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Desert Dreams and Techno-Utopian Nightmares
The Complex History of California City and the Colonial Gaze Towards the Desert
Ezgi İşbilen
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Despite being some of the harshest environments to design for and inhabit, deserts are considered some of the most malleable in our imagination. Countless military bases, proving grounds, gunneries, and practice fields that simulate other locales prove that in military imagination, deserts are nondescript proxy spaces waiting to be filled with the character of whatever location they are to imitate. The developers’ imagination is not far behind. Through a historical case study of California City, an ambitiously planned but only partially built desert development project, and unpacking of the terms “desert” and “wasteland,” this essay examines the colonial gaze towards the desert that often shapes our perceptions of this unique environment and exposes the fallacies in our thinking that lead us to imagine deserts as a blank slate waiting to be transformed. The paper also highlights the dangers of overconfidence in technology to create techno-utopias and the need to acknowledge the reality of the desert’s harsh environment in any planning or development.

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