A city is rising from the waters of the Indian Ocean. In a turquoise lagoon, just a 10-minute boat ride from Malé, the capital of the Maldives, a floating city is being built, big enough to hold 20,000 people.
Designed in a pattern similar to brain coral, the city will consist of 5,000 floating units that include houses, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals in between. The first units will be unveiled this month, with residents beginning to move in in early 2024, with the entire city expected to be completed by 2027.
The project, a joint venture between property developer Dutch Docklands and the Maldivian Government, is not intended to be some wild experiment or futuristic vision: it is being built as a practical solution to the harsh reality of rising sea levels.
Want to future-proof your home against sea level rise? make it float
But if a city floats, it could rise with the sea. This is “new hope” for the Maldives’ more than half a million people, said Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the architecture firm that designed the city. “It can show that there is affordable housing, great communities and normal towns on the water that are also safe. They (the Maldivians) will go from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.
floating architecture center
Born and raised in the Netherlands, where about a third of the land is below sea level, Olthuis has been around 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 natural to combine the two, he said. In 2003, Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architecture studio entirely dedicated to building on water.
At the time, the signs of climate change were present, but it wasn’t considered a big enough problem to build a company around, he said. The biggest problem then was space: cities were expanding, but suitable land for new urban development was running out.
The headquarters of the Global Adaptation Center is anchored on the river Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam. Credit: Marcel IJzerman
In recent years, however, climate change has become “a catalyst,” driving floating architecture into the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed more than 300 houseboats, offices, schools, and healthcare facilities around the world.
Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as a practical and economically smart solution to rising sea levels.
“The cost of not adapting to these flood risks is extraordinary,” he told CNN. “We have a choice to make: delay and pay, or plan and prosper. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this future climate planning.”
But despite the momentum of recent years, floating architecture still has a long way to go in terms of scale and affordability, Verkooijen said. “That’s the next step in this journey: how can we scale and at the same time how can we accelerate? There’s an urgency for scale and speed.”
A normal city, just afloat
The town of Waterstudio is designed to attract the local population with its rainbow-colored houses, wide balconies and sea views. Residents will get around by boat, or walk, bike, or drive electric scooters or buggies through the sandy streets.
The capital of the Maldives is overcrowded and has no room to expand beyond the sea. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images Asia-Pacific
The modular units are built at a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in position, they are attached to a large concrete underwater hull, which is bolted to the sea floor on telescopic steel pilings that allow it to fluctuate gently with the waves. The coral reefs surrounding the city help provide a natural breakwater, stabilizing it and keeping residents from feeling seasick.
Olthuis said the structure’s potential environmental impact was rigorously assessed by local coral experts and approved by government authorities before construction began. To support marine life, artificial coral banks made of foam glass are connected to the bottom of the city, which he says help stimulate natural coral growth.
The goal is for the city to be self-sufficient and have all the same functions as one on land. There will be electricity, powered primarily by solar energy generated on site, and the wastewater will be treated locally and reused as manure for the plants. As an alternative to air conditioning, the city will use deep-sea cooling, which involves pumping cold water from the depths of the sea into the lagoon, which helps save energy.
By developing a fully functioning floating city in the Maldives, Olthuis hopes to push this type of architecture to the next level. It will no longer be “strange architecture” found in luxurious places commissioned by the super-rich, but a response to climate change and urbanization that is both practical and affordable, he said.
“If I, as an architect, want to make a difference, we have to scale,” he said.