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Utopian progress & architecture of collapse: Bayocean, Futurism & The Line

If there’s one thing shared by intense poets, self-made magnates, and big dignitaries, it’s their ambition to try to reach the stage that will make or break them, the feat that will get them closer to eternity —or cause their ruin.

An idyllic sea resort engulfed by the ocean in Oregon, an imaginary futuristic community that a Russian poet dreamed about somewhere in Central Asia, or the recently decimated idea to build twin 105-mile-long skyscrapers in Saudi Arabia, no updated to a 1.5 miles project, share the make-or-break traits of utopian projects, their promise and risk.

Is Saudi Arabia’s The Line for real? At the moment, there’re renders and initial site works

These projects, separated in time and geography (the story of Oregon’s Bayocean; the “City of the Future” imagined by Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, the other main figure of Futurism with Vladimir Mayakovsky; and the project known as Neom being built by Saudi Arabia in Tabuk at the northern tip of the Red Sea) share the boldness and lack of realistic expectations of the “architecture of collapse.” They seem destined to create enchanting ruins out of imaginary worlds, closer to the post-disaster landscapes out of a Studio Ghibli animated movie than reality.


I stumbled upon the story of Oregon’s Bayocean community by mere chance. It all began with a vacation. We had arrived early in Northern California in the summer of 2013; our two daughters had not finished school yet when we took a plane along with their baby brother, who would be one year old in August. By flying earlier, we saved the money we’d be spending on a new temporary “summer dwelling.” But we didn’t know it yet.

On the plane, Kirsten and I talked about a family reunion in July, giving us room to plan for a road trip. Only this time, being five, we wanted a little more room and comfort accommodating for rest and meals, especially if we could still travel on a budget and wanted to cook our own food. So we decided to look for a campervan. Mind you, those were pre-vanlife days, and no Instagram hashtag was helping raise van prices yet.

“The playground of the Pacific Northwest,” and certainly no fog in the picture

We saw on Craiglist that somebody was selling a 1984, air-cooled, blue Vanagon L Westfalia with engine and interior in fair condition, so we drove to Walnut Creek and met the owner, a seventy-something-year-old retiree from New Jersey with longish hair and a tan, looking somehow younger than he claimed to be, so Kirsten asked for his “secret.” He described himself as “Italian” (of Italian American descent, I understood), a “garlic freak.” What did he mean? I eat tons of raw garlic daily, he said. “And surf. I surf. A lot.” Everyday? Almost, he said. We had a big laugh and never knew if he was serious.

He also maintained his motor vehicles himself: a small sports car, a motorcycle, and the campervan he was selling. Was there anything worth mentioning about the van’s state? “You need to keep an eye on the oil gauge and refill accordingly; you know, it’s an old van.” Being air-cooled, he also recommended going easy on big slopes and checking the temperature, especially on a hot day. The propane fridge and kitchen worked, and the pop-top bed was fine except for the front window zipper.

Some plastic handles and fixtures here and there were falling apart, but it was nothing preventing us from getting the whole utility out of it.

Into a magic world

The Westy was ours for $5K, which we planned to recover at the end of the summer when we’d be flying back to Barcelona, where we lived back then. Its former owner was happy: the other candidate wanted “to break it right away by going to Burning Man with it.” His machines deserved—he thought—a better afterlife.

It was a risky proposal nonetheless; we were about to embark on a three-thousand-mile road trip through Oregon, Washington State, and back to California on an old camper that, if we trusted our seller, could do the job —as long as we knew “how to drive it.” To a young family eager to discover and to make things work no matter the contingencies down the road, it was worth trying.

Arrival at Garibaldi, Tillamook Bay, Oregon (from our 2013 road trip)

Once at the grandparents’ home, we did little more than clean the interior, fill up the propane tank to test the cooktop and fridge, and check the oil before heading to Redwoods territory. We had only one appointment before that, for which we ventured into Central Valley on a day so hot that you could see the heat radiation pummeling the never-ending fruit orchards as we came from the distance.

The experience made us realize something very important: the Vanagon had no actual AC but airflow that blew as warm as the ambient temperature outside, and no cross ventilation or side window shade would prevent the van from getting scorching hot. We left Chico that same day, resting by the shade of some big trees before heading west as the temperature started to drop.

We camped as soon as we found a spot that looked calm and safe, popped the top, and fixed a meal. The children fell asleep soon after. We chatted a bit, realizing that it didn’t seem a bad idea: the compact VW “home on wheels” seemed to be working fine, with us sleeping on top and the three of them on the converted seats down below, with the caveat of having to move the luggage from the back each time we needed to use the seats as a bed. Each night, when they were ready for bed, we would clean dishes and put the food away, then move bags from the pop-top to the bottom once they were asleep.

We entered a world of magic right away. Driving through the CA 1 coastal road, even the huge semis carrying big douglas fir logs looked ridiculously small compared to the mammoth redwood stumps guarding every road turn. The girls wanted to know everything about those trees that reached the sky, like the magic beans from Jack and the Beanstalk.

Arrival at the land of the Tillamook

A few days later, the coastal landscape had transformed once the giant redwoods were behind. The rough Oregon coast was full of vista points with a bathroom and access to trails that made it easy for us to stop along the way every few miles to explore the surroundings and venture to places where we could see the fog coming towards sandy beaches peppered with pointed boulders and driftwood. Some of such places seemed remote, but then a town would bring us back to the Pacific Northwest standard: casual clothes, local organic co-ops, and gas stations forbidding self-service due to State laws.

“They make cheese here,” we said to the kids (Tillamook Bay, 2013)

We spent a day and a half in the small town of Garibaldi, the entry point of the Tillamook Bay, the cradle of the indigenous Tillamook people. We read that they lived in permanent cedar-plank dwellings, using whale oil and fish heads for lighting and a diet rich in seafood, berries, wild mustard, beaver, deer, and elk.

When the Lewis and Clark expedition visited the area in 1806, they recorded 2,400 natives living by the coast; their population was already dwindling due to settlers and imported diseases, and it would virtually vanish later on. There was little to see about that lost reality in Garibaldi; like in other blue-collar towns from the area, the economy still relies partly on logging and milling lumber, with little to no population growth.

But Tillamook rang more than one bell. The area’s current staple and livelihood is pervasive across the US —we were in the land of Tillamook cheese, no less, so we decided to visit the factory. I had seen the brand in supermarkets, but Kirsten explained to me that it was such a generational comfort food that people love-hated its flavor and color as much as peanut butter jelly. Unlike with other museums, our kids did enjoy the visit, which made them return to the magical world we had left behind after redwood country (if there was someone called Charlie with a chocolate factory, our oldest daughter mused, it made sense that other people could have their own favorite-food factories).

The story of Bayocean

Us adults felt more interest in the factory’s little museum, which displayed a chronology of the area’s history, including the story of the rise and fall of Bayocean, a massive resort community built in the early twentieth century that “had fallen into the sea.”

Inside the museum at the Tillamook Creamery (Tillamook, coastal Oregon)

Along with old black-and-white pictures displaying an entire resort built on a small, elongated forested peninsula with an inviting sandy beach, there was another set of rather disturbing old photos, similar to the ones we are getting more and more accustomed to seeing after big storms: mighty infrastructure turned into a shapeless rubbish amalgam, homes and big buildings engulfed by the ocean, and shifted sand dunes. As our kids grew excited with the prospect of getting some cheesy bread from the source, I grew fascinated by the findings at the museum:

“In 1906, real estate developer T. B. Potter promoted this 600-acre parcel as the ‘Atlantic City of the West.’ Potter bought the land, and by 1914 had sold more than 1,600 building lots. He put in paved roads, running water, electricity, telephone lines, a small railroad, a dance pavilion, and a 160-foot natatorium with heated ocean water, lighted waterfalls and a wave machine. Bayocean also boasted a post office, three hotels, tennis courts and bowling alley. But the resort never lived to T. B. Potter’s dream and struggled financially through World War I and the Great Depression. However, it took the Pacific Ocean to finish the town.”

A commercial poster promoted the community as “The Spirit of the West,” albeit “combined with the comforts and conveniences of the East.” The poster included a picture of the (conveniently fogless) ocean where one could read the motto “The Playground of the Pacific Northwest.”

The dream of bringing the refined style of the Eastern Seaboard to Tillamook Bay was a byproduct of mere chance in the early twentieth century, when oil prospectors were reinvesting wealth into real estate, new appliances for the home, automobiles, and airplanes. T. B. Potter, the son of a developer with a humble upbringing, had made an impact as a respected developer early on in his career, building over a dozen subdivisions in Kansas City, Portland, and San Francisco. A Portland-based, bigger-than-life character as the protagonist from There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview), Potter fell in love with the sandy arm on the western edge of Tillamook Bay.

T. B. Potter, developer of Bayocean, the community that would secure his posterity, though not the way he predicted

He was intrigued by the wild area along the scenic four-mile spit protecting the bay from the ocean, a long and narrow arm that, at some points, was a football field wide with little to no elevation on most parts but a few points where it reached 150 feet high. From the top, at the southern edge of the spit, T. B. Potter could see both the ocean and the bay. The place could become a miniature San Francisco, he thought.

Atlantis of Oregon: a resort town that fell into the sea

After buying the rights to the original homesteads, he formed the real estate company that would build Bayocean. With amenities such as a grand hotel, a swimming pool, and a boardwalk, the town would grow rapidly as people built houses on lots along newly created streets. Potter and his advisors weren’t that concerned about the risks of building on sand. Wasn’t Atlantic City built on sand a mere few feet above sea level, after all?

The works forged ahead to sell the era’s version of the American dream. A dock was built, and so did Bayside Boulevard, the main street. Employee housing, a natatorium, a bowling alley, the administration building, and the first cottages brought life to the spit.

The story of Bayocean, an utopian resort community that fell into the sea, Tillamook Bay, Oregon

But the area experienced big storms that washed some of the sand away, so the Potters joined other influential people in Portland to demand the construction of a jetty to calm the waters on the bay’s entrance. The plan seemed to have worked once the American Corps finished the works, and by 1914, houses were sprouting across Bayocean on 1,600 lots already sold. It was still hard to get to the area from Portland since sailing the Columbia River into the ocean was rocky, whereas the road was under construction.

By that time, T. B. Potter had gone insane, in part due to the stress around the project, dying at home in 1916. His descendants lost control of Bayocean to a court-mandated receivership, and nobody could make it financially viable ever since, speeding the collapse process.

The first scares arrived soon after. When people returned one summer in the late 1920s, many houses had been washed away by that year’s especially virulent winter storms, and the sand under the natatorium building was almost gone; the massive building seemed a storm away from falling into the sea. However, the road opening that finally connected the development to Portland, which took place in August 1928, attracted thousands of people to the big celebration. Bayocean seemed to have a bright future ahead.

The resort that left no trace

I was waiting for the coming days to commemorate a pop culture reference right in the area, which we hadn’t shared with the kids yet, for they were still young, and we had not watched any family movies yet. I carried a guide with me, and I knew that Haystack Rock, an iconic sea boulder that appears majestic in The Goonies, could be seen from the road and the long beach nearby, so we were planning to stop there. A museum dedicated to the movie was apparently still open a little to the north in Astoria, a big town with a few charming art deco buildings at the mouth of the Columbia River. The just-discovered story of Bayshore changed those plans.

When Bayocean wanted to be the Atlantic City of the West Coast; view from the hotel

I was quite disappointed that the guide I carried with me did not mention Bayocean. Locally, it must have felt like one Atlantis event, but everything seemed to have vanished. We asked a couple of locals who happened to have heard about it, albeit vaguely; it didn’t seem to be a big deal to them. To us, it clearly was.

“By 1939, the ocean had washed over the south end of Bayocean Peninsula and was eroding the shore by more than 16 feet each year. Major washouts occurred in 1942 and again in 1948. Finally, aided by a fierce storm, waves broke through the Bayocean Peninsula in November 1952. The resulting breach was nearly a mile wide at high tide and over 6 feet deep at low tide. The peninsula had become an island and the resort was abandoned.”

“Waves pushed tons of sand through the breach, covering over 1,000 acres of oyster beds and nearly halting all navigation within the bay. To protect the bay and the community, the US Army Corps of Engineers worked to repair the breach. In 1956, a 1.4-mile long, $1.75 million sand and rock breakwater was complete, once again linking Bayocean to the mainland.”

Amid the Great Depression, several families in fear of losing their homes moved them away in carts and barges up the Tillamook river. Storms had already destroyed the natatorium, and the hotel annex was already in ruins. The dreamy postcards showing pristine sand in a unique environment contrasted with a spit littered with concrete foundations torn apart and half-destroyed buildings where the sand had vanished. In the early to mid-forties, several storms ate away the dunes sustaining most houses in good condition near cape Meares; owners began to report looting in the area, from construction materials to furnishing.

Not “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” though they make cheese down there

During World War II amid the Pearl Harbor scare, the US government built a Naval Air Station not far from Tillamook to protect the coast, and cabins got rented for a while, but storms in the late forties made the road impassable at times. In 1952, another big storm opened a half-mile gap at the south end of the spit, creating a doomed island. What a story, we thought.

After our visit to Tillamook cheese’s factory, we drove to the area and a park created on the restored spit. Bayocean had left no trace —except signs marking the townsite area and two dates: 1906-1971.

Imagining a Central Asian city of the future

To early twentieth-century Soviet revolutionaries, the progress equivalent of building a resort on the US West Coast like Bayocean was to reclaim the empty deserts of Central Asia to build the civilization of the future. No other regions in the early Soviet Union were more subject to experimentation than the plains between the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, once the third lake in the world by surface (until Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers feeding it).

The region hosts the Studio-Ghibli-like rubble graveyards with Soviet ideals of technological progress; they are restricted areas in former Soviet republics that photographers like Danila Tkachenko have documented, displaying secret airplanes, ekranoplanes sitting in the middle of nowhere, derelict futuristic vessels, giant agrarian machines, or the massive abandoned hangars and equipment at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Central Asia spaceport opened by the USSR in the then-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Baikonur was for decades a “closed city,” a technological utopia sealed to the outside world that required travel authorization to visit or stay. Decades after the end of the Cold War, the town remains administered by Russia, while visitors still need pre-approval.

Machinery graveyard, Tillamook Bay, Oregon; logging and milling shaped the state

Decades before the opening of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in February 1955, utopian artists from the pre-Revolutionary Russian Futurism imagined a new world of expression —and a new perception of cities and civilization. Few artists were as admired by their peers and true to their vision as the poet Velimir Khlebnikov, a mathematician and linguist convinced of the transformational power of words. A critic of Stalinism, his aura persisted among Russian artists.

Here public dwelling-spaces, single fold,
rise upright, like pages of glass;
here they shouted, “No more stone!”
once human reason took control.
Glass blocks, transparent rectangles,
spheres, angles, expanses in flight,
transparent mounds, a concentrate
of clear glass honeycombs,
echoing streets built with these strange blocks,
and towering ramparts, dazzlingly white—
here we enter the City of the Sun,
where all is balance, order, and expanse.

Where the sky pours down from a beaker of blue
held in rusalka hands in the open dark,
and the scarlet sphere that domes the height
wreathed in hairfrost of glass, gleams
as its knowing eye probes night—now!
and a gaze that pierces heaven
flows ablaze into the ink of night.
This palace of the people now commands
the covering roof be rolled away
to contemplate the ranks of constellations
and amplify the law of retribution.

Opening of “The City of the Future” (Velimir Khlebnikov, 1920)

Glass honeycombs and flower-buildings

Khlebnikov was a precursor in the human perspective shift that was about to happen in the twentieth century amid the aviation boom and the space race: he wrote several celebrated poems in which he imagines the cities of the future as seen from above (an aerial perspective not yet materialized) rather than from the ground. Several of his urban utopian visions, like the poem The City of the Future (1920), depict new populations of people flying to “metallic trees” where “flying dwellings” fly to dock and undock like a plug-and-play metabolist building envisioned by the Japanese decades after (like the recently-demolished Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa).

Jiro in the airplane graveyard, “The Wind Rises” (Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 2013)

There’s another utopian city-building that we have visited in which I see the conceptual world imagined by the Russian futurist poet: Montreal’s Habitat 67, a unique experiment trying to achieve an equilibrium between density and livability (urban/suburban) conceived by architect Moshe Safdie for Montreal’s 1967 World’s Fair. Back in the summer of 2019, we had the chance to visit the building and see some of its apartments from the inside, thanks to the invitation by our host (and long-time resident) George Boynton.

Velimir Khlebnikov, who influenced the also-futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, dreamed of a utopian community in Central Asia of steel bays to accommodate individual glass living units that could fly in or fly away like bees around a honeycomb, allowing residents from the giant “clear glass honeycombs” to move from one building or city to another (by rail, steamship, or by air). The “blue strands of smooth glass homesteads” would hang out from a “tall pillar blossoming with dwelling spaces.”

Just when repression was undermining Trotskyist internationalism, Velimir Khlebnikov envisioned “flower-buildings” capable of rising “gracefully to an unattainable height; it had a dome of reddish matte glass, lacy railings that formed the edge of the calyx, and staircases of beautifully wrought steel.”

Is Saudi Arabia’s The Line for real?

One century after, the “cities of the future” conceived by Vladimir Mayakovsky on his poems don’t look out of place when reading about Saudi Arabia’s real estate project for a thriving post-oil economy: a part of a megaproject launched in 2017 by Mohammed Bin Salman, The Line sounds on paper even more unreal than the “glass honeycombs” described by the Russian poet.

Studio Ghibli-like post-industrial graveyard, Tillamook Bay

Initially, The Line consisted of building two twin skyscrapers running in parallel 650 feet (200 meters) to provide space for transportation, shopping, greenery, and outdoor living in the in-between corridor, only the skyscrapers would run along the desert near Tabuk (on the Red Sea near Egypt and Jordan) for 105 miles (170 kilometers), featuring an exterior mirrored facade (?).

Originally planned for 9 million people, the 105-miles-long narrow stretch got a sobering update, downgrading the initial vision to a more realistic (yet still quite challenging and fantastic) twin-skyscraper stretching 1.5 miles before 2030, a small initial portion compared to the original 10-mile first chunk. Despite the project’s reality check, if it gets built—and, indeed, the site works are underway—will still become the world’s largest building, a “city-building” arcology with the usable space of 60 Empire State buildings. It could host up to 200,000 residents.

In interviews, Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal Al Ibrahim declared that the project’s long-term ambitions remain the same. Can a desert sustainably host the population of New York City? Neom is already building infrastructure for millions of people: a giant airport, a high-speed train crossing a 20-mile-long mountain tunnel, and several water desalination plants.

A very Shakespearean posse of young Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who imagined sci-fi cities in Central Asia

Some of the published renders seem out of the poems by Velimir Khlebnikov; a mirrored architectural continuum on the outside that transforms into a metabolist-like metropolis inside, with structures finding order out of apparent randomness like “clear glass honeycombs” and “flower buildings rising to unattainable height” in the middle of the desert, only the poet’s imagined steam train will be a fast train, and no flying cars will be moving back and forth (yet?).

From sand to glass

The Line could cost Saudi Arabia over $500 billion, half of the country’s GDP, but experts say these estimates are unrealistically low: the first 1.5 miles have an internal cost estimate of $100 billion. Just imagining the total available space for the entire 105 miles is difficult to fathom:

“Internal documents from 2021 call for more than seven billion square feet of floor space—29% larger than all of the buildings in New York City put together and the size of more than 2,000 Empire State Buildings. Apartments, offices, schools, police stations, museums and a royal palace would be peppered inside.”

World’s Biggest Construction Project Gets a Reality Check, WSJ, by Eliot Brown and Rory Jones (May 7, 2024).

There have been attempts to build a linear city in the past, but the concept is at odds with historical urbanism precedents across the world. Are the 2020s much different from T. B. Potter’s 1920s? Bayocean was a small, mainly decentralized project that intended to attract vacationers building their own structure on their purchased lot.

The Line wouldn’t risk falling into the sea, though it will need to defy the need for astronomical funding, the area’s unstable geopolitics, a desert climate, and the control of a unitary absolute monarchy that, despite its modernization efforts, is still defined by traditional Islamist lines.

At least on paper, the project’s details would not feel out of place in Velimir Khlebnikov’s world:

I will remember forever
the joy of these transparent walls.
Scour this city, you winds; move evenly
over this network of cellules and meshes,
over these glass books, opening their pages,
over these axial needle-towers,
over this forest of austere surfaces.
Book-buildings, palace of pages,
glassy volumes on display,
the whole city is a sheet of reflecting windows,
a flute in fate’s uncompromising hand.
And like the shoulder-strap of a barge-hauler
wearily dragging the sky behind him,
you cast glass canyons far and wide,
you have cut the pages of this volume of glass
and opened it, like some huge book.
Waves of transparent weave you curl one on another,
floor upon floor you pile beyond exhaustion;
you speak, and words resound in lions’ mouths;
you multiply in mirror-fragment multitudes.

Final verses of “The City of the Future” (Velimir Khlebnikov, 1920)

As for the campervan, it managed to bring us places without major issues. That summer of 2013, we ended up covering almost 3,000 miles. At the end of our trip, we had just enough time to sell the van for the same price we had paid for it two months before.