The 10 greatest white elephants

Thursday 18 July 2013 11.52 BST

The 10 greatest white elephants


Benidorm’s In Tempo is the latest huge construction project to end up unused. Here are nine more examples from history

Benidorm’s In Tempo building. Photograph:

Sometimes man’s optimism knows no bounds. In a bad way. Take yourself back to 2005, when people would’ve given themselves hernias laughing if you suggested the world was about to be plunged into a crisis that would make the Great Depression look puny. The European property market was at its frothiest, with developers throwing up luxury apartments and offices at the slightest excuse. In Spain they went a bit wilder than most. As a result, when the sun set of this fantasy in 2008, many cities found themselves lumbered with zombie projects.It’s not exactly possible to say that the scarred hulk of In Tempo, Europe’s tallest apartment building, has robbed Benidorm of itsunderstated charm. And the Dubai-esque twin towers are, incomplete, only a bit more of an eyesore than if they’d been finished. But nobody likes a white elephant. And this is what In Tempo has become, as a new bank tries desperately to recoup some of the money originally sprayed at it by lenders Caixa Galicia.

White elephants may not be popular, but they can have their charms. The ones that survive into old age can even end up being rather appealing. Let’s take a look at nine more of the greatest wastes of money, time and space in modern history:

Bridge to Russky Island

There’s something characteristically Putinesque about this macho gesture, to link the 5,000 inhabitants of Russky Island with their neighbours in the larger city of Vladivostock (population 600,000). The bridge cost more than $1bn and was built by the federal government as part of preparations for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit 2012, which lasted all of two days.

Ryungyong Hotel

Everyone’s favourite modern-day white elephant, the Ryungyong Hotel, was begun in 1987 and still doesn’t seem to have admitted any visitors. Dominating Pyongyang, it boasts 3,000 rooms, roughly the number of western tourists that visit North Korea in a year.

Blenheim Palace


Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Photograph: Alamy

It looks like it came off OK, doesn’t it? But Blenheim was one of those “problem palaces” almost from the word go. In recognition of his achievements on the battlefield, a grateful nation and the queen promised to build the Duke of Marlborough a residence fit for a hero. Precisely what form that would take, and how much it would cost, was left a bit vague. Years of wrangling followed, with construction proceeding in fits and starts and not ending until after the Duke’s death in 1722.

New South China Mall

If there’s a building that could rival In Tempo for credit-crunch pathos, it’s boomtime China’s deserted giant mall in Dongguan. Opened in 2005, it was expected to welcome 100,000 visitors a day, but remains largely empty. Dongguan’s inhabitants, mainly migrant workers, aren’t yet rich enough to be able spend their Sundays wandering, increasingly hopeless, through claustrophobic corridors of tat.



Brasilia’s cathedral during its construction in the late 1950s. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

OK, this is a bit cheeky. But Brasilia, a whole city, is surely a contender for biggest white elephant of them all. Politicians had long dreamed of “opening up the interior” of the country, and planting a new capital in the middle of the Brazilian highlands seemed like a good way to go about it. And while architecture fans marvel at the purity of the vision, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s hundreds of miles from Brazil’s main centres of industry and population. At weekends, those who can vote with their feet and head for São Paulo and Rio.

Cincinnati subway

The underground train system planned – and half built – for Cincinnati was another casualty of the economic storms of the 20s and 30s. Voted for by residents in 1916, the subway’s original $6m budget was shot to pieces by inflation in the aftermath of the second world war. In the end, only 11 miles of the planned 16-mile route was completed, and no trains ever went anywhere.

Henri Christophe’s fortress


Aerial view of La Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti. Photograph: Getty

Henri Christophe, the black king of post-revolutionary Haiti, started building Citadelle La Ferrière in 1805 to defend against French forces that he believed would try to take the island back. The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 enslaved workers 15 years to build, and sits at the summit of a 900m peak. Not one of its hundreds of thousands of stockpiled cannonballs was ever fired. It remained unfinished at the time of Henri Christophe’s death: in fact his corpse was pushed into a vat of quicklime used by builders, to stop it from being torn apart by vengeful mutineers.

Maginot line

The Maginot line was a clever ruse to prevent a German invasion of France which cost around 5bn francs and took 10 years to build in the 1930s. A series of state-of-the-art shelters and fortifications along the shared border, in the event the Germans just went around it, via Belgium. Ten days later they were in Paris.

Columbia Road market


Columbia Road Market, from an engraving in the London Illustrated News. Photograph: Public doman

Now just a byword for hipster-led gentrification, Columbia Road Marketwas once a gigantic philanthropic venture. Founded by Lady Burdett-Coutts in 1869, it was intended to provide space for costermongers from across the east end. Street sellers could not be lured into its cavernous gothic precincts, however, and it closed in 1884. It was finally demolished in 1958 after lying derelict for years.

Empire State Building


The dirigible Columbia fails in an attempt to pick up mail from the mooring mast of the Empire State Building in this photo from September 1930. Photograph: AP

It may be an icon of New York, but fortune has rarely smiled on the Empire State Building. Planned during the roaring 20s, by the time it was complete, the Great Depression was in full swing. It opened with only around fifth of the building let (equipped with a docking station for airships that didn’t work), and didn’t make a profit until 1950. Even these days about 30% of the skyscraper remains empty.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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