From Kubla Khan to the Sausage King: A huge 'lost city' rising from the African jungle is just the latest in a long line of wild architectural fantasies brought to life, writes Jonathan Glancey

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'THE FANTASY Jungle Cafe,' says the press handout from the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City, Bophuthatswana, South Africa, 'will be graced with the presence of the Sausage King, permanently ruling his domain in great style, and with unique sound effects which will incorporate a 'double sizzle'. Guests will hear the sizzle of sausages frying and the sizzle of hot lava as it tumbles down a nearby wall into a pool of water.' It adds: 'Listen carefully, occasionally there are also sounds of crickets chirruping and frogs calling.'

Want to know more? 'From pizzas by Leonardo worthy of hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, to the Rullo di Gnocchi and 'chips to go' with lashings of teenager tomato sauce, the Lost City will have it all.'

Still need convincing that we are talking about one of the greatest palaces the world has ever seen? 'On the other side of the Kong Gates stretches the Bridge of Time, flanked by five pairs of elephants with trunks raised, a bridge which still trembles with the force emanating at regular intervals from the Temple of Creation at the base of the Entertainment Centre.'

Ah, the Entertainment Centre. This is where you will encounter a giant casino, apparently hewn out of rock and designed by Henry Conservano and Paul Steelman, who brought you the Golden Nugget Casino at Las Vegas.

And if it's nature you want, the Palace of the Lost City offers a fibre-optic recreation of the Milky Way (the 'largest simulated night sky in southern Africa'); a 'designer jungle' (1,600,000 trees and shrubs from around the world, including baobab trees that are several hundred years old and weigh 75 tons); a 'computer-operated irrigation system', and an 18-hole golf course resembling 'the landscaping found commonly on Scottish links courses'.

As for culture and ethnic African design, what more could you want than

zebra-striped pencils by the bedroom telephone and ceilings in the public rooms painted in the style of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel?

The Palace of the Lost City is a colossal and brand-new architectural fantasy, a 350-bedroom, pounds 176m, 65-acre resort hotel masquerading as a lost city in the jungles of South Africa. It has been 'rediscovered' by Sol Kerzner, chairman of Sun International, the giant South African leisure group, and his architect, Gerald L. Allison, president of Wimberley Allison Tonga & Goo, designer of the Disneyland Hotel at EuroDisney on the outskirts of Paris.

You might decide, out of hand, that the Palace of the Lost City - 'the most luxurious hotel ever conceived' - is out-and-out kitsch; and you might think, too, that there is something rather obscene about this fantastic holiday palace rising out of South Africa's endemic poverty. Yet at Christmas, it is time to be broad-minded and to indulge in a little fantasy. And to admit that, far from being a product of our late 20th-century, channel-flicking television culture, the realm of the Sausage King is an age-old quest by architects and their patrons to build impossible dreams.

Architectural fantasy is as old as Shelley's Ozymandias, and probably a good deal older. Some societies were able to realise their wildest fantasies in stone, brick and marble: think of the Baths of Caracalla (AD206-217) in Rome, Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli (circa AD118-120) or else the great pyramid of Cheops at El Giza.

Ever since, architects have dreamt of fantastic buildings, often basing their ideas on equally dreamy theories and mythical buildings.

The temple in Jerusalem, razed by the Romans in AD70, for example, inspired a succession of Renaissance architects who saw in their fantastic projections a meaningful pattern of mystical proportions and sacred geometry. When they tried to recreate the temple in drawings (the walls of the real thing are still there, but no one has actually tried to rebuild the great temple), these reflected the architectural obsessions not of the first century, but of their own age. To them, the temple was more fantasy than real.

Later romantic fantasists like Piranesi and Etienne-Louis Boullee drew massive buildings on an even more steroidal scale than the temple in Jerusalem. Their designs were never built, yet the drawings of such fantasists inspired later generations of architects and patrons, particularly those, like the Romans, with a passion for conquering the world.

You can hardly call Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, a fantasist; the man actually built some of the most powerful architectural monuments of our century - Nuremberg stadium chief among them - and his masterplan for the post-war remodelling of Berlin was, although in many ways barking mad, planned down to the last detail.

A team of American architects and structural engineers studied Speer's plans for a massive domed hall, a thousand feet high, designed for the Nazi party rallies of the thousand years following the German conquest of the world. They calculated that at this staggering scale, clouds would gather inside the dome and rain might well fall on the crowd seething beneath it.

Hitler and his successors could hardly have asked for a more appropriately Wagnerian setting for their histrionic rantings.

Architectural fantasies have tended to be based on ancient classical and medieval Gothic precedent. Piranesi, Boullee, Speer were all neoclassicists on a Brobdingnagian scale.

William Beckford, the 18th-century Gothick novelist, commissioned James Wyatt to build him a soaring fake medieval abbey in Wiltshire. This was Fonthill Abbey - at 285 feet to the top of its spindly tower, the high point of the romantic Gothick fantasy conjured up in the fevered imagination of men like Beckford and Horace Walpole and spread by Coleridge, Keats et al. Fonthill Abbey, shabbily constructed, collapsed within 20 years of being built.

It was also at this time that the foundations of such modern projects as the Lost City at Bophuthatswana were laid in the architectural imagination. As stories and images returned to Europe of India and the Far East, writers like Coleridge wrote of Chinese pleasure domes and architects like Nash began to build them (the Brighton Pavilion springs to mind).

In our own century, architectural fantasists began to dream and draw a world dominated and driven by terrifying machines. At the time of the First World War, Italian futurists imagined fantastic cities in which the lift, the escalator and servicing ducts were far more important than classical proportions and the formal language of classicism.

Their designs were never built, and were probably unrealisable given the building techniques of the time, yet today these buildings do exist, inspired by what were mechanistic and iconclastic fantasies. Think of the Lloyd's building in the City of London, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, or the Pompidou Centre in Paris by Rogers and Piano.

Today's architectural fantasies, as the brash and bizarre Lost City in Bophuthatswana shows, are rooted in fashionable 'ethnic' design. Throughout the Western world, there is a yearning for Indian colours, Brazilian rainforests and African sunsets. The Lost City is no more, no less ridiculous than Fonthill Abbey, Renaissance dreams of the Temple in Jerusalem, the machine fetishes of the Italian futurists or Albert Speer's proposed thousand-foot dome for Berlin. It simply reflects the fantasies of our own age. What those who will pay thousands of rand to play in the Lost City want is the glamour of ancient Africa with casinos, swimming pools, cocktails and the Sausage King.

You might say that such a fantasy makes a poor comparison with Fonthill Abbey or other great architectural dreams of the past. But you would be wrong. Architectural fantasies, although thrilling, are usually little more than kitsch on a titanic scale; Fonthill proved that, so did the inflated designs of Boullee, Piranesi, Wyatt, Speer and the rest of them. At Sun City, Bophuthatswana, Gerald L. Allison and Sol Kerzner have joined this fantastic gang, even though a bottle of Coke in 'the Fantasy Jungle Cafe' sounds a little less exotic than drinking the milk of paradise under Kubla Khan's pleasure dome.

(Photographs omitted)