"Who among us hasn’t at one point wanted to ditch it all and start afresh on a desert island?" So says George Petrie when I call him at his Houston home. Petrie is director of engineering at the Seasteading Institute, a US-based think tank dedicated to the creation of independent sovereign states on the world’s seas as an alternative to "today’s political systems".
"The bad news is that there are no deserted islands left," he continues. "Every piece of land on the planet has been claimed by at least one country. So you need to build your own island, so to speak."
The concept of floating utopian principalities may well smack of blue-sky thinking, but politics aside, it does touch upon two salient issues at hand that are threatening to hamstring some of the world’s largest cities.
In line with rising urbanisation, city infrastructures are facing unprecedented space constraints. And with the world’s population forecasted to hit nine billion in 2015, the endemic is showing no signs of dissipating. There is also the insidious threat of rising tides to consider – the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will have risen by 18-59cm by 2100.
Given that several of the world’s metropolises, including the likes of New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney and Mumbai, are found on the coast, governments and city planners may soon face the tough task of either having to extend conurbations further into the hinterland, or break out beyond their seafronts and build on water.
It would seem that many would do well to follow the lead of the Netherlands. With about 50% of land lying below sea level, the country has notably spent centuries constructing dams, dykes and canals in order to fend off water. However, according to Koen Olthuis, founder of Dutch-based architecture firm Waterstudio, in recent years this approach has parlayed into "embracing" the country’s nexus of waterways.
"The Netherlands has effectively been an artificial country for hundreds of years," he says. "We have always fought against water for one reason – to get space. However, these days, this entails actually working with it. And it’s not just for here – it can apply to anywhere."
Olthuis, who was once ranked by readers of TIME magazine as the 122nd most influential person in the world, is a trailblazer in the field of aqua architecture. In his homeland, he has played a pivotal part in the development of water houses, such as those found in Amsterdam’s IJburg district, the world’s first floating residential neighbourhood.
The buildings are supported by moored, pontoon-like structures comprised of foam bodies encased in concrete – not dissimilar to the floating structures used in the offshore industry.
As a result, Amsterdam has effectively adjusted and expanded its parameters to house citizens.
And, as Olthuis infers, such projects aren’t solely confined to his homeland.
Through his other venture, Dutch Docklands, he is in the process of transferring the practice to the Maldives. Commissioned by former president Mohamed Nasheed, the firm is currently engineering a floating golf course and resort in the region, which will be interconnected by a network of underwater tunnels. The project is set to cost in the region of $500m and should be completed by 2015.
The South Pacific archipelago – at the mercy of its surrounding waters since time immemorial – could benefit exponentially from the development. The resort has been designed to ramp up the country’s tourism trade – essential to its economy – while also paving the way for further residential floating structures in the future.
"The idea is that if you can build a floating golf course, you can use the same technology for floating housing, as well as agriculture and energy," he says. "There’s a market emerging in terms of challenging urbanisation and climate change. The project in the Maldives could make a real impact in this area."
Sink or swim
Across the Bay of Bengal, Thailand is facing a similar danger. Bangkok, built on silt and swampland, is slowly sinking. Throw in a booming urban density – the city’s population has passed the ten million mark – and the capital’s future hangs uncomfortably in the balance.
In response, local architects such as S+PBA are looking beyond the banks of the brimming Chao Phraya River as a means of sustainably freeing up space – particularly pertinent given the country’s ill-conceived deforestation programmes of the past.
Last year, the group published a paper entitled ‘A Post-Diluvian Future’ addressing the possibility of building on water. The report proposes the construction of the artificial city ‘Wetropolis’, in which communities would be housed on a set of floating modular structures, framed by a network of bridge-like steel arcs.
"Wetropolis may be the only way for people living along the coastal areas to survive," says Songsuda Adhibai, a senior partner at the firm. "The design would certainly minimise our footprint, as well. Our aim is for it to be a city with a low impact on the natural environment, where humans can co-exist with nature symbiotically."
As well as bridging sociological and ecological gaps, some believe that building on water may, in fact, offer an additional aesthetical boon to cities, especially with regards to the revival of disused and dilapidated harbours and seafronts.
Christophe Egret is one such proponent of this argument. Egret, who contributed to the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) 2010 report ‘Facing up to Rising Sea Levels’, is a founding partner of London-based architecture practice Studio Egret West.
In October, the firm won planning commission to design and construct London’s Floating Village around the city’s Royal Docks. Work is set to commence after the 2012 Olympics.
"We are hoping that the village could symbolise the regeneration of the docks and really animate the space, which has been empty for so long," he says. "It will house a swimming pool, as well as restaurants, cafés and bars. Also, the beautiful thing about a floating structure, such as a pontoon, is that it is mobile and can be moved from A to B if needs be."
The architectural community would appear to be in agreement that, in terms of technology, building on water is more than viable. Today’s cruise megaships, which can carry over 3,000 passengers, are commonly cited as the "If they can, why can’t we?" benchmark. The same goes for offshore platforms, upon which personnel can be billeted for several months at a time.
According to Olthuis, the real challenge may come in convincing the general public that such structures offer real social benefits, as opposed to mere novelty factor and architectural grandstanding.
"For us, the biggest battle is to change perceptions; the minds of normal people," he says. "That is to say that living on water can be exactly the same as on land, and that space on water is just as valuable."
Nonetheless, Olthuis has gone some way towards dispelling such scepticism, as demonstrated by his latest project, the Sea Tree.
Issued at the start of the year, the rendering of a multitiered tower located in the heart of New York’s Upper Bay – designed as a haven for flora and fauna endangered by urban pollution – was met with considerable public interest as a result of its ingenuity.
In light of such efforts, we may well see more architects follow suit in reimagining water: not as an intractable force of nature, but that of prized and abundant real estate, which could sustain the urban landscape for many generations
And, who knows, George Petrie’s vision of autonomous kingdoms on the waves may one day not seem so radical after all.
This article was first published in our sister publication The LEAF Review.