A fisherman walks on the frozen surface of a lake in Zheleznogorsk, Russia, with satellite dishes of a local space-communication center in the background. The town produced plutonium in Soviet times and is now a closed community. Reuters/Ilya Naymushin

Alastair Bonnett uncovers some of the globe's most cloistered places—and argues some should stay that way.

Who doesn’t want to get away from it all sometimes? The problem is, as you may have noticed, away from it all is perhaps the only place that’s hard to find in this Google-mapped, GPSed, geotagged age.

It’s quite a trick to get lost these days, but in his fascinating new book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett catalogues dozens of different locations where one can, in effect, fall off the map of the known world. He also makes an excellent case for leaving some places permanently unmapped.

Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University in England, and his résumé includes a stint editing a short-lived “avant-garde psychogeographical magazine” called Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration. His book, however, is in no way academic or abstruse. It is, rather, a conversational, thoroughly researched, and very engaging armchair tour of what might be seen as a parallel planet to the one we live in every day—one in which nothing is ordinary.

Our guide begins by explaining his dismay at the way people have become “much better at destroying places than building them.” His inspiration for searching out the world’s unsullied, unexpected nooks and crannies has been fueled by his distaste for what he calls “generic blandscapes,” the homogenized nonplaces that have crept inexorably over the Earth’s surface—the endlessly replicated strip malls and interchanges, the prefab subdivisions, the food courts and parking lots, the roadside wastelands on the way from one thing to the next.

So he takes us to places that are anything but bland: the city of Zheleznogorsk, a secret during Soviet times because of its function as a plutonium production center, and now a voluntarily closed community; the Principality of Sealand, an island off the British coast proclaimed an independent state by a retired military man in 1967, briefly a harbor for unsavory internet businesses, and now once again uninhabited; the cloistered, all-male, celibate Greek Orthodox enclave of the Mount Athos peninsula; the residential RV community in the parking lot of LAX Airport.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Each of these places is, in its own way, unmappable, unfathomable, incapable of being described by simple geographic coordinates (though Bonnett includes those, when possible). Bonnett thinks such places are also vital to our humanity. He argues that “topophilia,” or love of place, is as core to the human experience as the love of living things, or biophilia, described by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Topophilia, as outlined in Bonnett’s deft and charming prose, can extend to a fox den or to an artificial ice island created by an oil company in the Arctic to support its drilling activities. It can encompass a city, such as Leningrad, that is now obscured (though not obliterated) by renaming. Topophilia can even extend to a place such as Sandy Island, which was long depicted on maps of the South Pacific and even on Google Earth—before it was determined, by a visiting ship in 2012, that no such piece of land exists.

Why does a “phantom place” such as Sandy Island matter? In Bonnett’s words, “It matters because today, although we live with the expectation that the world is fully visible and exhaustively known, we also want and need places that allow our imagination to roam unimpeded.” For that journey to nowhere and everywhere at once, Alastair Bonnett is a most excellent traveling companion.

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. Two men plant a young tree in a lot in Detroit.
    Environment

    Why Detroit Residents Pushed Back Against Tree-Planting

    Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.

  4. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
    Design

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  5. A gun-control rally in Pittsburgh's Market Square, Saturday, March 24, 2018.
    Equity

    Inside Pittsburgh's Battle Over Gun Control Laws

    Pittsburgh could be the bellwether city in Pennsylvania, defying state law to pass gun control ordinances, but first it has to get past its own district attorney.