The 1920s plan that’s weirder than any of Boris Johnsons’: draining the Mediterranean Sea

Spoiler: this was not a well-thought out plan. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Long before Boris Johnson was advocating a Channel Bridge, and various other pointless infrastructure projects, there was the Atlantropa project of the 1920s. Like something born out of the fevered dreams of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this involved building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar to effectively seal off the Mediterranean.

Without its main source of water – 35,000km3 per year of the sea’s water comes from the Strait, compared to just 1,200km3 from rivers – the plan was for the isolated Mediterranean to start to dry up. The receding sea would create usable land, which the architect of this bizarre project, German engineer Herman Sörgel, envisaged would be used for agriculture.

The project, which would have also had the potential to create vast hydro-electric energy, called for the Mediterranean to be lowered by 200m, which would completely rewrite the topography of the existing coastline, including the complete disappearance of the Upper Adriatic and the sealing of the Dardanelles. You can just imagine how annoyed Putin would be if this plan was enacted in the contemporary world. He’s gone through all the trouble of annexing Crimea only for a crackpot inventor to seal off access to the Mediterranean for Russian warships.

But petty geopolitical quibbling was never a concern for Sörgel. His idea was utopian, intended to solve post-war European issues such as the dire economic situation and the perceived lack of living space (Lebensraum in German). The latter became a rallying cry for the Nazis and Sörgel half-heartedly pitched his idea to them in 1938, including a quote from Hitler at the front of one of his books.

As with much of that era, the project must also be understood within the colonial context. Sörgel hoped this new land would bridge the gap between Europe and Africa, creating a new continent called Atlantropa – hence the project’s name.

As if the big plan wasn’t big enough, phase two involved creating another sea in the middle of the Sahara to be used for irrigation of the desert and, in Sörgel’s words, make Africa a “territory actually useful to Europe”. This seems to ignore the hard work Europeans were already doing to pillage the continent, but I doubt many people are going to shed tears for them.

Sörgel thought that his plan would be a panacea to all of contemporary Europe’s problems and prevent another war. Noble ideals indeed but also really stupid. Imagine the devastation to the lives of the millions of people who live along the Mediterranean coast. Ancient cities like Algiers, Barcelona and Athens would be obliterated. And what would happen if Sörgel’s imagined dam was bombed? A flood that would make the Old Testament God blush wiping away all this new land.

This is not to mention that convincing the countries of Europe to work together on anything for a long period of time is no easy feat. That said, after WWII the Nato allies revisited the Atlantropa plans, hoping to stave off communism’s spread to Africa but the plan was ultimately dropped. Luckily for everyone, the end of formal colonialism and the lack of money killed off any remaining appetite for the project.

Sörgel himself died in relative obscurity. He was only allowed to dream so big because his wife, Irene, was a successful art dealer. This meant he could dedicate 25 years of his life to promoting this terrible idea without actually needing to profit from it.

Atlantropa can remain in the big dustbin of big engineering projects. Hopefully even Boris Johnson will leave it there – after all it would involve working with Europe (which he hates)… but then again it would also involve recolonising Africa (which I imagine he would love).


What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.

“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.