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Cool Places by Satellite: Conspicuous Consumption
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3. Is this ALL I’m getting for Christmas?

Here are some of the world's most over-the-top architectural indulgences, in approximate chronological order.

Satellite view
The Florentine Gondi banking family often invited King Louis XIII of France to hunt in the marshes and forests in and around Versailles, at that time a village of 600 or so about 16 km (10 miles) southwest of Paris. Louis purchased some land there in 1622 and built a small hunting lodge, which he enlarged into a palace between 1632 and 1634.

Louis XIV
Fanciful depiction of Louis XIV as Sun King
His son and successor Louis XIV decided to move his entire act to VERSAILLES and further expanded the building and its grounds in four phases. Able to throw his weight around much more than his dad ever did, sometimes he simply took what he wanted which most famously included seizing the VAUX-LE-VICOMTE estate from his own finance minister Nicolas Fouquet. Its furniture, potted orange trees, statues and 100-odd tapestries found themselves in their new home at Versailles. Fouquet himself never again saw the light of day.

What really stands out in a satellite view is the network of gardens behind (west of) the palace. For this task Louis hired André Le Nôtre, who not coincidentally had also designed the landscaping for Fouquet. The gardens originally contained some 1400 fountains and spouts which would have drawn 6 million liters (1.6 million gallons) of water hourly.

There must be a thousand stories about Versailles, but perhaps the eeriest is the Moberly-Jourdain Incident. Two teachers visiting from England on August 10, 1901 claimed to have experienced a time slip. As they approached the Petit Trianon in the gardens northwest of the main palace their vantage suddenly dissolved into an 18th century mise en scène. They saw whom they later inferred to be Marie Antoinette and one of her more historically obscure confidantes, the smallpox-scarred Compte de Vaudreuil.

Satellite view
Not nearly as opulent but by far one of the weirdest structures is the WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE in San Jose, California, 80 km (50 miles) south of San Francisco. According to the popular story, which has never really been verified, when Sarah Winchester lost her husband, William Wirt Winchester of the family who owned the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, a medium advised her to move from her Connecticut home to California and build a new house for herself and the ghosts of the many thousands who had been killed by all those rifles. If the construction ever stopped, Sarah would die (or the ghosts would be unhappy, or something); so she kept her carpenters sawing and pounding away around the clock from 1884 until she died, from perfectly natural causes, in 1922.

Her inheritance furnished about $350,000 annually, so to the delight of local building contractors money was no object. The house was seven stories tall in 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake struck and seriously damaged it. Thereafter it continued at four stories. According to the Mystery House’s official website, there are 40 bedrooms; 40 staircases, many of which end abruptly against a wall or ceiling; over 1200 windows; 47 fireplaces; 950 or so doors of all descriptions, not a few of which have no floor on the other side of them; and 3 elevators, one of which moves horizontally.

Satellite view
Spelling as extra in Alfred Hitchcock Presents
© Universal Media Studios
Aaron Spelling (1923-2006) was undisputed television royalty in the US and much of the rest of the world for many years. He and his cohorts created and/or produced the Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dynasty, Vega$, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and innumerable other shows and made-for-TV movies.

But Spelling was most especially “famous” to his neighbors, who tried in vain to dissuade him, for the SPECTACULAR FORTRESS he built for himself and his cantankerous family on six acres of prime real estate bordering the Los Angeles Country Club. It has 120-plus rooms including a bowling alley, Olympic swimming pool, gymnasium, theater, four bars, three kitchens, eight two-car garages, and even a gift-wrapping room (some say two) and a museum for his wife Candy’s spectacular doll collection. It’s built on earthquake-resistant rollers.

Published estimates for the value of the lot and house range wildly between around $60 and $150 million. Tabloids say Candy has secretly put it all up for sale. She denies this vehemently, though considering that she’s rattling around in there with little but all those dolls for company these days, I would imagine it’s more a matter of when than if.

Update: In July 2011 Formula One racing heiress/socialite Petra Stunt bought the manor for $85 million, down from the asking price of $150 million. Now, as of early 2016, she's itching to sell it. For $150 million.

Nicolae Ceausescu
To give the devil his due, Nicolae Ceauşescu condemned the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and advanced some pretty liberal ideas for a Cold War Stalinist dictator. Nonetheless his megalomania lurked just barely beneath the surface and throughout most of his rule he answered to no one. He exported food his fellow Romanians desperately needed, and by way of his draconian policies to effect Sound of Music-sized families he engendered 100,000 superfluous children who would be abandoned and go on to live in unimaginable squalor.

Satellite view
Inspired on a visit to Kim Il-sung in North Korea (more about him below), Ceauşescu decided to build for his Minnesota-sized country what he hoped to be the world’s largest and most lavish governmental structure, now best known as the PALACE OF THE PARLIAMENT. He lucked out when a 7.4 earthquake trashed much of Bucharest in 1977 including a number of historic buildings at the city’s center. Rather than restore them, crews cleared away the rubble and razed 28 additional churches and synagogues and several hundred homes.

Seven hundred-odd architects contributed to the palace’s eclectic Romanesque/Baroque/Victorian/Fascist aesthetic and construction began in 1983. It stands 12 stories above the ground and at least 8 below. There are 1100 rooms with a total floor area of around 330,000 square meters (3.5 million square feet). Its materials and furnishings, quite unlike all those orphanages, are strictly five-star. There are literally acres of oriental carpeting, much of which had to be woven on-site; similar expanses and profusions of wooden inlay and marble; and some 480 crystal chandeliers, the largest of which weighs 3 tons and burns 7000 light bulbs.

Nick and Elena never lived to see their utopian pipe dream to completion let alone move into it, having come out second best after a summary trial and a hail of bullets from two AK-47 assault rifles. Much of the interior and several of the sub-basements still remain unfinished, but Romania’s current government has put the Palace to excellent use and it’s quite rightfully one of Bucharest’s most popular tourist attractions.

Satellite view
Istana Nurul Iman
© Peter & Jackie Main
At this writing, most acknowledge the world’s largest private residence to be the ISTĀNA NURUL IMĀN (“Palace of Religious Light”) of the Sultan of Brunei on the north coast of Borneo. Trees hide most of its splendor from ground level although it’s opened to the public during the annual Hari Raya Aidilfitri marking the end of Ramadan for southeast Asian Moslems.

Its floor space is only three-fifths that of the Palace of the Parliament above, but it blocks out 700 more rooms. It also has 84 more chandeliers, giving it, say, a twice-as-bright chandelier-per-acre ratio of about 11.5 versus 5.9 above. The Sultan’s and the Ceauşescus’ palaces went up at roughly the same time, so no doubt both parties were quite aware of each other and probably compared and pondered all sorts of extravagant statistics.

Pay no attention, Ladies and Gentlemen, to that hulking 105-STORY CONCRETE PYRAMID smack dab in the center of North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang. Do not attempt to make reservations for any of its 3000 rooms, nor for any tables in its seven once-hoped-to-be-revolving restaurants.

Satellite view
The firm of Baikdoosan Architects and Engineers, to whose everlasting embarrassment Google appears to associate with no other project, broke ground on the Ryugyong Hotel on August 28, 1987. The original completion target for June 1989 came and went, and by 1992 Kim Il Sung’s government had burned through $750 million and there was no more money. All construction stopped.

Pyongyang still dreams of raising through foreign investors the $300 to $550 million it would take to reinforce and finish out the Ryugyong, though it’s not clear to most non-North Koreans what purpose such a Ceauşescuesque monstrosity would serve. Remember, we’re talking about a country so poor it shuts off most of its electric power service after 9 PM and couldn’t stave off widespread starvation during the 1990s that had people foraging for bark and leaves and may have claimed as many as two million lives.

The Ryugyong has long since been airbrushed out of North Korea’s postcards, maps, and brochures. When asked, local tour guides often claim not to know where it is. It crumbles and sags more and more, of course, the longer it stands out there unsealed against the weather. Meanwhile the Korean Central News Agency continues to gush over its late dictator:

The whole life of the respected leader Kim Il Sung is a history of the majestic sun. He worked heart and soul, going through all kinds of hardships and privations, and decorated the breath-taking 20th century with the legendary miracles and great feats that would be immortal for all ages.

Update: In April 2008 the Egyptian firm Orascom Construction Industries resumed work on the Ryugyong. As of late 2010 an attractive outer skin of glass had been installed, although due to serious underlying structural problems (out-of-plumb elevator shafts, etc.) it hasn’t yet been established how much of the building will ever be habitable.

Next: Say amen, somebody
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