Co.Design

Homes, Once Loved, Now Owned by Desert

An old village in Namibia once home to diamond miners is now home to a trackless desert.

Anyone hungry for a foretaste of the End Times, see here: Alvaro Sanchez-Montañes's indoor photos of an abandoned desert mining town paint a haunting portrait of earth after people.

The shots, snapped in Kolmanskop, Namibia, show sand, sand, and more sand. Homes once filled with German diamond miners are now knee-deep in dunes. Doors knocked off their hinges hang eerily in place. And walls and trim in shlocky Teutonic hues have been wind- and sand-blasted practically beyond recognition. This is the desert's home now.

Kolmanskop was discovered in the first decade of the 1900s, after a black worker, Zacharias Lewala, found a diamond in the sand (and made the mistake of showing it to his greedy German boss). Within two years, hundreds of fortune hunters descended on this unforgiving patch of desert just a few miles inland off the coast of south-western Africa. The area, apparently, was so flush with diamonds, you could snatch them off the dunes at night, using the moon as your torch.

In its heyday, Kolmanskop had a raft of stately homes, a butchery, a bakery, a furniture factory, a soda water and lemonade plant, a ballroom, a hospital (complete with an X-ray machine), a playground, and somehow a swimming pool. Buildings here were a sanctuary—a reprieve from the extreme bleakness all around.

Not any more, as Sanchez-Montañes makes abundantly clear. By the 1930s, the diamond fields dried up and people moved out. The last family left in the 1950s. In the years since, sand encroached inexorably on the buildings like water on a sinking ship, as one expert describes it. Nowadays, the ghost town is a tourist destination and an occasional film spot. It was featured in the excellent History Channel show Life After People as an example of what the world will look like when humans are wiped off the face of the planet.

The photographs remind us of Robert Polidori's eerie shots of New Orleans after Katrina. Polidori trained his haughty New Yorker eye on storm-ravaged interiors, most of them people-free (except in this controversial case), and somehow, that managed to be more powerful than anything the A-list newspaper photogs captured. Sanchez-Montañes gives us a similar effect. Both sets of photographs seem to suggest that doomsday is already here.

[Images courtesy of Alvaro Sanchez-Montañes]

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