine.

We visited the mine, going down 1,000 metres below the “zero point tower” (seen in the picture to the left, at the top of the hill).  That put us about 400m below sea level.  And we were in man-made caves and tunnels large enough for multiple tour buses to pass one another.  1200 cubic metres of air are pumped into the mine every second to keep everyone alive.  It’s one hell of a technological marvel, quite frankly.

But it’s killing the town.

It would be easy to say: Just build a new town, and move everyone there.  But it would not be easy to do.  They’ve done it in China, but there, let’s be frank, townfolk have no real say in what happens.  In a democratic country, like Sweden, one must consider the needs and desires of the people.  For instance, there are many people who could continue to live in Malmberget till they die of natural causes and live without fear of Gropen consuming their home.  If the town is moved, what happens to them?  Do we force them to move even if they are in no danger?  Do we let them live out their lives in a ghost town that will probably be more a ghetto than anything else once most of the others have left?

As it turns out so often these days, the real problem isn’t technological, it’s social and political.  The people of Malmberget are proud of their heritage; they have a surprisingly well documented and very rich (albeit relatively short) history.  Indeed, we found them to be extremely open to new ideas, extremely hopeful about the future, extremely connected to the land and nature.  (One of the very first structures ever built in the town, a small house, is still there!)  But we also found them quite wary of all our big ideas.  Of course, one can’t blame them: look at what they’ve been through!  They have an incredibly strong connection to the town, and they were concerned that all these outsiders would just mess things up.

It’s a weird situation.  There’s the government, which really must act, but which must also balance the greater good of the rest of the country.  There’s the mining company, that has a mandate of making money by making iron and steel.  And there’s the townspeople, for whom the mine is both livelyhood and harbinger of death.  But since the mine is owned by the government, and the government is elected by the people, then the mine, in some regard, actually belongs to the people….

The situation was so bizzare that it gave many participants splitting headaches.

I am trying to transcribe my notes of the experience into what was supposed to be a blog but is now turning into more of a memoir.  You can read that memoir here.  It’s still not finished, but I’m working on it.

We’ve also made available our team’s report that summarizes our approach to the problem.  You can get that here as a PDF file.

Many of the workshop participants remained dedicated to the project even after we’d finished the workshop.  Some of us are trying to keep interest in the work high, by keeping in touch with various people.  There’s even talk of a follow-on session to see how things are progressing in Malmberget.

My tiny effort to raise awareness of this unfortunate situation is to write this blog, to write my memoir, and to hope that some of you will start to search for information about Malmberget (try youtube and some of the other media outlets).  You’ll be surprised at what you find.  Maybe you’ll decide to make some small action that will help, somehow.