Monday, January 19, 2009


(Misrach Salton Sea photo)

+SEA CHANGE: the inevitable rise of water and the rethinking of urban coastal conditions

“While impelled by necessity, the first Venetians did not go to those marshes so long ago empty-handed, without the benefit of civilization. They brought with them three things: ideas, techniques, and a perspective of the world--how nature works, how people might change nature, and how the world in the future might be different from the world they had known in the past. Today, we are in a position in relation to the environment of our entire planet similar to that of the ancient settlers of Venice in relation to the marshes of the Adriatic. We see problems shifting before us whose solutions are unclear” (Botkin 4).

The world’s sea level is rising. This is an undeniable fact. This condition is not new, and has been gradually occurring since the last ice age. Until recently, the rate of change was incremental enough that natural systems were able to adapt (Barnett, et al 14). Sea level has been rising at a rate of 1.8mm per year for the past century, and has increased to a rate of 3.1mm/year from 1993-2000. Global warming is not a threat in the distant future, but rather threatens the present with its continuous gradual increase in water. Its damage has already begun. In 2007, rising sea level swallowed the first human populated island of Lochara (site). This is only the first.
The problem with rising sea levels is not predicting whether it will happen, but rather predicting the rate at which it will occur. At present, global temperature increases affect the melting of major ice sheets. This process accelerates sea level rise worldwide. Scientists have multiple models working to determine the timing and quantity of water. However, they vary greatly. Moderate estimates suggest that sea level will increase by one foot by 2050, with an accelerated rate of change to follow—most likely 3 feet by 2100. The predictions tend to describe the rate of change as exponential rather than linear. Disagreements occur in determining the steepness of the curve. The affects of change will also vary drastically as some portions of the world’s continents are subsiding, some are rising, and coastal edges fluctuate according to changing tides (Barnet et al 16). This makes both preventative and reactionary measures difficult. The scale of impact is indeterminable, and the problems may be too devstating to wait to react to.
Moreover, the threat does not limit itself to the distant islands off the coast of Papa New Guinea, but rather threatens every place of habitation in close proximity to a body of water. Given that water takes up 71% of the Earth’s surface, and most urban areas were settled on water for fortification, production, trade, and natural resources, the threat becomes gargantuan in scale. It does not limit itself to Amsterdam, Venice, and New Orleans, but the majority of cities everywhere. In fact, a projection of the world’s population by Doxiades for the end of the 21st century shows the majority of population concentrated on the coasts.
This thesis begins with the premise that sea levels are rising, and the majority of cities are anchored to bodies of water, and therefore should use the impending change as a catalyst for an alternate form of urbanization. Historically, engineering technologies always pose methods of keeping water out. The scale and vigor of combat can increase to attack some of the most grueling flooding conditions. However, what happens if the problem is simply restated? Instead of keeping water out of habitation, people can begin to inhabit water. This thesis poses an urban condition on the water. In this thesis, water plays the paradoxical role of both the enemy and the only hope for survival. In its manifestation, the design poses a functional way of living on water, but hopes to also emphasize the beauty and playful nature of water. Water in all its ferocity still remains sublime. As the most threatening substance, it is simultaneously of utmost beauty.

This section discusses relevant and related precedents to the issues of water, urbanism, and sea-level rising. I will group projects as existing cities on water, and projects or mechanisms for inhabiting the water.

water cities
There are numerous cities that continuously combat water. These “water cities,” as I define them, already positioned in naturally unsuitable locations on water or below sea level face constant calibration with the ever-present threat. In particular, Venice, the famous city built on the water, has been paramount in discussion for all other cities that deal with water. It is the marker of success. Everyone references it. In Venice, the Tourist Maze, Davis and Marvin state, “Venice remains the ultimate realization of this particular urban vision: so much so that no one would ever think to call it ‘the Amsterdam of the Adriatic.’ Rather, it is other cities that are, or aspire to be, ‘the Venice of the North,’ ‘...of the East,’ ‘...of Asia,’ and finally, ‘...of California,’ which is, of course, simply Venice, California.’ However, this city is an old model, constantly struggling against rising sea levels to preserve its museum-like presence (144). In Venice, Against the Sea, John Keahey references Professor Rinaldo on as saying, “Venice is like a person trying to run forward [by] looking backwards: “[look at] how good we were; how great we were!” Venice is trapped between a huge past and no future.” This implies that Venice’s relationship to the water is an outdated model. It was revolutionary in its implementation, but currently struggles just to subside (261). This poses the question that I hope to explore for my thesis: what is the city built on water of the future?
Discordant Harmonies, a book devoted to studying new ecology for the 21st century, also opens with a discussion of Venice. The epigraph of my essay comes from this book. Botkin uses a photograph of Santa Maria della Salute to begin discussion. The foundation of the church was said to be made by driving 1,106,657 trunks of alder, oak and larch into the muddy lagoon to build a foundation. Submerging these tree trunks under water protected them from air, and therefore decaying. Invading Lombards destroying the Roman Empire forced Venetians to move to the defensible marshlands. The Venetians faced the problem of stabilizing the ground, and had to use their available ideas and technologies to survive (4). This still serves as the foundation today. What are the ideas, techniques, and perspective of the world today that we can use to address urbanism and rising sea-levels?
Other notable water cities include Tenochtitlan, located in present day Mexico City, Bangkok, and Amsterdam. Tenochtitlan and its chinampas were a floating city on a lake for the Aztec Indians. The city was comprised of “narrow, rectangular beds or platforms, which are constructed by alternating layers of lake mud and thick mats of decaying vegetation (cespedes) over shallow lake bottoms, or in marshy zones” (Calnek 105). Water became controlled in such a way to be inhabited and produce agriculture through the chinampas. Another city whose relationship to the water is no longer as apparent is Bangkok. Today its system of canals has largely been converted to roads and sewage, still contains other water dependent activities, such as its floating markets, ie Damnoen Saduak.
On the other hand, Amsterdam is a city who is very conscious of its relationship to the water. Constantly striving for innovation and methods of serving its growing population, Amsterdam continuously reinvents itself as a mechanism of survival. There are many contemporary solutions to be discussed in the next section.

inhabiting water
Beginning with the Netherlands, many innovative projects introduce unique ways of inhabiting the water. In particular, a new urban project, IJmeer, is currently under construction in a lake outside of Amsterdam that is the construction site of a new district. With the inevitable problems of flooding, yet lack of land in Amsterdam, this project hopes to create a new place for living. It reclaims seven islands with dredged sand, provides 18,000 single-family homes as well as apartment buildings, schools, office complexes, city parks, and beaches, for 45,000 residents. This community also includes more than 200 floating homes. The Netherlands is creating a district that provides housing on water, rather than fiercely combating it.
Moreover, an entire architectural practice,, is devoted to the relationship of the built environment to water in the Netherlands. In an interview, the partner Koen Olthuis says, “despite our civilization’s history of trying to drain and fight against wet landscapes for the past thousand years, our best move for the future would be to ‘let water in and even make friends with the water’” ( Olthuis suggests a manner of inhabiting water. His firm studies the relationship to water at the building scale and the urban scale. Projects include floating communities, homes on stilts, and floating buildings—both commercial and residential, and even floating barges for parking.
Inhabitation of water exists outside of the Netherlands, and can even be found locally in the houseboats of Sausalito. This community of homes grew largely out of post-WWII housing demands. These neighborhoods and building type vary in terms of size, materials, and foundation. Some are stacked on floating logs; others have foundations that emulate the form of boats. Houseboats offer another method of inhabiting water.
There have also been a series of design proposals I have collected exploring the relationship of rising sea-levels. Architecture firm ARO of NYC proposed “vanes,” vertical pier-like structure that are inhabitable, for their City of the Future competition entry. In Unsolicited Architecture, Boston’s waterfront becomes entirely reconsidered, with special consideration for one building. I hope to continue studying the context, and gathering precedents to help me make informed design decisions.

design proposition
For my thesis I propose taking a coastal American city, and designing for the inevitable rise in sea level.

1 comment:

Mermaid said...

Check out for examples of floating buildings, roads, etc.