The city rises from the waters of the Indian Ocean. In a turquoise lagoon, just a 10-minute boat ride from Male, the capital of the Maldives, a floating city is being built big enough to hold 20,000 people.
Designed after a brain coral, the city will be made up of 5,000 floating units, including houses, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals between them. The first apartments will open this month, residents will start moving in early 2024, and the entire city should be completed by 2027.
The project – a joint venture between real estate developer Dutch Docklands and the government of the Maldives – is not intended as a wild experiment or futuristic vision: it is being built as a practical solution to the harsh reality of sea level rise.
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But if the city floats, it can rise with the sea. It’s “new hope” for more than half a million residents of the Maldives, said Cohen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the architecture firm that designed the city. “It could prove that there are affordable housing, large communities and normal cities on the water that are also safe. They (the Maldivians) will go from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.
Center for Floating Architecture
Born and raised in the Netherlands, where about a third of the land is below sea level, Olthuis has been close to water all his life. His family on his mother’s side was a shipbuilder, and his father came from a family of architects and engineers, so he said it was only natural to combine the two. In 2003, Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architecture firm dedicated entirely to building on water.
There were signs of climate change at the time, but it wasn’t considered a big enough issue to build a company around, he said. The biggest problem then was space: cities were expanding, but there was not enough suitable land for new urban development.
The Global Adaptation Center is headquartered on the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam. Credit: Marcel Eizerman
However, in recent years, climate change has become a “catalyst” pushing floating architecture into the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed over 300 houseboats, offices, schools and medical centers around the world.
Patrick Vercoyen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as both a practical and cost-effective solution to the problem of sea level rise.
“The cost of failing to adapt to these flood risks is extraordinary,” he told CNN. “We have a choice: we either save and pay, or we plan and prosper. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this planning against the climate of the future.”
But despite the 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 scale and at the same time how can we accelerate? Scaling and speed are critical.”
An ordinary city, only afloat
The city of Waterstudio is designed to attract locals with its rainbow-colored houses, wide balconies and waterfront views. Residents will travel by boat and can also walk, ride bicycles or electric scooters or buggies on the sandy streets.
The capital of the Maldives is very overcrowded and has nowhere to expand but at sea. Credit: Karl Court/Getty Images AsiaPac
The modular units are built at a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in place, they are attached to a large underwater concrete hull that is bolted to the seafloor on telescoping steel piles that allow it to wobble smoothly with the waves. The coral reefs surrounding the city help provide a natural breakwater, stabilizing it and preventing residents from getting seasick.
Olthuis said the facility’s potential environmental impact was carefully 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 lower part of the city, which he says helps stimulate natural coral growth.
The goal is for the city to be self-sufficient and perform the same functions as a city on land. Electricity will be supplied predominantly by on-site solar energy, while wastewater will be treated on-site and used as plant fertilizer. 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, helping to save energy.
By creating a fully functioning floating city in the Maldives, Olthuis hopes this type of architecture will take it to the next level. It will no longer be the “quirky architecture” found in luxurious locations commissioned by the super-rich, he said, but a response to climate change and urbanization that is both practical and affordable.
“If I, as an architect, want to change something, we have to scale up,” he said.