A more successful fan-built Minas Tirith, made out of sand
Every time I hold a book from The Lord of the Rings in my hands, I immediately flip toward the maps in the back. JRR Tolkien was a master of world-making, devoting thousands of pages of notes to Middle Earth’s history, languages, genealogies, and geography, beyond The Hobbit and LOTR themselves. Tolkien’s mythic landscapes range from “Little England” pastoralism to volcanic wastelands under the thrall of a demi-god. It’s no surprise that someone, eventually, would want to recreate a piece of them on this earth.
A recent Indiegogo campaign called Realise Minas Tirith, organized by a group of architects headed by Jonathan Wilson, attempted to raise £1.85 billion to build a life-size, functional replica of Minas Tirith in southern England. In exchange for investment, crowdfunders could receive anything from “A Night in Minas Tirith” to “Lordship/Ladyship of the City.” It seems Minas Tirith would, essentially, be an amusement park, a very grand and expensive evolution of the “hobbit hotels” that have sprung up everywhere from New Zealand to Montana. The fascinating part of this project, though, would have been the architects’ plan to make Minas Tirith a livable city, with both residential and commercial properties.
The campaign peaked after raising about £85,000 ($173,000 CDN), which, while enormous, might only be enough to build a hobbit hole rather than a fortress-city. However, the idea of a tourist resort/amusement park doubling as a functional, livable city is one that could very well surface again. People living in Barcelona’s Barri Gotic or Venice essentially put up with the very same thing, though mass tourism showed up at their centuries’ old doors. Personally, I’m convinced that there are people who would want to live in Minas Tirith, England, though maybe not permanently, and possibly only as amusement park employees. If the architects really wanted Minas Tirith to be more than a resort, engineering a 700-foot-tall fortress would only be the beginning. What exactly would people do for a living? How would they get there? There is a reason that the most successful cities built from scratch are national capitals: a government shipping off to a new capital brings its administrative jobs along with it.
However, even those developments that have attracted people and industries have rarely succeeded as lively, beloved places. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil famously based on Le Corbusier’s towers-in-the-park symmetry, is as lauded for its monumental architecture and design as it is criticized as one of the most boring cities on Earth. Capitals like Canberra and New Delhi also suffer from reputations as boring places, as do England’s mid-century New Towns like Milton Keynes. Why?
Minas Tirith Replica More an Attraction Than a Place to Call Home
People like to have some amount of control over their environments, or at least imagine that they could when they see others make changes in their neighbourhoods. Over-controlled communities become places where residents sleep and leave. They turn their backs on the public space because the public space has no place for them. Minas Tirith would be a great place for LOTR fans to visit, and a terrible place to live, unless you’re okay with the idea of living out your life as a butcher in your own live LOTR fanfic.
Very serious LOTR fans cosplaying
Maybe it is silly to take this architectural pipedream too seriously, but there was one tidbit in the Realise Minas Tirith campaign that proved to me that, even if it had raised £2 billion, it wasn’t a city they were building. For a £100,000 contribution, one could become a “Lord/Lady of the City.” The title, “grants you and your family exclusive access to all areas of the city, excluding private residences and businesses.” Mostly, I imagine the Citadel on the seventh tier locking its door to Minas Tirith’s resident lembas vendors, with the Court of the Fountain and the rocky outcrop that looks down on the whole fortress reserved for one last tier of ticketholders. The campaigners couldn’t envision their project as anything more than a resort, even if they tried.
Previously, the kind of replication that transforms cinematic fantasies into a reality has been contained in amusement parks and waxwork museums. Realise Minas Tirith came out of a desire to evolve fantasy from a vacation experience to an everyday experience. It is no longer enough to observe the cabinet of curiosities, but now one has to miniaturize oneself and become a figure in the diorama. In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco writes, “the frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.” On a tour of Californian and Floridian mansions and museums like the Hearst Castle (Xanadu), the Ringling Museum, and the Getty Villa in Malibu, Eco hypothesizes that an absence of the past in Sun Belt states leads to a gluttony for bricolage: pieces of authentic, old European art assembled together with fake connective tissue into fantasies of history.
The Minas Tirith project seems to come from a nostalgia for a past that never existed. To take one of Eco’s examples, the Getty Villa is a reproduction of a Roman villa that was itself a reproduction of Greek civilization. But rather than glory in the dissolution of authentic and fake, the way a waxwork museum does, the Getty Villa is built on the premise that there is an authentic past. Minas Tirith would be built on the premise that, because we have read and loved Tolkien’s novels, Minas Tirith belongs to a past that is more meaningful than the past that has actually happened. The past is a thing that happened to others, most of them dead. Minas Tirith happened to us, Tolkien’s readers and fans.