On a bitterly cold but dazzlingly-bright morning in mid-January, I took the tram from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to the IJburg district on the city’s far eastern fringes. Here – on one of Amsterdam’s numerous reclaimed islands – a new community of floating houses has developed since 2013. Straddling the IjMeet lake are the two sections to the project: on the west side, 55 gleaming white modular two- and three-storey floating houses crowded together around purpose-built jetties; on the east, a more colourful collection of individually-designed homes, currently numbering 38 but still being added to, each box-shaped but featuring an array of bespoke elements such as colourful cladding, roof terraces and individual moorings for boats. With as many residents per hectare as the most densely population parts of Amsterdam’s old city, this floating community realises – albeit on a very small scale – a vision of urban living that has long held a fascination for many.
The very existence of water-based cities like Amsterdam (and its southern cousin Venice) was predicated on the reclamation and stabilisation of land formerly under the control of the sea. Yet, despite the longevity of such cities (and the continuing reclamation of land from the sea in new cities like Dubai), they are still as rooted in the ground as inland cities. The dream of floating cities is predicated on the escape from such a static existence – to set cities free to exploit the mobile nature of water. From the Japanese Metabolist architects of the 1960s, French visionaries like Jacques Rougerie from the 1970s onwards, through to contemporary design companies such as Holland-based DeltaSync, the appeal of floating cities rests on their perceived autonomy – their ability to sever ties with land-based cities and float free of all existing political and social constraints. Indeed, for groups like the Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008 by a trio of young entrepreneurs, floating cities are primarily about escaping ‘obsolete political systems’ into a brave new world that would ‘unleash the enormous opportunities in 21st-century innovation’.
As most of the entries submitted to the Seasteading Institute’s 2015 Floating City Project demonstrate, such a vision of political autonomy translates into designs that emphasise a kind of corporate architecture of interconnected modules made up of luxury apartments, offices and shopping and leisure facilities. These buildings characteristically imitate marine flora and fauna, whether the lily pad-like forms of Matias Perez’s Prismatic Module Island or DeltaSync’s mixture of geodesic domes and serpentine office and apartment blocks in their design (which the Seasteading Institute has recently approved). Like vast fortress communities, these seductive designs render floating cities as exclusive havens – whether for tax avoidance or political autonomy. A far cry from the socially progressive visions of the Metabolists and Rougerie, it seems that floating cities today offer no more than an affirmation and intensification of the same neoliberal values that are already producing such fortress cities on land.
Yet, the example of the IJburg floating community provides a different kind of future vision of water-based living. Although far from being socially hetergenous (some of the bespoke houses here are worth around 1 million Euro), the construction of the IJburg homes necessitated a close engagement with the elements that connect water and land, rather than seducing with a dream of autonomy. And through those connections – whether utilities brought in from the land in tubes suspended in mid-air, or the jetties that are anchored to the shore – each of these houses shows a delicate – and vulnerable – relationship to the environment in which they co-habit. The sea may offer the dream of an architecture that can escape the future ravages of climate change – whether ecological or political; yet, actual floating houses draw attention to the city’s interconnectedness – the points of vulnerability that require working with rather than against.