A city rises from the waters of the Indian Ocean. In a turquoise lagoon, just a 10-minute boat ride from Male, the Maldivian capital, a floating city is being built, big enough to house 20,000 people.
Designed in a pattern similar to brain coral, the city will consist of 5,000 floating units, including homes, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals in between. The first units will be unveiled this month, residents will begin to move in early 2024, and the entire city should be ready by 2027.
The project – a joint venture between property developer Dutch Docklands and the government of the Maldives – is not intended to be a wild experiment or a futuristic vision: it is being built as a practical solution to the harsh realities of sea level rise.
Do you want to future-proof your home against rising sea levels? let it float
But if a city floats, it can rise with the sea. This is “new hope” for the more than half a million people of the Maldives, says Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the architectural firm that designed the city. “It could prove that there are affordable housing, large communities and normal waterfront cities that are also safe. They (Maldivians) will go from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.
Floating Architecture Hub
Born and raised in the Netherlands — where about a third of the country is below sea level — Olthuis has been close to water all his life. His mother’s side of the family were shipbuilders, and his father comes from a line of architects and engineers, so it seemed only natural to combine the two, he said. In 2003 Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architectural firm that focuses entirely on building on water.
At the time, there were signs of climate change, but it wasn’t considered a problem big enough to build a business around it, he said. The biggest problem then was space: cities expanded, but suitable land for new urban development was running out.
The headquarters of Global Center on Adaptation is anchored in the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam. Credit: Marcel IJzerman
In recent years, however, climate change has become “a catalyst,” propelling floating architecture into the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed more than 300 floating homes, offices, schools and health centers worldwide.
Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as both a practical and economically smart solution for rising sea levels.
“The costs of not adapting to these flood risks are extraordinary,” he told CNN. “We have a choice to make: we slow down and pay, or we plan and prosper. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this planning against the climate of the future.”
But despite the momentum of recent years, floating architecture still has a long way to go in terms of scale and affordability, says Verkooijen. “That’s the next step in this journey: how can we scale up, and at the same time how can we accelerate? There is urgency for scale and speed.”
A normal city, just floating
The town of Waterstudio was designed to attract the locals with its rainbow colored houses, wide balconies and sea views. Residents move on boats, walk, cycle or drive electric scooters or buggies through the sandy streets.
The capital of the Maldives is hugely overcrowded, with no room to expand except in the sea. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images AsiaPac
The modular units are built at a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in place, they are attached to a large concrete underwater hull, which is bolted to the seabed on telescopic steel poles so that it moves gently with the waves. Coral reefs that surround the city provide a natural breakwater, stabilize it and prevent residents from feeling seasick.
Olthuis said the potential environmental impact of the construction was thoroughly assessed by local coral experts and approved by the government before construction began. To support marine life, artificial coral banks made of glass foam are connected to the bottom of the city, which he says helps coral grow naturally.
The aim is for the city to be self-sufficient and have the same functions as on land. There will be electricity, mainly powered by locally generated solar energy, and wastewater will be treated locally and reused as fertilizer for plants. As an alternative to air conditioning, the city will use deep sea cooling, which will pump cold water from the deep sea into the lagoon, helping to save energy.
By developing a fully functioning floating city in the Maldives, Olthuis hopes to take this type of architecture to the next level. It will no longer be “freak architecture” found in luxurious locations commissioned by the super-rich, but a response to climate change and urbanization that is both practical and affordable, he said.
“If I want to make a difference as an architect, we have to scale up,” he said.