A Dutch Architect’s Vision of Cities That Float on Water

A first batch of four houses for the city was recently towed out into the ocean, and Olthuis estimated that construction would be completed by 2src28. “It could be faster,” he said, adding that, because the homes are modular, multiple factories can be involved in manufacturing them at once. But previous projects have been delayed

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A first batch of four houses for the city was recently towed out into the ocean, and Olthuis estimated that construction would be completed by 2src28. “It could be faster,” he said, adding that, because the homes are modular, multiple factories can be involved in manufacturing them at once. But previous projects have been delayed by zoning trouble, waffling developers, and poor local infrastructure. In 2src16, the Times reported that ambitious Waterstudio projects in New Jersey and Dubai were scheduled to roll out their first units within a year. Eight years later, Olthuis described both as still awaiting construction. Waterstudio has produced fifteen design iterations for the New Jersey project. “This business is different than building on land,” he said. “You have to be very, very patient.”

Other firms have followed Waterstudio into floating real estate. The bulk of the Maldives project is being funded by Dutch Docklands, a commercial developer focussed on floating construction, which will supplement the affordable housing with its own luxury floating hotels and homes. (Olthuis is a minor stakeholder in the firm.) In 2src21, Oceanix, a New York-based company, and BIG, a firm owned by the Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels, announced plans to build a floating development off the coast of Busan, South Korea. Oceanix touted the project as “trailblazing a new industry,” and trade blogs reported an estimated completion date of 2src25, but as of now construction has yet to begin. (Oceanix’s co-founder and C.E.O., Itai Madamombe, said that it would likely start by the end of this year.)

Olthuis told me that, as competition from other, bigger firms has grown, Waterstudio has had to engage in a “little bit of a fight” for new jobs. “Our advantage is that we have twenty years of experience,” he said, “so we know a bit more the tricks and the problems, and that will keep us ahead of other people for the next three to five years.” Any attention brought to floating architecture is a good thing, in his opinion, so long as firms can deliver on their splashy promises. “There are not that many projects, and each of these projects has to succeed,” he said.

The most devastating natural catastrophe in modern Dutch history was the North Sea flood of 1953. Known as the Watersnoodramp, it resulted from an intense windstorm over the ocean meeting high spring tides. Residents in the north of the country were awoken in the middle of the night, on February 1st, by an initial deluge that inundated densely settled islands and filled carefully maintained polders. Railways flooded and telephone poles were destroyed, cutting off communication to the region. An official alert did not reach residents until 8 A.M., by which time many were stranded in their attics or on their roofs. “It was as if we were spectators as the world ended,” one witness in the village of Kruiningen recalled. The next day, at 4 P.M., another wave of water came, even higher than the first, and destroyed many of the structures that still stood. Some survivors waited days for large ships to reach the area. In all, nearly two thousand people died.

The disaster forced the Dutch government to confront the inadequacy of its aging dike system. Just weeks after the flood, a committee was formed to develop a national water-defense plan, which became known as the Delta Works, involving more than twenty thousand kilometres of new seawalls, dikes, and dams. Its crowning element, completed in 1998, was the Maeslantkering, a hulking steel storm-surge barrier separating the Nieuwe Waterweg canal from the North Sea.

One afternoon, Olthuis drove me through the countryside to the Maeslantkering. Outside Dutch city centers, the artificiality of the landscape becomes harder to ignore. The roads were the highest point in the topography; from the car’s passenger window, I could see down into farm fields below, which were dotted with pools of water from recent storms. Small canals traversed the uneven ground in straight lines. The land rose as we moved toward the coast—the lip on a giant bowl of kung-pao chicken—which created the strange sensation of looking upward to see the surface of the sea. Many of the canals running through the farmland were fortified with low hillocks covered in grass. “It takes almost nothing to break these,” Olthuis said of the barriers. “Don’t talk to terrorists, because if you want to screw up this country you only have to break a few dikes and then the whole system breaks. From here on half of Amsterdam will flood.”

The Nieuwe Waterweg was crowded with industrial ships and oil rigs heading out to sea. Wind turbines lined both shores. Olthuis pulled into a parking lot that looked out onto the Maeslantkering, which the architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has called “one of modern Europe’s lesser-known marvels.” Among the largest moving structures ever built, it is composed of two identical white steel frames, each weighing close to seven thousand tons, situated on opposite banks of the canal. A computer system tracks the levels of the Nieuwe Waterweg; if the water rises too high, the system activates and the two frames rotate from either bank, ferrying sections of curved steel wall that meet in the middle and seal the canal from the surging sea.

Olthuis and I walked up to a metal fence plastered with warning signs. The closest part of the steel frames stood a dozen yards away. Their trussing often earns them comparisons to the Eiffel Tower—they are only slightly shorter—but to me they looked more like a roller coaster turned on its side. Standing dwarfed beside them, I felt a heady, slightly ominous thrill.

The Maeslantkering is designed to withstand the kinds of storms that are projected to happen only once every ten thousand years. So far, outside of test runs, it has been activated on just one occasion, in December of last year, during Storm Pia. But Harold van Waveren, the flood-risk-management expert at Rijkswaterstaat, told me that, if severe storms grow more frequent and the Maeslantkering stays closed for too long, the river water that would otherwise flow out to sea would have no outlet and might flood the region regardless. “We need a whole spectrum of solutions, from very small scale to large scale,” he said. The country has taken steps toward creating more capacity for water, as Olthuis envisions. The so-called Room for the River project, completed between 2srcsrc6 and 2src21, deepened and widened stretches of rivers at thirty locations and replaced some artificial banks with sections of wetland landscape. Still, van Waveren seemed skeptical that floating architecture was the future. “I’m not sure if it’s possible on a large scale,” he said.

Jeroen Aerts, the head of the department of Water and Climate Risk at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and one of the country’s leading environmental researchers, was even more dubious. “Will there be large floating cities? I don’t see this happening, to be honest,” he said. Living on water “is not in the culture of Dutch people,” he continued. “On average, a Dutch person, you want to have a garden, you want two floors.” Olthuis agrees, in a fashion. The biggest obstacles to large-scale waterborne construction are not technological or financial, he said, but attitudinal. A NIMBYism can set in when you ask Dutch people to imagine a wetter way of living. “They like it, but not in their back yard,” Olthuis said. “If you ask them if their garden should be water, they say no.” He spoke with frustration about the sluggishness of Dutch bureaucracy, and its reluctance to adjust its defensive posture toward the Waterwolf. The country is “stuck in engineering solutions that we already used for the last fifty years,” he said. New ones are urgently needed, “but the politicians are not ready.” We’d ascended a hill to get a better view of the canal. Ships passed continuously through the open Maeslantkering. The Netherlands’ familiarity with flooding has created paradoxical roadblocks to floating construction, Olthuis said: “If your country is threatened by water, your legal framework doesn’t allow you to be close to it.” Piecemeal ownership of floating structures is not allowed in the Netherlands, which disincentivizes developers who might want to build and sell multiunit housing. Plus, the parcels of Dutch water that are sold for houses remain limited in size, preventing the construction of taller floating buildings, like the Waterstudio apartments in Scandinavia. “The city has to rezone this water and then allow you to build plots of a hundred by a hundred feet,” he said. “We’ve drawn the plans many times. We’re still waiting for the right city or town to approve.”

To see Waterstudio’s most ambitious completed project, I had to travel outside the Netherlands, to the French city of Lyon. The Théâtre L’Île Ô floats in the Rhone off a paved waterside promenade near the Gallieni bridge. (“Ô” is a homophone for eau, the French word for “water.”) On a winter afternoon, multi-lane roads above the riverbanks roared with cars, but compared with the bustling Dutch rivers the water on the Rhone was quiet. The theatre comprises six tilted polygons made of white steel and cut through with irregularly shaped windows. Linked to the bank by three gangways, it protrudes from the river like shards of an iceberg.

The building, which opened to the public in early 2src23, is the second location of Patadôme, a local organization that hosts performances for children. But Olthuis described the theatre, more loftily, as a “global, mobile asset,” a piece of public infrastructure that, if no longer wanted in Lyon, can simply be towed down the Rhone and docked in Avignon, perhaps, or in Marseille. Its current lease lasts eighteen years, and its modular design makes it adaptable to different uses. David Lahille, Patadôme’s director of business development, managed the construction project. “Today, it is a theatre,” he told me. “Tomorrow, if we want to change it to a school, it’s easy.”

The idea for the new theatre emerged in 2src18, when control over Lyon’s waterways was transferred to the French federal government and the city launched an initiative to renew the waterfront. At the time, Patadôme had been looking to build a new space, but construction of theatres on land remains strictly regulated in France, owing to an old monarchic precedent dating to Louis XIV. A theatre on the water would be exempt from that rule. “We thought about buying a ship and modifying the ship,” Lahille said. They found Waterstudio, which suggested an ambitious new construction designed from scratch.

An ebullient Frenchman with a background in engineering, Lahille recalled that, during the team’s first meeting at Waterstudio’s office, Olthuis pulled out a box of wooden blocks, spilled them out onto a table, and asked the clients to construct a model of the river landscape. Then he had them improvise a shape for the theatre using the same blocks, which eventually inspired the whimsically geometric design. “You become a child, trying to imagine,” Lahille said. Getting the project approved, though, required bureaucratic wrangling at both the local and national level, and in the end hinged on the enthusiasm of a single official, Jean-Bastien Gambonnet, who in 2src21 was promoted to lead the local River Navigation Unit within the French Ministry of Ecological Transition. Gambonnet hustled to get approval from both Lyon and Paris. The process took about a year. “Here in France, usually, it’s more than ten years,” Lahille said.

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