After All: a one-house ‘city’, a cul-de-sac town and a two-room country
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As travel restrictions are being gradually lifted, our columnist invites the readers to virtually visit three more quirky venues from his collection of techno oddities.
I recently received the following email from reader Peter Chapman in Canada (reproduced with his kind permission):
“Hi Vitali, I thought it was an April Fool! The recent edition of E&T Magazine arrived in my mailbox, here in Ottawa, on April 1st. So having read your article entitled ‘From my collection of techno oddities you never knew existed’, I tried to determine which of your three places was the one to fool us. I thought it a little strange, as the magazine was dated March 2021 and would have arrived in most members’ mailboxes long before April 1. So, out of curiosity, I checked, and much to my surprise, discovered they are all real. I am now planning to visit Coober Pedy, when we are again able to travel, as it is close to my daughter’s home in Adelaide. The places you described were all strange enough to potentially have me fooled. Thank you for the entertainment!”
Let me assure you, dear readers, that having you ‘fooled’ was the least of my intentions. The aim of that column was to introduce you to my ever-growing collection of the world’s quirkiest places, made special by technology. I thought the idea would work well at the height of the strictest pandemic-induced lockdown, when the scope of our travels was reduced to unhurried hikes from lounges to bedrooms, and back.
With the restrictions slowly easing up (at least for UK readers), I invite you to three more highly unusual techno venues from my collection.
The ‘city’ (as it insists on being described) of Whittier on the shores of Prince William Sound in Alaska, which I visited in 2000, could market itself as the world’s only one-house municipality, for nearly all its 205 residents then lived in one 14-storeyed Begich Tower, Alaska’s tallest building.
Whittier’s history is fascinating. Not long after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands during the Second World War, the US Army began looking for a spot for a secret military installation. The proposed base needed to be an ice-free port and as inaccessible as possible. Whittier fitted the bill, thanks to 3,500ft (1,066m) peaks that surround it and keep it hidden in cloud cover for much of the year. To provide access to the Seward Highway to the north, the Army blasted a supply tunnel out of solid granite, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel remains one of Alaska’s great engineering marvels. Completion of the tunnel led to construction of what at the time was the largest building in Alaska to house more than 1,000 workers.
The Army maintained Whittier until 1960, leaving behind the 14-storey Begich Tower, where most of Whittier’s residents still live today.
The Tower has all necessary conveniences: shops, restaurants, a launderette, a post office, a museum, a beauty salon, a church and even a small B&B on the top two floors, with lovely views of the Sound. There used to be a small jail there too, but it had to close for lack of offenders. One floor is occupied by the ‘city government’, including the Mayor, known here as the City Manager, and three key departments: administration, public safety and public works .
To be precise, only 204 people resided in the skyscraper at the time of my visit: one maverick had chosen to escape the high-rise hustle and bustle by settling down in an abandoned bus, terminally parked in the harbour.
Radburn, a community in Bergen County, New Jersey, (present-day population: 25,000) is the world’s only town where everyone lives in cul-de-sacs instead of streets or roads.
When Clarence Stein was commissioned in 1929 to design a Masterplan for the Radburn estate, he set out to build a “garden city for the motor age”. His main goal was to create a safe place to raise children in the age of the automobile, and his primary method of doing so was to separate vehicular traffic from pedestrians and reduce inherent conflicts of the contact between the two.
The housing layout used at Radburn was the first to create a pedestrian circulation system that allowed people to walk to the local centre, park and school without the need to cross a road by using cul-de-sacs pointing into the centre of each block (I checked it – and it still works!). Those cul-de-sacs provided car access to the front of each house.
The first ever cul-de-sac was credited to Louis de Soissons in his plan for Welwyn Garden City, UK, but this was just a way of opening up the centre of larger blocks, otherwise all the houses fronted onto a network of streets that, in the pre-car age, were the domain of the coal man and the milkman. In Radburn, the entire layout was predicated on cul-de-sacs and the street network was thus confined to history.
Contrary to popular belief, the world’s smallest state is not the Vatican, but its next-door neighbour – the Sovereign and Military Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta – the name, which is more often than not abbreviated to the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta, or simply the SMOM.
With no official territory since the loss of the island of Malta in 1798 (except for a couple of temporary office rooms inside Palazzo Malta in Central Rome, five minutes’ walk from the Spanish Steps), and the population fluctuating between zero and three, it has formal diplomatic relations with 115 other states and its own red-and-white flag. It issues its own passports, stamps, coins, and licence plates.
But where is the technology angle, you may ask? Here it comes. The SMOM owns and runs a substantial fleet of several hundred cargo planes, which it uses for its humanitarian missions. An interesting fact: when after the Second World War Italy was temporarily banned from possessing an air force, it transferred several SM.82 transport planes to the SMOM instead of scrapping them. The Knights operated the aircraft independently.
Allow me now to congratulate all readers on the glorious 150th anniversary of the IET and to express my deep-felt hope that all its spectacular sites will fully reopen soon.
‘The Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels’ by Vitali Vitaliev is published by Thrust Books.
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