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.
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.
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.
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)?
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.
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.
 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.