words Justin McGuirk
I’m on a beach in a zeppelin hangar surrounded by palm trees and Germans.
If this white sand was where it’s pretending to be it probably would have been churned up by the tsunami. But it’s safely removed, an hour’s drive east of Berlin. It’s beautifully sunny out – but not in here. On the other hand it’s warm inside and a biting January day outside. Already I’m weighing up the pros and cons – I’m not sure I can enjoy myself here.
Yesterday I was still in Egypt, where in my entire holiday the only I experienced was when Dido came on the radio. Today I’m in the Tropical Islands resort in Niederlausitz, where everything is out of place. There’s a rainforest, a lagoon with waterfalls and a Khmer civilisation portal carved with demons’ faces. All of this is shielded from the winter by a giant steel dome.
Artificial holiday environments are becoming more and more common. These days even Butlins can boast Eden Project-style biodomes. Tropical Islands is where these two phenomena meet – it feels much like a public-baths-cum-botanical-garden – except on a more ambitious scale. Its oval dome is the largest free-standing hall in the world (the hangar in Toulouse in which the new Airbus A380 was built is actually bigger but is supported by columns). At 360m long and 107m high, it would fit comfortably over Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, buildings and all. The resort is like a 1970s vision of a post-apocalyptic future. A miniature world sealed against the outer one, it is an accidental collision of monumental architecture and a fantasy package holiday.
And it couldn’t be in a stranger place. Located on what was once the former East Germany’s largest military airbase, the dome is surrounded by the relics of the Cold War. On the approach from a deserted railway platform in the middle of a pine forest, you pass crumbling barracks and overgrown concrete bunkers. It is an eerie overture to what the brochure describes as “My Paradise”.
The provenance of the dome is equally incongruous. Made of steel with a PVC membrane, it was built in 1997 as a hangar for the construction of zeppelins. A German firm had planned to use the airships for hauling freight but managed to bankrupt itself instead. In 2002 a Malaysian entrepreneur called Colin Au bought it. The head of an Asian-Pacific cruise line, Au decided that, rather than just sailing northern Europeans around the tropics, he would bring the tropics to northern Europe. He spent €20m on the structure and €50m on the tropical contents. “In the beginning, when someone told us that a Malaysian guy wanted to plant palm trees in it we thought it was a bit strange,” says Jürgen Grothe, partner at Berlin-based architect CL Map and one of the dome’s designers, “but if it’s not going to be used for building airships then this is probably the second best idea for it.”
Inevitably, the dome’s sheer presence shames the theme park architecture within it. The bars and restaurants mimic a range of styles: there’s a Thai house on stilts, Kenyan mud huts, some sort of pagoda thing. It’s as though you shook a mammoth snow globe and a pan-tropical mish-mash settled on the ground. Bringing a confusing authenticity to the scene is the occasional cluster of “indigenous” locals: Balinese women in gilt getups, Brazilian dancers, Indian musicians. Smiling good naturedly, they have been flown in to entertain the “local” locals: Brandenburgers and Berliners lounging in Speedos over tall beers or padding about sullenly in bathrobes. To me, everyone out of costume looks out of place, but they all seem to be taking this experience in their stride. “It’s interesting to have this beach with a big metal structure. A bit strange but cool,” says Chris, a nurse from Berlin.
It amazes me that people aren’t tilting their heads back the whole time. This dome is somehow beyond scale. As a backdrop to a palm tree it becomes an abstracted wall of grey in the middle distance. Then you notice one of the fire trucks parked at one end, seemingly toy sized, and you appreciate just how far away that wall is, and that its expanse is roughly equivalent to the amount of sky you can fit in your field of vision. A smooth mountain of ribs and girders, the structure has a machine-age simplicity of purpose that somehow befits a zeppelin hangar, but built on a post-industrial scale. By virtue of its vastness alone it possesses a baroque excess. If only the hangar doors weren’t sealed – what a spectacle to see them grind open. But then none of these elderly ladies would be able to wear their thongs.
As architecture, the dome serves one basic role: to keep out the elements. The whole enterprise is founded on the meticulously controlled indoor climate. The resort has its own power plant to keep temperatures at a balmy 25-28° all year round. However, the manipulated climate isn’t just to create perfect swimming conditions; it’s for the rainforest. An international team of botanists was brought in, under the supervision of landscape architect Burle Marx, to make it authentic. And if the 500 species and 14,000 plants weren’t real enough, they are brought to life by the chirruping of insects. The noise seems to be coming from those rocks, which, it turns out, are speakers. Rising up in the strange, echoing acoustic of the dome, this soundtrack overlaps the one that greets you at the entrance. There, monkey calls mingle with the sound of waves breaking. Ah, nature.
Theme park environments always strive for a degree of verisimilitude, but most often fall short knowingly, halting at the recognisable and letting either tackiness or a diminished scale prevent their visitors being confused. With the white sand and “genuine” rainforest, Colin Au’s people have taken the other route, which is to make the artifice so natural that it is almost beyond question. But there is no escaping that dome. And so in the absence of a real sky there is a diorama of the sun and a few wispy clouds projected onto a screen behind the South Seas pool. It could be the set of Bob Hope’s 1940 comedy, Road to Singapore.
This generic tropicalism is right out of the theme park rulebook. Condensing cultures into bite-sized signifiers is rule number one. Just as Vegas shrinks pharaonic Egypt, New York and Venice into casino-sized tasters, so the stepping stones of the Indian and Pacific Oceans have been dropped within steps of each other. Tropical Islands provides the holiday givens – warm weather and clear waters – with a cultural variety pack: nasi goreng or Thai curry under your choice of pointy hut (although I notice most people are opting for sausages and chips).
Au is planning more Tropical Islands resorts. With so few suitable structures lying around, he will have to build them from scratch. Grothe, who hopes to figure in the plans, asserts that they will be smaller than this one and built largely of ETFE, a transparent plastic that lets in UV light and that was used for the domes of the Eden Project. For one thing, that would look the part. “If you actually built it for a holiday resort it would be different, not so industrial,” he says. “I’ve heard some people complaining it doesn’t look like a holiday place.” On the south side of the dome, ETFE is already replacing the PVC membrane, which should make up for the resort’s biggest shortfall: lack of sunlight. The extra light will be essential to the success of the forest, and will also make the hundreds of sun loungers feel less like they’re taunting you.
But to build more holiday domes suggests a confidence in the demand for more. And in a world of international terrorism and devastating natural disasters, one can imagine the growth of a new kind of tourism. Such ersatz destinations are the tourism equivalent of a Chinese takeaway – cheap and effortless exoticism. A day in the Brandenburg tropics costs just €20. It’s not crowded in here today, but in the three weeks since it opened it has drawn 100,000 visitors.
On the darkening railway platform I discuss the experience with a lady who is also returning to Berlin. She seems to agree that despite its utter bizarreness, its superlative dimensions and its conflicting context, Tropical Islands is really quite mundane. “It was interesting to see it,” she says, “and maybe I’ll go back … in 20 years.”