In the 1920s, a German architect proposed damming the Mediterranean to create a supercontinent

Huge, great tracts of land. The Mediterranean from space. Image: NASA.

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris recently announced plans to buy a Greek island to give refugees from the Middle East and Africa a country of their own. Though Sawiris referred to his proposal as a “crazy idea” on Twitter, it pales in comparison to an earlier scheme for the Mediterranean from the first half of the 20th century, which was seriously considered by heads of state and, at one point, even the United Nations. It was called Atlantropa, and would have involved the partial draining of the Mediterranean Sea and the creation of a Eurafrican supercontinent.

Atlantropa was the brainchild of the German architect Herman Sörgel, who tirelessly promoted his project from 1928 until his death in 1952. His experience of World War I, the economic and political turmoil of the 1920s and the rise of Nazism in Germany convinced Sörgel that a new world war could only be avoided if a radical solution was found to European problems of unemployment, overpopulation and, with Saudi oil still a decade away, an impending energy crisis. With little faith in politics, Sörgel turned to technology.


Dams across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and eventually between Sicily and Tunisia, each containing gigantic hydroelectric power plants, would form the basis for the new supercontinent. In its final state the Mediterranean would be converted into two basins, with the western part lowered by 100 meters and the eastern part by 200 meters. A total of 660,200 km2 of new land would be reclaimed from the sea – an area larger than France.

Later plans for Atlantropa also included two dams across the Congo River and the creation of a Chad and Congo Sea, which Sörgel hoped would have a moderating influence on the African climate making it more pleasant for European settlers. In line with the colonial and racist attitudes of the times, Sörgel envisaged Africa with its resources and its land to be entirely at the disposal of Europe, a continent with plenty of space to accommodate Europe’s huddled masses.

Image: Devilm25 / VulcanTrekkie45, CC BY.

While Sörgel’s proposal may sound absurd to our ears, it was taken seriously by architects, engineers, politicians and journalists at the time. The extensive Atlantropa archive in the Deutsche Museum in Munich abounds with architectural drawings for new cities, the dams and bridges of the future continent as well as letters of support and hundreds of articles about the project, which appeared in the German and international popular press as well as in specialised engineering and geographical magazines.

What made Atlantropa so attractive was its vision of world peace achieved not through politics and diplomacy, but with a simple technological solution. Atlantropa would be held together by a vast energy net, which would extend from the gigantic hydroelectric plant in the Gibraltar dam and provide the entirety of Europe and Africa with electricity. The power plant would be overseen by an independent body who would have the power to switch off the energy supply to any individual country that posed a threat to peace. Moreover Sörgel calculated that the construction of the supercontinent would require each country to invest so much money and people power that none would have sufficient resources to finance a war.

Putting his faith in the people of Europe and their desire for peace, Sörgel dedicated a large part of his work to the promotion and dissemination of the project through the popular press, radio programmes, films, talks, exhibitions and even poetry and an Atlantropa symphony. He hoped popular support would help him get the backing of politicians.

Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of his contemporaries the required collaboration between nation states always appeared even more utopian than the vast technological dimensions of Atlantropa. As the New York-based magazine UN World observed in 1948:

Harnessing Gibraltar for mankind’s good does sound like a dream, but in this 20th century no dream – not even that of cooperation among nations – is quite impossible.

By 2012, when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in acknowledgement of its contribution to lasting peace in Europe, the hope expressed by the UN World appeared to finally have come true. However, in 2015, cooperation among nations sadly looks like a distant dream once again. Where once Herman Sörgel had used the image of a Europe bursting at the seams that is saved by a peaceful merger with the African continent, we are now confronted with the mirror image as people from across Africa and the Middle East seek refuge in Europe.

Now would be the time to prove that the Peace Prize was indeed deserved. Now would be the time to show solidarity and unity. Instead, the EU appears on the brink of being torn apart over its inability to find a communal solution to accommodate a group of refugees, whose number ultimately comes to no more than a meagre 0.11 per cent of the overall population of the Union. Sadly European unity, and with it a solution for the refugee crisis, once again appears more utopian than Sörgel’s plans for draining the sea.The Conversation

Ricarda Vidal is a lecturer in visual culture and cultural history at King's College London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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