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ARCHITECTURE TODAY Thu 20th January 2011
Thu 20th Jan 11 - 10:32

Architecture Today

AMSTERDAM Liquid assets: Chris Foges reports on Marlies Rohmer's floating housing.

Steigereiland is the first in a chain of artificial islands that makes up Ijburg, an extension to Amsterdam that stretches into the Ijmeer to the east of the city.  Bisected by a highway and tramline, the western half comprises housing on dry land; to the east is a basin enclosed by dikes.  Here the island is reduced to an outline, the narrow embankment that runs around the edge of the basin.  Outside is the Ijmeer and a distant scene that recalls seventeenth century landscape painting: a man-made creation of meadow, water and the infrastructure that joins and separates them under a huge sky.  Inside, two clusters of floating houses form the largest such community in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam-based Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer designed 75 of the 200 houses and a 200 metre-long waterfront mixed-use building comprising apartments, shops, offices and underground parking.  A row of terrace houses, perpendicular to the commercial building, perches on the edge of the dike, supported at the rear on stilts that drop into the shallow water.  The floating houses are arranged in the space between, linked to a network of jetties, with movable bridges marked by hour-story houses on piles.  The urban design intention, says Rohmer, was to create ‘a pleasantly untidy character'.  Owners can choose the orientation of their houses, and the disposition of windows and cladding in the facades.  Some residents have already fitted cantilevered play-decks, or cobbled together small floating gardens.  The public jetties have been colonised with planters and benchers.  Everyone seems to have a bicycle outside the front door and a boat at the back.

The houses look like houses rather than houseboats, and the developer is keen that they should be recognised as such - mortgages and insurance are cheaper for houses than boats.  Although they can be moved for maintenance, the houses are securely fixed to steel piles and have no propulsion system.  Owners buy a perpetual lease on their patch of water and the lake-bed beneath.  Nevertheless, the law does not currently consider floating buildings to be real estate, and the houses are listed in the Register of Shipping.

There are two principal methods of making floating houses: either a foam block is encased in concrete to form the raft, or- as is the case here - the raft is a hollow concrete shell which forms a habitable, half0submerged room.  The raft and timber-framed superstructure were assembled in a covered dry dock at a former ship yard and towed 70km across the lake to the site.

Making a floating house water-tight and stable is reasonably straightforward; connecting it to land is less so.  Almost every point of contact between house and its surroundings, from rainwater run-off to fire escape routes, required an ingenious reinterpretation of standard practice or building regulation.  Sample problem: the water company objected that supply pipes in the jetties might freeze.  Solution: a heating element spirals around the pipe.  Problem: if water gets too warm it could incubate legionella bacteria.  Solution: thermostatically controlled valves discharge warm water into the lake.  Problem: you need a permit to discharge drinking water into a lake.  And so on, at great length.

The architects, developers, public authorities and utility companies were prepared to cooperate to overcome these problems was essential, and might owe something to the emphasis on consensus often said to be a national characteristic arising precisely from the need to work collectively to keep the water at bay.  In fact, the national strategy for managing water in the face of growing flood risk has abruptly changed direction in the last decade.  Rather than build every more dikes and dams, the Netherlands will relinquish space to water where necessary, and lean to ‘live with water' elsewhere.  This, together with high population density, accounts for the growth of interest in floating buildings for high-risk, low-lying areas.  Housing on water has been built or planned for towns including Maasbommel, Leuven and Almere, along with floating roads, greenhouses, swimming pools, public buildings and prisons (shades of Dickens).  Specialist contractors, consultants and architects are developing a significant body of knowledge about both the construction and maintenance of floating buildings and the aquatic environment.

The Netherlands has incorporated this technology into its thinking about architecture and cities in a serious, pragmatic way.  The very ordinariness of developments such as Rohmer's is a powerful counterpoint to the fantasy floating cities that recur in the margins of recent architectural history.  Where great energy has been expended on integrating Rohmer's housing with the city, the schemes promoted by libertarian seasteaders, technoputopians, eco-survivalists and other cranks are typically preoccupied by self-sufficiency and the desire to escape a ‘failing' society.  In dilute form these are ideas with seemingly wide appeal, and Rohmer's account of her project emphasises opportunities for ‘individualism'.  But in truth, while the romantic aspects of life afloat might work well as a sales pitch, it is the foundation of the city, its social and technical organisation, that make the project possible.  Floating housing is a reminder that, in the city at least, no man is an island.

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