Images of Colonial Foolishness

The Grande Hotel, immortalized on vinyl by Os Rebeldes.

If you’ve read prior blogs here, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of urban history, particularly ruins and long-forgotten or hidden places urban explorers like to investigate and film or photograph. There’s something innately hypnotic about a place that once entertained thousands (or millions) over decades, and was shuttered, abandoned, and allowed to disintegrate.

Perhaps more intriguing than corporate apathy and neglect towards an urban venue – hotel, cinema, apartment block, giant mental health complex – are vestiges of colonialism. Basically big things built by crazy white folks because their ego demanded some element of Euro-styled civilization needed to exist in an unlikely, extreme, or downright foolish location.

I can’t recall the name or exact place, but I remember reading about an old hunting lodge in Africa, built by the British in some far off, isolatedlocale. Decades later, the stately manor lay abandoned, and hikers stopped by while en route to a higher mountain peak. Many were impressed by the mahogany trimmings and massive fireplace, even though the building was merely a pit stop – elegant, but generally just a place to relieve the bladder.

The Grande Hotel was erected by the ruling Portuguese in the beautiful city of Beira, Mozambique, and while a luxury hotel in Africa isn’t a nutty concept, building a white elephant is. 120 rooms in a sprawling complex that required heavy maintenance by a large staff. One suspects the decision to limit rooms was for the benefit of  elite white folks who could be pampered by local black folks, like some European transplantation of the American plantation system.

Much can be read in the hotel’s failure to succeed over its roughly 11 years of operation, and what’s left has been documented by Belgian filmmaker Lotte Stoops in her 2010 film Grande Hotel [M].

Her take is more sociological, and while the camera crew captured many details of the building as a functioning social environment (see trailer), fans of structural urban decay (what else can you call it?) probably want more visual images, and they're out there.

In terms of archival images, few exist, but this Portuguese language page (please note annoying pop-up) offers some vintage touristy postcard images, shots of what seem to be the hotel during its final days as a conference centre before Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975, and snapshots of the hotel’s current state.

YouTube also offers a few archival videos. One shows Beira as a striking bustling industrial city (likely filmed in the late sixties / early seventies) with a quick glimpse of the hotel; a second video focuses on the construction boom with a present day visit to a handful of areas; a third offers before / after images of key city and industrial structures (including the hotel, apparently photographed in 1967); and finally a fourth is comprised of stills edited into a lengthy montage made by a tourist who visited the hotel.

Perhaps more telling of its current social state is a British news report regarding the now 3500 squatters that inhabit the complex. Unlike Stoops’ doc, the news report contains images of what the director chose to omit from her filmic overview – rats on the ground level, filth and garbage, and less flattering images of human biology.

Flickr has become a great resource for ‘visiting’ forbidden or faraway places from home, and a great showcase for some fine photography which captures the sadness of a neglected or rotting edifice, and the beauty of the light and shadows of an abandoned, stripped bare room.

A simple keyword search offers up the following cascade of present day images, whereas another search reveals a few rare vintage colour stills of the hotel, and the striking colonial buildings that sought to inject clean modernist designs with blocky, geometric sensibilities.

George Stevens' alternate location for "Giant"

A more striking example of colonial grandeur and foolishness is the old Bokor Hill Station in Cambodia, made to serve the French colonialists wanting more moderate temperatures for their staycations.

One traveler has a series of short videos documenting the location, the palace hotel, casino, and environs.

Flickr also offers a few photo montages, such as this striking set, and this keyword search which gathers a fine array of misty images from inside and outside of the main buildings.

It is easy to ridicule the efforts of former colonial powers – there’s a sense of Fitzcarraldo (1982) in these grand endeavors – but from a present day vantage, the images conjure an interest in comparing what was, and what is; why things were seemingly allowed to decay or be returned to Nature; the effects of civil war on surviving structures; and whether the restoration or adulation for the past grandeur could be construed as a validation of a kind of virtuous colonialism.

Canada is a former colony of the British and the French, and the continuing ties to the British monarchy were long ago glossed over with the term Commonwealth rather than colony, but there is an inherent fascination among some for the exotic days of elegance in tropical, chilly, or remote locales.

It’s the idea of building big, far and wide, and where you shouldn’t. And it’s seeing these relics – structurally, at least – as enduring, deliberate statements of colonial ego: a massive man-made structure on a barren mountain that can be seen far away by average citizens.

Imagine the CN Tower as a hollow concrete shell with a barbed wire fence, protecting the derelict structure from squatters, souvenir hunters, falling glass, or metal hawkers. The history books would tell us it was built to relay TV and radio signals, but it’s a corporate statement of self-importance, legible from miles and miles away.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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