The Machine in the Ocean: On The Petropolis of Tomorrow

The Machine in the Ocean: On The Petropolis of Tomorrow

Clocking in at just under six hundred pages, Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper’s The Petropolis of Tomorrow (Actar, 2013) presents a series of dueling monstrosities—land and sea; ecology and industry; isolation and circulation—at the hard-edged site of their collision. The product of an intensive research studio directed by Bhatia at the Rice School of Architecture, Petropolis documents and explores Brazil’s rapidly developing network of offshore petroleum and natural gas drilling infrastructures as a site ripe for the deployment of architectural expertise and imagination. Conducted as part of a broad collaborative research investigation on resource extraction urbanism initiated by the South America Project (SAP), the studio, as introduced by SAP Co-Director Felipe Correa, is a speculative experiment that “tests an extreme scenario” with the aim of identifying “new hybrids between industry and urbanism for an alternative twenty-first century extraction town.” Complementing the studio work, the editors have marshaled an impressive array of text and photo contributors whose essays offer distinctive takes on the book’s three thematic threads: archipelago urbanism, harvesting urbanism, and logistical urbanism.

From the start, Bhatia posits Petropolis as a study of our “floating frontiers.” As the historical progression of the American westward thrust demonstrates, the resource extraction machine knows no bounds even if much of its material is stubbornly finite. The frontier is a moving goal line and there’s always another mass of land somewhere within that vast ocean, or in the case of Petropolis, an archipelago of boats, rigs, and platforms dozens of miles off the coast of Brazil—a man-made purgatory and playground of sorts, fueling the mainland while extracting, distilling, and reproducing its most elemental socio-economic features: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Of course, as Bhatia suggests, the sea, like the American West, is not a blank slate. It is as inhabited as it is inhabitable. This frontier has been thoroughly constructed, so why does it appear so mysterious? What makes it an alluring site for intervention when its ecology so closely resembles that of the land with its metropolitan agglomerations? The provocation of Petropolis is that its site serves as both a proxy and a microcosm—a crucible within which the conflicts underwriting the global economy, so often obscured on land, can play out at sea under more controlled conditions.

At the same time, however, Petropolis is not a blanket critical exercise aimed at uncovering every contradiction and dethroning all that is ugly with our systems, nor does it offer an extensive comparative analysis or critique of the development of the company town in history with which to inform the reader’s evaluation of the studio proposals. Premised on a certain acceptance of the extraction economy underwriting the offshore endeavor, the document’s matter-of-fact approach toward defining an urban grammar for its site is largely devoid of cynicism. Such a position, delivered with rigorous graphic consistency, is often refreshing, but occasionally unsettling, as when diagrams re-appear as architectural plans and patterns for the flags of the newly rendered extraction fiefdoms. As Sarah Whiting suggests, this explicit fantasy element indicates that the projects of Petropolis are not “mere problem-solving exercises.” This is research that grapples with visual rhetoric as much as it engages with logistical or spatial organization.

Often in the same stroke, Petropolis attempts to naturalize or normalize the monstrous (to tame the ocean and our infrastructural monsters) while also identifying the site and man’s contemporary interventions (the machines, the ships, the cramped living conditions of workers, the extraction process, etc.) as being monstrous in themselves. In this, Petropolis displays a realism that is conscious of the fact that it cannot operate without some degree of imagination or even illusion. Evoking Prospero and Hugh Ferriss in equal measure, here, it is the image—whether formed or seemingly formless—that compels attention.

On the matter of image, Rania Ghosn writes: “The reclamation of the offshore in political consciousness requires us to address the visual abstraction of the offshore on the same ground, as an aesthetic project.” Referencing Peter Galison and Caroline Jones on the Deepwater Horizon spill, Ghosn argues for the need to look beyond or behind such iconic surface impressions of a massive rig spewing oil into the sea, and turn instead to the thickened space of diagrams of the connections that allow such disasters to occur. Immediately following Ghosn’s essay, Geoff Manaugh’s text speculates on the potential for the reuse of de-commissioned oil platforms as architectural, technological, and ecological playgrounds—incubators resembling an Archigram fantasy at sea—visual icons deformed to the point of overwhelming monstrosity.

That such divergent texts find a place in this volume is indicative of the productive tension running throughout Petropolis, appearing not least in the student projects themselves. To take one example, consider the “Emergent Civic” from the “Archipelago City” project. One of several different programmatic mobile islands or sea-craft in the project, the proposal is, in the words of the design team:

“a joint venture by major oil companies and the government of Brazil. In exchange for the required funding, the oil interests in the region gain law enforcement, a legitimate public authority, and a governing body for the island network. Emergent Civic works to mitigate some of the violence and moral decrepitude which often occurs in communities of isolated, ocean bound communities of oil workers….The island city would act as a municipality within the Brazilian federal government….Emergent Civic also houses a traveling museum and theatre. By tying these citizens to institutions of government and culture, Emergent Civic fosters a sense of security and pride in the network.”

Equal parts Acropolis, Brasilia, iceberg, and island formation, the ship cruises around the constellation of extraction islands in a partially-submerged state resembling a U.S. Civil War-era ironclad. While in transit, all that’s visible are the profiles of the museum, town hall, and courthouse. Upon linking up with an island in the chain, the ship emerges from the water to reveal its housing-stuffed hull topped with a monumental pedestrian platform upon which the public forms sit.

Here, the notion of high culture—the Public—is extracted from mass culture at large, reformatted into a public/private partnership, and repackaged as a submarine/aircraft carrier intended to project territorial reach across the archipelago, providing both order and a relief of tension for isolated workers. This great whale is not a soft, algorithmically-generated, or even diagrammatic vessel attempting to mimic the rhetoric of thickened surfaces and networks, but rather is a blunt object that knows best to keep hidden until it needs to make a performance. But what is the nature of its performance? Is this a neoliberal spectacle, a show of governmental might, a brothel for social interaction, or is it akin to the institutionalized catharsis of the theater festivals of Greek antiquity? Perhaps all of the above, but to add another option, one can turn to a line from the essay penned by Brian Davis. Writing on the “generative capacity” of forms in the landscape, he argues that such “capacity does not take an elemental view of things but rather an objective one, allowing that any object in relation to another—whether a freeway overpass, a plume of industrial toxins in the soil, or a catalpa tree in a backyard garden—generates new possibilities.”

Placing one object next to another might create a spark, yet it’s not entirely clear what architects should do with that moment. Petropolis suggests a number of conflicting possibilities. One strategy would be to thoroughly design the objects and leave their interactions well alone, another to craft generic objects and spend more care designing their interactions, or finally there is the option of producing objects that deny their objecthood and attempt to take on the ephemeral character of an interaction within themselves. More broadly, though, Petropolis reinforces the idea that generic objects benefit from their immersion within a wild and monstrous context (i.e. a megalopolitan region, Ungers’ forest for Berlin, or the ocean) in order to amplify interactions. In this scenario, the architect assumes the role of the choreographer of fantasy, repeatedly conjuring and taming tempests to nudge the future into more hospitable terrains, or at the very least, to avoid stagnation.

Far exceeding its mandate as a studio report, Petropolis offers a thorough staging of some difficult questions, interrogating the notion of the frontier across a range of scales and honing our attention on the perpetually unresolved matter of the edges of form—be it physical, economic, or socio-political—without trying to wish it away. “Petropia” is by necessity a utopia deferred.

Justin Fowler is a founding editor of Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism.

The Petropolis of Tomorrow

From the publisher. In recent years, Brazil has discovered vast quantities of petroleum deep within its territorial waters, inciting the construction of a series of cities along its coast and in the ocean. We could term these developments as Petropolises, or cities formed from resource extraction. The Petropolis of Tomorrow is a design and research project, originally undertaken at Rice University that examines the relationship between resource extraction and urban development in order to extract new templates for sustainable urbanism. Organized into three sections: Archipelago Urbanism, Harvesting Urbanism, and Logistical Urbanism, which consist of theoretical, technical, and photo articles as well as design proposals, The Petropolis of Tomorrow elucidates not only a vision for water-based urbanism of the floating frontier city, it also speculates on new methodologies for integrating infrastructure, landscape, urbanism and architecture within the larger spheres of economics, politics, and culture that implicate these disciplines.

Articles by: Neeraj Bhatia, Luis Callejas, Mary Casper, Felipe Correa, Brian Davis, Farès el-Dahdah, Rania Ghosn, Carola Hein, Bárbara Loureiro, Clare Lyster, Geoff Manaugh, Alida C. Metcalf, Juliana Moura, Koen Olthuis, Albert Pope, Maya Przybylski, Rafico Ruiz, Mason White, Sarah Whiting

Photo Essays by: Garth Lenz, Peter Mettler, Alex Webb

Research/ Design Team: Alex Gregor, Joshua Herzstein, Libo Li, Joanna Luo, Bomin Park, Weijia Song, Peter Stone, Laura Williams, Alex Yuen

Editors: Neeraj Bhatia & Mary Casper
Pages: 576
Ills.: Both color and b/w
Format: 6 x 9 x 2 inches
Binding: Hardcover
Publisher: Actar & Architecture at Rice (Vol. 47)

The Machine in the Ocean: On The Petropolis of Tomorrow

About this author
Cite: Justin Fowler. "The Machine in the Ocean: On The Petropolis of Tomorrow" 20 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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