This article examines the agency of unrealized megaprojects in bolstering economic activity, legitimizing political regimes, and expanding designer’s portfolios. It argues that such proposals serve as a form of “Architectural Rumor,” providing politico-economic agency despite ultimate project infeasibility. Specifically, it looks at two case studies of proposed yet unrealized island megaprojects in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan: the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands Plan. Spectacular urban design and architecture have long served as catalysts for development, investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities compete with one another to lure capital and boost their global status, many design proposals have become increasingly expensive, ostentatious, and technologically sophisticated. The high-risk financial nature of grand urban design proposals and their frequent associations with displacement or environmental destruction suggests that the megaproject model is becoming flawed. At the same time, there remain advantages for clients and politicians to proposing designs that are more spectacular than feasible. Using a mixed-methods approach, four key arenas in which unrealized proposals circulate are described. The various benefits and detriments of such an approach to architectural commodification are also discussed, foregrounding the broader societal costs.
Spectacular architecture and urban design have long served as catalysts for development, foreign investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities work to attract capital and boost their global status, design proposals have become increasingly ostentatious and technologically sophisticated in nature (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff. 2003. Megaprojects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.; Orueta and Fainstein 2008Orueta, Fernando Diaz, and Susan S.Fainstein. 2008. “The New Megaprojects: Genesis and Impacts.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 759–767.10.1111/ijur.2008.32.issue-4). They have also grown overwhelming in scale, requiring billions of dollars for execution and decades of time to reach completion. Many such projects invariably end up scaled back or redesigned, bearing little resemblance to their original proposals. Others are left incomplete or frozen after the design phase. While on the surface this high-risk nature of grand urban design proposals would suggest that the megaproject model is flawed and bears great challenges for designers and their clients, there are a number of advantages to proposing designs that are more spectacular than they are feasible. Unrealized projects offer many opportunities to those deploying them. Not only are the costs of project construction avoided, images of the project can be positioned outside the daily reality of host cities – buildings can appear more populated, inhabitants more socially content, and public space more accessible to all. The technical engineering complexities of such megaprojects are also bypassed. The proposal phase is thus one of the most marketable moments of a project’s lifetime. As a vague, yet uncompromised visual imagining, such proposals communicate to the world a utopic vision of their host city’s future. There are also real-life financial gains to be made from the commodification and media circulation of unbuilt proposals since such projects can attract foreign investment by reinforcing an image of the city as more politically stable and economically prosperous than it may be in reality.
This article unpacks the distinct forms of agency embedded within unrealized design proposals and then examines four key arenas through which they circulate globally in order to gain greater notoriety and legitimization. The process of design proposals extensively circulating as media prior to their physical construction is referred to here as an “Architectural Rumor,” since the viability of these projects is often questionable and it is unclear as to whether or not they will ever be realized in their proposed form. Architectural rumors are project design proposals put forward by the government or private sector which travel widely as imagery and spoken word prior to their construction. They are presented as genuine endeavors, receive great media attention, corral public support, and even win awards, but rarely reach construction completion. As with traditional spoken rumors, architectural rumors function by circulating ideas with uncertain or doubtful truth. Beyond skepticism regarding project feasibility, architectural rumors propagate a selective narrative of present-day urban life, one that foregrounds prosperity, political stability, and civilian contentment, and which is not necessarily in keeping with the lived realities of the host city.
Using a mixed-methods approach, including field observations, media analysis, and interviews,11. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.View all notes this paper looks at the early stages of marketing and media circulation for two architectural rumors, both island megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan; the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands development. It describes how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of constructed projects. The first case study is the luxury net-zero resort and residential project, Zira Island, designed by the Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a former military island five kilometers off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The second case study is the Khazar Islands development, an artificial archipelago of over 50 islands also located in the Caspian Sea, 25 kilometers south of Baku (Figure 1). These two case studies show how design proposals are used to promote a new image of Baku both domestically and abroad, affording the ruling elite and project design professionals greater legitimacy.