Resisting closure: The political dynamism of an unfinished tower in Ulaanbaatar

By Guest Contributor , on 10 October 2016


This posted was written by Alex Hayden Skinner.  Alex has been conducting research on Ulaanbaatar since 2010.  He is presently researching within the Niisleliin Oron Suutsnii Korporatsi (HOCK) and consulting on certain components of their projects.   


Ulaanbaatar’s skyline is littered with carcasses. The mining-driven surge in the Mongolian national economy, which saw world-beating GDP grow at 17.5% during 2011, was brought to an abrupt end in 2012. Precipitated by a sustained downward trend in copper and coal pricing and exacerbated by unstable relations between policy-makers and a nascent internationally-financed mining sector, foreign investment plunged. Lower budgetary revenues created a severe deficit and domestic banks faced liquidity challenges. Despite policy attempts to prop the construction sector and sustain internal growth, the city became has become littered with incomplete structures, unable to find buyers or access affordable completion financing. These phantoms of the future, lurching skyward from the urban substrate, stand in various states of completion – some as concrete skeletons, others clad with pristine facades, awaiting the internal organs that will make them viable homes or offices.

Among these, within the very heart of the capital’s central business district, the concrete shell of a one such commercial and residential building emerges amidst a cluster of ornately decorated three-level apartment buildings. The squat, L-shaped apartment block that partially encircles the new tower was erected during the 1940s to house employees of the Ministry of Social Defence and the Ministry of Animal Husbandry. Built under the auspices of the State Construction Trust, these were among the earliest residential units to be built in Ulaanbaatar, pre-dating GIPROGOR’s (the oldest Russian planning institute, established in 1929 to furnish the theoretical and methodological principles and practices of socialist settlement and more recently associated with master planning of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic site) first twenty-year Master Plan for the Ulaanbaatar, which would see the nascent capital grow into a worker’s city, patterned after those across the former Soviet Union.


Image 1

The former residences of the Ministry of Social Defence and the Ministry of Animal Husbandry. Photograph circa 1950. Source: Archives of the Master Planning Agency of Capital City, Mongolia, published in: Natsagdorj, N. (2014). Construction History of Ulaanbaatar City. Master Planning Agency of Capital City, Ulaanbaatar.


This residential block is situated next to what is now the Prime Ministerial residence – itself the former residence of Communist leader Kh. Choibalsan. The building itself is differentiated from nearby master-planned residential blocks by elegant mosaic-work motifs, which adorn its street-facing facades. These were updated after the democratic revolution to depict elements of national culture (although they are frequently obscured by an advertising billboard erected by the flight-ticketing agency now resident in the ground-level space below).

Following the democratic revolution, immovable private property ownership was wrought into a new constitutional framework and secured under legal provisions passed between 1992 and 1997. Street-facing ground-level apartments across the city were rapidly repurposed into retail spaces, later being haphazardly extended outwards onto surrounding public areas and sidewalks. The block in question underwent such a transformation, becoming desirable city centre commercial space. In 2016 these hosted street-front apartments house travel bureaus, legal firms, bars and cafes.


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Satellite imagery of the site from Google Earth, taken in 2004 and 2016, showing densification and transformation of the central business district of Ulaanbaatar. In the centre of the image on the right is the tower that is the subject of this paper.  Google, Map Data: 2016.


It is amidst such transformations that the new tower – the co-subject of this piece – was planned. The walled-in courtyard at the rear of the residential block also hosted a small administrative building. As privatisation of state assets was underway in earnest, this was transferred to private ownership and the space attached to this structure was walled off. Between 2004-2005 the existing administrative building was demolished. The land then sat fallow for six years before construction was financed and initiated. Concrete began to be poured in the winter of 2012 and by the end of 2013 a skeletal tower of concrete pillars and floor-plates rose 26 levels into the city skyline, dwarfing its diminutive hosts. The structure remains incomplete to this day.

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The former residences of the Ministry of Social Defence and the Ministry of Animal Husbandry (tan, three level buildings in the centre of the image), from behind which a new yet incomplete commercial tower sits vacant, nestled in a courtyard that was a significant spatial manifestation of socialist-era social structures.  Source: Alex H. Skinner, 2016.


This new structure represents an irruption of form associated with commerce and private property amidst a material manifestation of the structuring structures of socialist socio-political life. In this case, spatial irruption is overlaid by a temporal one; by transformational vectors that are elsewhere commonly referenced under rubrics of post-socialism, late-modernity, transitional-economics and global-capital. The carcass of the new tower, as it protrudes from one of Ulaanbaatar’s most intensive sites of socialism, nevertheless stands nascent and irresolute vis-a-vis any idealisation of the functioning of neoliberal economics of land and finance. As completion was postponed again and again, questions began to be raised among a community of developers and residents of the area concerning legitimacy of land allocations and permitting, as well as impact upon the city’s cultural heritage. Whilst nobody could diagnose the cause of the delay with any certainty, rumours and conjecture highlighted how the historically socialist associations of this site are the other side of the same coin of the building’s commercial value.

There is a sense in which this new structure can be viewed as operationalising potential within emerging regimes of value only through the productive decay of pre-existing political and social systems. From and with the disrupted spaces of socialist political history, and the incomplete realisation of capital value, a new array of forms continues to emerge. Can we therefore think in terms whereby what is diminishing, incomplete or “decaying” is “indistinguishable from the wholesome remainder” (Negarestani, 2010: 382)?


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The site of the residences of the Ministry of Social Defence and the Ministry of Animal Husbandry circa 1950 and 2016. Top photo source: Archives of the master Planning Agency of Capital City, Mongolia, published in: Natsagdorj, N. (2014). Construction History of Ulaanbaatar City. Master Planning Agency of Capital City, Ulaanbaatar. Bottom photo: Alex H. Skinner, 2016.


To summarise Negarastani (2010) on the helical calculus of decay, the decaying entity, idea or political form is dispossessed of the resolution of becoming entirely past, entirely other, but also cannot continue to exist wholesomely. Decay, freed of its quotidian resonance with negation and disgust, therefore becomes analytically useful as a means of indexing transformations from intensity (limitrophic identity) to extensity (becoming other than an ideal form), just as fixing of forms through prototyping have been used anthropologically to trace movement from extensity to intensity.[1]

As the gross politico-material forms of socialism productively decay and are taken up amidst stalled machinations of global capitalism and within the swimming potentialities of an emerging structure, this new tower (along with other material manifestations of resistance to closure), broadcasts generative and vital ontological scrambling across the urban landscape. Such a dynamic process moves beyond the idea that unintended outcomes and uncertainty are necessarily the core-effects of transformation. It does so by exploring a differential transformation of forms rather than transformation in an uneasy engagement of ideal forms. This activity has been at the core of an anthropological unpacking of meta-narratives of transition.


[1] See Negarestani (2010) for further discussion on extensity and intensity.



Negarestani, R.  (2010). Undercover Softness: An Introduction to the Architecture and Politics of Decay. In Collapse Volume VI. Robin Mackay ed. 379-430. Urbanomic, Falmouth, U.K.




Post-election stalling in Ulaanbaatar: The case of Building No. 3

By Rebekah Plueckhahn, on 16 September 2016

This blog is the fifth in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections that were held on June 29th.

Mongolia’s June 29th national parliamentary elections and Ulaanbaatar city elections acted as a multifaceted anticipatory device. The elections could be said to form a symbolically cumulative conclusion to a troubled political and economic period. The result was a vast overhaul of the state hural and the winning of an 85.5% majority for the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). However, looking deeper into the temporal flow of the pre-election and post-election period reveals not so much a culminating electoral event and political regime change at the national and city levels. Instead, for many people living in Ulaanbaatar, this year has proven to be one of ongoing waiting and uncertainty. This period has been punctuated by waves of speculation and markers in time that produce stalling caused by changing groups of the political class.

The materiality of stalling

For many people living in Ulaanbaatar, this stalling has had considerable material repercussions that began well before the elections. One local official told me that the providing of certificates of temporary possession (ezemshih gerchilgee) of newly acquired pieces of land was stalled on the 25th of May 2016 in the lead-up to the election. People claiming new land in the north of the city were attempting several times a week to try and process the right paperwork, but were consistently sent away to return ‘after the election.’ However, now almost three months afterwards, the processing of new land has not yet recommenced. In this period of bureaucratic stalling, people attempt to chase the right land official who visits on particular days, but are told that the land official is only currently dealing with ‘problem land’ and not new applications. However, to the average person, what counts bureaucratically as ‘problem land’ is opaque and not fully knowable. The fact is that many people in new plots of land are in varying forms of conflict with their neighbours as to the limits of boundary fences. Instead of waiting for bureaucratic decisions to be made in the meantime, people go ahead and secure their land in other ways.  For instance, they may stay on the land in an effort to hold it, and attempt to secure it with a fence before it can be officially recognised.[i]

Image 1: A new fence has been set up on a plot of land in the northern areas of the city.

Image 1: A new fence has been set up on a plot of land.


Waiting amongst disrepair

One group of people in Ulaanbaatar have been particularly hit by post-election stalling. Again, their story began a long time before this year’s elections. They are a people who have been left behind after the last economic peak of 2011 and have borne the brunt of the subsequent departure of major investment from Ulaanbaatar’s construction sector. In the heart of Zuun Ail, an area close to the city core and a prime area for redevelopment projects, lies a collection of old niitiin bair – former construction worker dormitories built during the 1950s. Building No. 3, like the other niitiin bair, stands as a two story building that consists of one room apartments. These buildings have never had running water, and residents obtain their water from nearby wells. The one advantage these buildings had was heating. In the earlier days of the rise in construction development a construction company sought to redevelop these buildings into apartments. Excited at the prospects of gaining access to better infrastructure including running water, and increasing the value of their property, many owners in Building No. 3 signed contracts with the company to exchange their apartments for new ones to be built in their place.

Unfortunately, funding dried up, the redevelopment of Building No. 3 did not go ahead and the construction company is rumoured to have gone bankrupt.[ii] Before this was known however, the internal infrastructure of several of the rooms were removed, including the heating pipes, windows, doors and floor boards which were sold for scrap. Several different parties are blamed for this, including some residents claiming that owners were told to remove the infrastructure to display intent to leave and compliance with the upcoming redevelopment. Since then, the rooms have been further vandalised. The end result has been that multiple apartments on the bottom floor of the building have been slowly filled with refuse, as rubbish has been routinely disposed of through the gaping holes of former windows over the course of some time. The building’s heating has been switched off, the building itself is in a crumbling state of disrepair and is unsafe to live in.

Image 2: Many of the building’s lower floor windows have been removed and rubbish thrown in anonymously over time under the cover of darkness.

Image 2: Many of the building’s lower floor windows have been removed and rubbish thrown in anonymously over time under the cover of darkness.

Image 3: An abandoned room in which the radiator and window have been removed.

Image 3: An abandoned room in which the radiator and window have been removed.

Several people still live in this building and are unable to leave. Many owners, both living in the building and elsewhere, are desperate to find a solution to their problem – to find a different construction company deal, to receive compensation from the original construction company, or to simply find alternative housing. However, since the election period, simply being provided emergency alternative housing has become a main and urgent aim. Those still living in the apartment are working to a strict and unforgiving deadline: the looming onset of winter in an unsafe apartment building without heating. The situation is dire and resulted in Amnesty International Mongolia putting a call out to campaign for the former Ulaanbaatar mayor Bat-Üül to provide these people with alternative housing. This Amnesty International call-out has since been renewed and rebroadcasted since the elections. During the elections, election promises were made offering some solutions. This has meant that for these people, the elections acted as an important anticipatory device. However, as yet, the residents have not yet been provided alternative housing and cold weather is fast approaching.

Cleaning in defiance      

For the resident owners, this prolonged period of waiting has been a time of strategy, observation and flows of different types of actions. Just as the political stalling is prolonged and ongoing, so too are their different types of strategies. Here attempted ‘resolution’ of their situation, rather than an end point, is a maintaining device and important way to be heard. Residents have been involved in different court cases related to their situation. Much time is spent commenting on the ongoing situation while sitting in doorways of buildings and on the street, where updates are shared, compared and critiqued. They display an ‘active interaction’ between resistance and attempts to bring about change, while staving off the material flow-on effects of forced disrepair (Ortner 2016).

This was clearly seen on May 22nd 2016, when several residents spent a full day clearing all the rubbish out of the empty apartment rooms on the ground floor. This was a huge undertaking. The rubbish was putrid and some of it had even decayed to earth. This rubbish had been an invasion of their building, encroaching closely on their own small apartment rooms. Who had deposited this rubbish and what it actually consisted of was essentially unknowable. By cleaning it up, they were moving against the anonymity of an accumulation of urban waste disposal over a long period of time. They were rejecting the slow deterioration and destruction of their living space that had occurred through quests for bountiful profit for some, and a better quality of life for others:

Image 4: An apartment owner cleans out the accumulated and decayed rubbish of an empty apartment in the lower floor of his building.

Image 4: An apartment owner cleans out the accumulated and decayed rubbish of an empty apartment in the lower floor of the building.

Image 5: On May 22nd 2016, residents remove the accumulated rubbish from Building No. 3.

Image 5: On May 22nd 2016 residents removed the rubbish from Building No. 3.

Thanks to their amazing efforts, the rooms are now cleared. But the building’s current residents continue to wait. They plan to have everyone move upstairs, then seal off the corridors and the windows of the ground floor to stop further rubbish polluting their building. In this period of waiting, their only option is to carve out a better space and modify this building to their needs. However, in the last few weeks, residents have informed me that people are beginning again to throw rubbish into the building during the night.

Stalling in a far-from-normal election year

The promise of varying forms of assistance for residents of Building No. 3 is an election promise of severe personal, emotional weight. Providing emergency alternative housing can determine the health and well-being of a large group of people this coming winter. While some steps by new politicians have been taken since the election, alternative housing has yet to be confirmed. The failure to provide such housing puts these people into a dire and unknowable situation and has considerable material and felt ramifications.

Bureaucratic stalling in Ulaanbaatar at the height of summer was always going to have significant effects reverberating throughout the city. A land official told me, “it is normal for this [kind of stalling] to happen during an election year.” It is common for a new term of Mongolian national parliament to not be confirmed until September of that year. However, as Mongolia’s new politicians are aware, Mongolia’s recent economic oscillations mean that this year is no ‘normal’ election year. To address the looming decisions, the new state parliament was formed much quicker than usual.

What was described as a crisis in the lead up to the election has transformed to ever deepening gradations of ‘crisis levels’ without a clear end in sight. The course that Mongolia now needs to take given the government’s own economic assessment is by no means clear. Mongolia faces major economic decisions that, no matter which way they turn, will have significant geopolitical consequences. Mongolia is currently considering accepting IMF bailouts, while the Bank of China has set up an office in Ulaanbaatar, and waits to see whether Mongolia will open its economic borders to allow it to set up branches and commence operations in Mongolia.

While bureaucratic stalling is common during an election year, acts of stalling this year are especially critical given the far-reaching economic fallout that has affected so many groups of people. However, where there is stalling, there are also new possibilities. While people wait to see whether this ‘crisis ordinary’ (Berlant 2011:10 c.f. Rebecca Empson this blog series) will deepen into a chasm of economic disrepair that the country as yet cannot see an end to, some people see this interlude as the opportunity to divert their current course. Let’s just hope that the new political representatives of Zuun Ail at the city and national level will find ways to manoeuvre their newly acquired power to allow the residents of Building No. 3 to access alternative housing this winter. These are one group of people who simply cannot afford to wait.


For more information on Amnesty International’s campaign for this case, please see: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa30/4793/2016/en/


© All photos by Rebekah Plueckhahn

A sincere thank you to Doljinsuren and Erdenezayar for assistance with this research.

[i] Living on land as a way to ‘hold’ and prevent others from claiming it has long been a part of land access in Ulaanbaatar since 1990.

[ii] While conducting research on property in Ulaanbaatar, more stories emerged of other similar failed redevelopments of other buildings in different areas of the city.