2-cover-imageThe City That Never Was
Christopher Marcinkoski
Princeton Architectural Press
37 East Seventh Street, New York, NY 10003; www.papress.com.
January 2016. 256 pages. Paperback, $35.

Mark Twain once observed that “there are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.” Author Christopher Marcinkoski, on the other hand—a faculty member in landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania—takes the opposite tack in this, his first book: “speculative expansion of settlement will continue in perpetuity, and any suggestion otherwise should be met with the utmost suspicion.”

Marcinkoski paints a vivid picture both domestically and abroad of the all-too-familiar pattern of real estate boom and bust via an impressive combination of text, on-site photos, maps, and graphic timelines. Besides the most recent financial crisis, he estimates that the United States has been hit by up to nine other real estate “convulsions.” Take, for example, the Florida Land Rush of the 1920s—a “classic real estate bubble”; or the earlier Panic of 1797, although it was limited primarily to New York state and land near newly established Washington, D.C.

A later Panic of 1873, which brought havoc to both the United States and Europe, is cited as “one of history’s most dramatic and long lasting.” It was the outcome of many factors, including liberalized lending standards in Europe, active promotion by the U.S. government in land speculation to help finance construction of the transcontinental railroad, and the crash of the U.S. stock market. Going back further than the American timeline, there was the South Sea Bubble in the United Kingdom (1720) and the Mississippi Bubble in France (1719–1721) and many others. Even ancient Rome suffered its burden of real estate speculation.

The recent boom/bust trends in Ireland, Turkey, Dubai, Panama, much of Africa, Spain, and, of course, China are as grim and unsettling as this book’s title ironically implies. “Entire speculative urban districts and cities replete with a full menu of metropolitan accoutrements [are] being rolled out . . . in anticipation of future populations and investment that may or may not appear. Speculative urbanization has emerged as the ultimate form of twenty-first-century industrial production, with a reach and impact far beyond anything previously imaginable. . . . The failure of initiatives at this scale has the potential to bring down entire economies, not to mention inflict excruciating long-term effects on a society.” Between 2006 and 2009 in Ireland, for example, 245,000 homes were constructed, despite a 2006 census showing more than 266,000 homes were sitting unoccupied—a telling sign of the impending collapse of the Irish economy.

The Spanish debacle is the highlight of this book, and its failures are documented in great detail, especially in the stark color photos of large-scale, desolate urban development projects. The reasons for such massive overbuilding have as much to do with competition for status and wealth by competing cities as anything else. Airports that have yet to land airplanes and grossly underused cultural projects by the likes of Peter Eisenman, Santiago Calatrava, the late Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster are in part a consequence of the blind quest to replicate the famed “Bilbao effect” regardless of the burden on municipal debts. Of the 192 public museums constructed in Spain between 2000 and 2012, more than three-quarters were built in cities with fewer than 100,000 residents.

Rather than condemning speculation outright, the author calls instead for incremental approaches (mostly from an urban design standpoint) to cope with the shock of future speculations. But his remedies appear as mere afterthoughts in light of the overwrought ambitions and gross miscalculations cited repeatedly throughout the bulk of the text. It is as if a few bandages here and there are sufficient to cure the disease.