Inside this issue
Exploring New Islands
Artificial Landscapes are Spectacular but Challenging
Alastair Bonnett is a travel writer and professor of geography at Newcastle University. His books have been translated into nineteen languages and include 'Off the Map', 'Beyond the Map' and 'The Age of Islands'.
Artificial islands are sprouting from many seas at a speed and on a scale never seen before. I spent two years exploring these extraordinary landscapes (The Age of Islands, published in the USA as Elsewhere). I wanted to capture their oddity and vision as well as the dusty, half-finished reality. Whether it is the dozens of islands massing off the Chinese mainland or the growing fleet that provide iconic offshore skylines in the Gulf States, they are monuments to both creativity and hubris.
New islands are flat, usually busy with construction, and they are often hard to get to. They throw up many challenges. All I know for sure were the clichés I wanted to avoid. Most new build islands have a lot of publicity, nearly always involving futuristic computer simulations and swooping drone footage. A bird’s eye view can capture their jewel like quality. But these distant images lack intimacy and have the torpid blandness that clings to all promotional bling. Maps can provide a more creative way to achieve a panoptic perspective. There are good reasons why maps enliven the pages of so many adventure stories. Labels like ‘cave’, ‘treasure’ and ‘secret base’ are impossible to resist and point to the fun and drama of off-kilter landscapes. I created home-spun, hand drawn maps of the islands I visited, like this one of Ocean Reef, the super exclusive islands that offer security and tranquillity to their rich residents a mere 30 seconds drive from Panama City.
The Age of Islands uses mixed methods - maps, interviews, narratives, as well as photographs - to give the feel of these unique sites. Since many of my Chinese examples are found in the waters below coastal mountains, I spent hours trudging upwards with the hope of seeing islands in their widest possible setting. The best views of the huge and still-growing island that accommodates Hong Kong International Airport are from the glass-bottomed cable cars that trundle tourists up a local peak.