In his 2010 book titled Float! Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change, Dutch architect Koen Olthuis labels today’s architects as “the climate change generation.” Olthuis is the founder of Waterstudio, an architectural firm located in Netherlands that specializes in floating structures. He urges his colleague architects to build on the water to cope with flood and sea level rise. In line with this, recently, floating structures have been gaining momentum; various types of floating buildings, such as floating houses, floating farms, and floating hotels, have been emerging across Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Seattle. Using modern technologies borrowed from the offshore and shipping industries, architects and engineers attempt to adapt existing construction methods in building affordable and flood-proofing floating structures. Floating buildings have many advantages in dealing with disasters caused by climate change in that they are flexible and mobile structures. They do not sink and can outwit changing water levels by rising and falling with the tide. Moreover, floating buildings are easily moved and relocated on water as need arises.
The idea of large-scale floating structures is not new. Architects’ efforts to explore the ocean as a new living sphere harkened back to the 1960s when economic growth and technological development enabled the boom of visionary megastructure. It was Japanese visionaries who led the ambitious proposals for floating city, as seen in the renowned plan for Tokyo Bay (1961) by Tange Kenzo and a series of Marine City projects by Metabolist architect Kikutake Kiyonori. They approached the sea as a tabula rasa, a blank canvas to draw an ideal city without being bothered by the existing urban context. To enhance mobility and flexibility of the structure, they set a modular megastructure afloat rather than reclaiming land.
Entering the 2000s when the climate change becomes the substantial threat to the humankind, there emerged a renewed interest in floating city as the modern day “Noah’s ark.” The recent proposals for floating city inherited from its 60s precedents in that they embrace the idea of module system, mobile and flexible structure, and large artificial land. However, unlike the 60s when architects turned to the ocean to solve urban congestion and land scarcity, today’s futurists tend to consider the water as a potential escape space for the worst–case scenario of various environmental threats.
Recent examples of visionary proposals for floating city include Russian architect Alexander Remizov’s Floating Bioclimatic Ark Project(2011), Belgian ecological architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad (2008), British visionary architect Phil Pauley’s Sub-Biosphere 2(2013), and Shimizu Corporation’s Green Float(2020), just to name a few. Unsurprisingly, the top priority of these proposals lies in the issue of ecology and environment because they are motivated by the threat of climate change. As its title indicates, for instance, Shimizu Group’s Green Float aims to create an “environmental island,” a plant-like city whose system emulates the organic system of nature. Likewise, Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, promotes the idea of “ecopolis,” a half aquatic and half terrestrial floating structure that is able to accommodate 50,000 future climate refugees and to embrace the biodiversity of its fauna and flora. Both Green Float and Lilypad are designed to reach a positive energetic balance with zero carbone emission by taking advantage of all the renewable energies available from the sea (solar, thermal and photovoltaic energies, wind energy, hydraulic, tidal power station, osmotic energies, phytopurification, and biomass).
Such ambitious efforts to build a smart green city on water initiated by visionaries, explores, innovators, and marine engineers and scientists culminate in the 2019 UN conference on the theme of “sustainable floating city.” The concept of sustainability is the essence of the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The UN meeting showcases a prototype of a sustainable floating city designed by architectural firm BIG led by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels as a solution to climate change threats facing urban areas in costal zones. It is buoyant artificial islands clustered together in groups of six to form villages and it can grow and expand over time. Oceanix City is not merely intended to create an extra new land on the ocean but, more importantly, to serve as a laboratory of the latest “blue technology” to create a self-sustaining marine city. To this end, Oceanix City proposes an integrated system of man-made ecology that channels the flow of energy, water, food, and waste in close collaboration with scientists and engineers from various institutes like MIT and UN.
In 2022, Busan metropolitan city announces that the world first floating city will be realized in the coastal area of Busan, the second largest city of South Korea. Based on the prototype of Oceanix City, BIG and its Korean partner Samwoo design Oceanix Busan, a three-interconnected platform of 6.3 hectares, accommodating a community of 12,000 people. Each platform will serve a specific purpose, such as living, research, and lodging and over time, it will transform and adapt and expand further to over 20 platforms. The highlight of Oceanix Busan is the six integrated systems: zero waste and circular systems, closed loop water systems, food, net zero energy, innovative mobility, and coastal habitat regeneration. These interconnected systems will generate 100% of the required operational energy on site through floating and rooftop photovoltaic panels.
Oceanix Busan promotes a utopian scenario of liberating marine life and green smart city, which appeals to many architects, politicians, and the general public. However, it is not an easy task to realize a visionary plan in a built form. First of all, its scale matters. Although Oceanix Busan adopts prefabrication and modular system to enhance mobility and flexibility, it is basically a megastructure, huge artificial land that include various functions of city. When it comes to megastructure, it is not easy to contain sufficient flexibility. Moreover, to build megastructure on water requires huge construction projects that emit massive carbon dioxide, which is responsible for climate change. Lastly, this large-scale floating structure has an enormous impact on ocean ecology and coastal areas.
Experts in ocean engineering argue that there is no technological difficulty in building flotation systems for Oceanix Busan. They consider the idea of floating city as a new arsenal tool to solve global problems of climate change. Yet, technological innovation cannot solve social, economic, legal, and cultural issues. The ocean is not a blank slate; there is a complex ecosystem consisting of numerous organic and inorganic beings in the sea. Furthermore, the near sea of Busan is organically connected to the existing fabrics of the city that has already suffered from indiscriminate development of the coastal areas. Unlike its intention to create a pilot project for a sustainable future city, Oceanix Busan has a risk of accelerating uneven regional development and speculative investment. Now is the time to consider whether this eco-modernist approach underlying floating city projects can be the only option to cope with the crisis of the Anthropocene.