Koen Olthuis’s Dutch practice, Waterstudio, has been preparing for the environmental impacts on architecture for ten years now – building a practice on the assumption that a new solution for inhabitation is on the water. Having lived in Amsterdam, Olthuis has intimate experience with the battle against water that people have posed for themselves. In an interview with Jill Fehrenbacher for Inhabitat, Olthuis describes how Amsterdam was settled, what it means to have a city built upon water and the maintenance required. Olthuis’ desire to colonize the oceans is not new, but his techniques, which he touches upon in this TEDx Talk in Warwick, focus on a refined and innovative way of approaching this strategy that is progressive in that it requires far less maintenance.
Koen Olthuis has built a practice on the strategy of offshore living. While Waterstudio has produced mostly houseboats, the firm is prolific in the prospective architecture of the opportunities of living on the water. In the TED talk, Olthuis describes a future that includes resorts on the water floating on concrete and foam foundations. He describes ecosystems that can be plugged into a body of water via the Seatree. The practice challenges current building strategies, especially those employed by Amsterdam- a city built on mounds within the bay. For centuries the city has been actively pumping the water out – an expensive and energy-consuming system. Olthuis proposes rethinking this strategy and embracing the water as a boundary and opportunity for occupation.
What Olthuis describes is akin to what the elevator did for architecture – adding dimension to occupied space. He proposes customized environments with the addition and subtraction of “floating city apps” (“apps” being islands of program and buildings that can be built together to create urban-like blocks). In terms of luxury and excess, some apps Olthuis describes are hotels, cruise lines, golf courses and resorts. For more practical purposes that address concerns of urbanization, he describes black water filters and farms and urban environments that alleviate overcrowding and slum conditions found on coastlines.
But the global problem is not necessarily overcrowding, it is the disproportionate distribution of resources and people. How will establishing urban blocks and water-based cities create more accessibility to clean water and sanitation, nutritious food and medicine? Is the idea to expand current urban centers that work, spreading their limits beyond the water? In regards to New York City – one should only look at the number of vacant lots and abandoned buildings that exist in so many neighborhoods – space exists, but it is undesirable.
Despite its promise, there are many environmental concerns about building on the water that we have now become more knowledgeable about – factors that were not considered when we began building and expanding urban centers into the cities we are familiar with today. First there are the dangers to marine life – blocking out sunlight and tampering with the quality of the water which result from use of materials that may leak chemicals. Then there are issues of infrastructure, which Olthuis touches upon when he describes tunnels that connect the various apps. We can imagine how quickly these connections can get out of hand – creating spans that criss-cross the ocean with the same density that our streets and highways do today. Any other strategy can only be thought of as one that promotes isolation or large blocks that can be self-sufficient mini-cities on the water.
It is clear that as a profession architecture is becoming much more attuned to how buildings affect the environment and this has affected how architects design – choosing passive heating and cooling systems over exclusively mechanical systems, choosing to use recycled materials as well as less environmentally detrimental ones, creating architectural environments that promote a particular lifestyle that is more environmentally conscious.
The list goes on – But what seems more precarious about the idea of colonizing the ocean is that it is one of the least explored ecosystems of our planet. And now that we have all of this insight about what we should and should not do to our environment it seems that at this juncture we are asked to become much more aware about how we live in regards to the ecosystems we occupy. In other words, how do we live with less of an impact on our environment? How do we produce and dispose of our waste? How do we benefit from our environment, while contributing to it?