Two sites we visited in the Maldives, Thilafushi the trash island near Male, and a tourist island under development in South Male Atoll that will remain unnamed, are dialectically co-produced by relations between architecture and trash in complex ways. On the one hand, trash produces the conditions for the generation of architecture, and, on the other, architecture produces the conditions for the generation of trash. They are not by-products of one another, but the matrix through which each unfolds. Architecture and trash exist in complex relations of mutual causality in which the production of trash is woven into the production of architecture and vice versa.
Thilafushi, as covered in a previous blog here, is an emerging real estate platform in the Maldives that, since 1991, has been constructed on a shallow coral reef using trash transported by boats from neighbouring Male and further afield, and sand dredged from the reef flats.
The trash comprises all kinds of urban waste produced by the modernising economy of the Maldives, its construction industry, tourist resorts, and the lifestyles of its growing, modernising population.
This trash originates, for the most part, in Male, where smaller items of household waste are collected by city council waste management workers on bicycles, and delivered to barges that transport it to Thilafushi.
This waste is burned to keep its volume down, giving off the acrid smoke that fills the air …
… and changes the colour of the surrounding sea.
Most of Thilafushi’s waste however is less visible. It is construction waste resulting from the demolition of buildings in Male to make way for higher, more lucrative equivalents as the island city densifies.
In his book Subnature, Architecture’s Other Environments, David Gissen proposes that debris is an element that entered the canon of modern architectural thought and practice in 18C France. It is a word that designates “a type of broken, scattered substance that was once part of building or standing structure” (Gissen 2009:132), “a new type of subnatural environment … intimately connected with the destructive capacities of modern violence” (:142). While usually associated with the violence of war, as analysed in the forensic work of Eyal Weizman, in the Maldives, debris is an element in the matrix of the far more every-day, but no less violent processes of modern, capitalist real estate development.
This violence is delivered on flatbed trucks to barges in Male, where it is off and on loaded with excavators (see my video here) …
and transported to Thilafushi, where it is dumped on the reef and buried under a layer of sand.
This act of concealment transforms a territory of architectural debris and other trash into the substructure of the Maldives first value producing industrial zone.
Since 2009, this newly formed territory has been under the management of a government owned real estate company, the Thilafushi Corporation. It has been laid out with roads and leased off as plots for warehouses, production facilities, offices, housing and so on.
Staking its future on the association of debris with development, the Maldives government plans to further develop part of it into a new port facility.
Waste management remains a function of the Male City Council, which is required to “lease” the “land” it has created back from the Thilafishu Corporation for its operations. On our visit hosted by the Thilafushi Corporation, any questions about waste management were deflected by the answer “We do not deal with that, it is a waste management problem.” Tilafushi as real estate is thus sanitised, by being disassociated from its trashy ground, and responsibility for its violent origins and capacity to mutate its surroundings deflected, concealed and annulled.
Thilafushi now houses a number of industries that offer services or produce the products used to construct the architecture that created the conditions for the generation of trash in the first place – cement, concrete blocks, precast building components and so forth. Many of the companies involved in their production now have addresses on the island of trash.
One of the biggest markets for Thilafushi products outside Male are tourist resort islands, the signature economic and urban development model developed in the Maldives since the 1970’s.
This involves the lease of entire islands by the government to consortia to develop as resort hotel enclaves.
But islands in the Maldives are unstable, constantly evolving dynamic processes, their ground pulled and pushed by seasonal monsoon winds, waves and currents.
To transform these complex processes into the certainty required by tourist dollars requires that they be stabilised through the addition of concrete, steel and human labour.
Revetments, quoins, jetties and harbours are inserted into the ocean to redesign an island’s performance.
Aggregate, sand, cement, steel and labour is brought in from all over the world (Vietnam, India, South Korea, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) via Thilafushi to do so.
Dredging and reclamation further transform the island’s geomorphology and augment its relationships with the sea.
Once this transformation is complete, architecture, in the form of beach villas, overwater villas, restaurants, spa’s etc.) rounds off the aesthetic portrayed by the tourist industry of the Maldives as nothing but sun, sea, sand, palms and coral.
“As the plane landed, you will believe that this is heaven” (Tourist brochure picked up in Hulhumale, 2015).
This transfiguration of nature into value also creates the conditions for the further generation of trash. 21% of trash generated in the Maldives is now attributable to tourism (134 metric tons per day, see here). Apart from resort food waste, which simply ‘disappears’ by being dumped at sea, and resort-based incineration, other waste is returned to Thilafushi, thus completing the trash – architecture – trash cycle and reinforcing the matrix of power and capital accumulation through which it unfolds.
Gissen, D. (2009). Subnature. Architecture’s Other Environments. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.