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The Houses of Burj Al Babas

The symbolism of a failed property development in Turkey 

Burj Al Babas, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Adem Altan

Burj Al Babas, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Adem Altan

I have never visited the 587 abandoned mini-chateaux of the Burj Al Babas ‘luxury housing’ development near the town of Mudurnu at the base of Turkey’s northwestern mountains, but then nor have I been to Cinderella Castle at Disney World in Florida. The latter was uppermost in my imagination when I was about six years old, as the epitome of wonder; the former, I can’t stop thinking about for entirely opposite reasons. Despite the fact that Disney World and Burj Al Babas – which was dreamed up by the developer Sarot Group in 2014 – are separated by half the planet, it’s hard not to assume that, on some level, they’re each other’s architectural spirit animals. Both are French rococo follies filtered through ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II’s castle in Bavaria and – at least in the case of Burj Al Babas – leavened with a dash of the colonial-revival style of the Stanley Hotel in The Shining (1980), abandoned by everyone but malevolent ghosts and one very unfortunate family, only two-thirds of which survived the ordeal of staying there.

The Sarot Group declared bankruptcy last November. A recent Bloomberg report stated that: ‘Customers from Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia snapped up 350 of the villas [of which they were planning to build 754] at a going rate of US$370,000 to US$530,000. They specifically asked for the chateau-like design, according to the project’s consulting architect, Naci Yoruk. Sarot Group chairman, Mehmet Emin Yerdelen, blamed his predicament on “deadbeat clients”.’ The Turkish newspaper Hürriyet reported that the development resulted in a ‘public outcry on social media, especially because of its contrast with the Ottoman-style historical mansions of Mudurnu’. 

Eerie doesn’t even begin to describe it. Going by the drone footage, Burj Al Babas is a custom-made metaphor for our era: a grinding repetition of literally empty, mass-produced postmodernism, the collective folly of which is only outstripped by the sheer magnitude of financial speculation, motivated by the clients’s longing – like that of most conservatives – for something that never existed in the first place. It’s ironic that, on a lunatic scale, it’s the bricks-and-mortar echo of a period in French history when revolution was just around the corner and ferocious mobs, driven mad by hunger and the self-serving machinations of a cruel government, wanted nothing more than to stamp these dreamy palaces to the ground and to chop the heads off their inhabitants. That Turkey is a country which currently imprisons more journalists per capita than any other place on earth and that Burj Al Babas’s clients are from countries with ghastly human-rights records might, you’d think, signify a certain level of thunder-rumbling at the picnic.

Burj Al Babas’s identikit chateaux, sat forlornly in their untended plots, are the stuff of nightmares: an endless vista of castles in the air that have landed, with a very big thump, onto a very real, very loaded, piece of earth. 

This article appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘The Houses of Burj Al Babas’

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019
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