Forgotten structures (pt. 3) — Kolmanskop

‘Kolmanskop has slowly been conquered by the power of nature’ — C. Marvil

In this blog — titled ‘forgotten structures’ — abandoned developments of the 20th century, littered across the globe, are brought back to life. With the aid of photography collections and archival memoirs, we explore the legacy of intriguing structural ruins which time has slowly left behind. Each week, a new case is introduced and added to the list. Ultimately, the blog will construct a comprehensive collection of structural gems which deserve to be remembered. In doing so, we debate the general question of ‘what should be done with abandoned structures?’

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasureRumi

This week we explore Kolmanskop, an abandoned ghost town in the Namib desert (Namibia). Located in south-western Africa, around 10km inland from the port town of Lüderitz, Kolmanskop was once a small but prosperous German mining settlement. After the town’s prospecting operations ceased, however, Kolmanskop was left vacant, and the desert has slowly reclaimed the buildings which residents have long since abandoned. This blog will delve into the history and origins of the settlement, before debating the key themes which beset Kolmanskop — industrialisation, social migration and desertification. While doing so, a collection of archival photographs are presented to showcase the hauntingly beautiful and surreal landscape which remains.

Founded in 1908, when a passing rail worker in the area discovered a diamond nestling in the sand dunes and showed it to his supervisor, Kolmanskop initially thrived as an industrial town. Realising the area’s economic potential, German miners began settlement and, in the space of only a few years, turned the district into one of Africa’s wealthiest regions. Some even claimed it to be one of the world’s richest towns per capita, due to its relatively low population. When the mines dried up, however, the town’s working community hastily departed and headed for the newly discovered diamond-bearing deposits in the south of the country. What differentiates Kolmanskop from the many other colonial mining towns of Namibia, however, is its remarkable life post-settlement.

The town itself, which lay completely barren before the discovery of diamonds, was largely developed in line with German styles of architecture and would go on to house a range of amenities and institutions. These included a hospital, a ballroom, a power station, a school, skittle-alley, theatre, casino and even the southern hemisphere's first x-ray-station. With the wealthy residents in mind, buildings in the town were brightly coloured and lavishly decorated with the best furnishing and fittings. Added to this, the settlers would develop the first tram in Africa, which served as a means of transporting both residents and the diamonds to and from the coastal port of Lüderitz. At its peak, Kolmanskop housed nearly 1,200 residents from some 700 families.

In 1912, after only four of production, Kolmanskop produced one million carats of diamonds — nearly 12% of the world’s total at the time. The desert floor was systematically scraped clean when new machinery were introduced to recover the precious stones. The introduction of such technology played a huge role in the growth and high production rate of the town, with giant electric shovels meaning the diamond-filled sand could be shifted a truck-load at a time. However, by the end of World War I the town’s mines were beginning to become exhausted and Kolmanskop’s boom appeared to be coming to an end. The 1930’s brought a further decline in production and, come the mid 1950’s, the town was entirely abandoned.

Following the mass exodus of Kolmanskop’s residents and workers, the town was left to the forces of mother nature. However, rather than wither away from memory and turn into a forgotten scene in the middle of the Namib desert, Kolmanskop has become one of Namibia’s most recognisable scenes and one of the most visited abandoned sites in the world. Nearly 60 years of brutal desert conditions — including intense sand-storms and long droughts — has taken its toll on the ghost town in the dry lands of south-west Africa.

The sand dunes have risen and fearlessly reclaimed what was once theirs. Metal screens sheltering the town’s structures have long since collapsed and most doors and windows have been blown out with sand filling the rooms. This notwithstanding, the decaying town has been beneficial to some. Most notably, those interested in photography. The ground where a functioning community once resided, has now become a photographer’s paradise and the sand-filled buildings have become iconic examples of the force of nature.

Kolmanskop serves as a powerful reminder of the legacy which prefabricated industrial towns, set up with the sole intention of exploiting a finite natural resource, will ultimately create. As resources are used up and money is made, people move on. Today, Kolmanskop sits in a restricted zone — controlled by the Namdeb Diamond Corporation, a joint venture owned by De Beers and the Namibian government — which visitors are able to explore with the correct permit. There, they can wander through the abandoned town and experience the remarkable ruins, overwhelmed by nature, which remain. It has become a key site for those interested in photography and exploration, ensuring the memory of Kolmanskop has remained well into the 21st century.

Despite its eerie intrigue, the sun-bleached town is a striking indication of how changing industries and economies can leave a destructive mark on the landscape. The story of Kolmanskop is a fascinating tale of incredible wealth and prosperity, quickly followed by a sudden and rapid decline. It may be more appropriate to discuss such towns as seasonal developments. Established as part of a larger project, closed when the objective is reached and left to the forces of nature thereafter. Quite simply, Kolmanskop was a moment in time. As the years have passed and the town has crumbled away, there is something pleasing about the mythical thought of the desert taking back the space which it rightfully owns. And, as the photos illustrate, it has created a remarkable scene.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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