A city rises from the waters of the Indian Ocean. A floating city large enough to accommodate 20,000 people is being built in a turquoise lagoon just 10 minutes by boat from Male, the capital of the Maldives.
Designed in a coral-like model, the city will consist of 5,000 floating units, including houses, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals in between. The first blocks will be presented this month, with residents starting to move in early 2024, and the entire city to be completed by 2027.
The project – a joint venture between real estate developer Dutch Docklands and the Maldives government – is not intended as a wild experiment or futuristic vision: it is being built as a practical solution to the harsh reality of rising sea levels.
Do you want to protect your home from sea level rise? Make it float
But if a city sails, it can rise with the sea. This is a “new hope” for more than half a million Maldives, said Cohen Altouis, founder of Waterstudio, the city’s architectural firm. “This can prove that there are affordable housing, large communities and normal water cities that are also safe. They (the Maldives) will move from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.
Hub of floating architecture
Born and raised in the Netherlands – where about a third of the land is below sea level – Altwis has been close to water all his life. His mother’s family is a shipbuilder, and his father is an architect and engineer, so it seemed natural to combine the two, he said. In 2003, Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architectural firm dedicated entirely to construction on water.
There were signs of climate change at the time, but it was not considered a big enough problem to be able to set up a company around it, he said. The biggest problem then was space: cities were expanding, but the right land for new urban development was running out.
The threat of rising seas is leading to a new form of floating architecture. In the Maldives, a nation on the front line of climate change, the first blocks of a floating city are being pulled into place. Once completed, it should look like this depiction and about 20,000 people will call it home. credit: Waterstudio.NL/Dutch Docklands
However, in recent years, climate change has become a “catalyst”, moving floating architecture towards the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed more than 300 floating homes, offices, schools and health centers around the world.
Patrick Vercooyen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as both a practical and cost-effective solution for rising sea levels.
The headquarters of the Global Center for Adaptation are anchored in the Nieuwe Maas River in Rotterdam. credit: Marcel Aizerman
“The cost of not adapting to these flood risks is extreme,” he told CNN. “We have a choice to make: either postpone and pay, or plan and prosper. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this planning against the climate of the future.”
But despite momentum in recent years, floating architecture still has a long way to go in terms of scale and accessibility, Vercoyen said. “This is the next step in this journey: how can we increase the scale and at the same time how can we accelerate? There is an urgency for scale and speed.”
Normal city, only on the surface
The town of Waterstudio is designed to attract locals with its rainbow-colored homes, wide balconies and sea views. Residents will travel by boat or can walk, ride a bike or ride electric scooters or buggies on the sandy streets.
The capital of the Maldives is extremely crowded and there is no room for expansion except in the sea. credit: Carl Court / Getty Images AsiaPac
The modular units are built in a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in position, they are attached to a large underwater concrete hull that is screwed to the seabed by telescopic steel stilts that allow it to sway slightly with the waves. The coral reefs that surround the city help provide a natural breaker for the waves, stabilizing it and protecting residents from seasickness.
Olthuis said the potential impact of the structure on the environment was strictly assessed by local coral experts and approved by state authorities before construction began. To sustain marine life, artificial coral banks made of glass foam are connected to the lower part of the city, which he says helps stimulate natural coral growth.
The goal is for the city to be self-sufficient and to have the same functions as the land. There will be electricity, powered mainly by solar energy generated on site, and wastewater will be treated locally and repurposed as manure for plants. As an alternative to air conditioning, the city will use deep-sea cooling, which involves pumping cold water from the deep sea into the lagoon, which helps 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 “great architecture” in luxury 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 increase the scale,” he said.