Dutch architect dreams of future floating cities

By Roberta Cowan

AMSTERDAM, Oct 9 (Reuters) - When Koen Olthuis finallylanded his first job after graduating as an architect, his newfirm wouldn't let him work on the most historic or prestigiousaccounts in Amsterdam's 17th century centre. He got houseboats.Floating boxes.

But the young Dutchman, who stems from boat building andarchitecture stock, dove right into his new job, and it wasn'tlong before he started making connections between the principlesof a floating house, and the battle the Dutch have been wagingagainst the sea to reclaim land and stay dry for 500 years.

He thought, if a house can float, why not an office complexor a structure big enough to hold a whole city?

Olthuis, who along with building partner Dutch Docklands,designed a section of floating islands for Dubai's man-made PalmIslands development project, has also created a patent whichscales up the technology used for a houseboat to floatingstructures big enough to hold cars, roads and houses.

"Water is a workable building layer or a floating foundationand if you turn water into space, which is a dramatic change ofmindset, there's a whole new world of possibilities," Olthuistold Reuters.

He said the basis for his design isn't any different thanthe normal Dutch floating technology used for houseboats.

"It is just a floating foundation, mostly made of concreteand foam which is quite stable, heavy, and goes up and down withwaves and up and down with the sea level," he said.

The floating city of the future is still a dream, butOlthuis's firm, WaterStudio, which he started a decade ago,designs buildings and floating structures which try to combatthe challenges posed by rising sea levels.

"Because of urbanisation and climate change, all the bigcities have space limitations. We can create space with water,space that others have never even seen," he said.

He said he wants to create space where land is under threatfrom rising sea levels and compares the methods for buildingfloating structures to the invention of the elevator.

"If the elevator were never invented, then cities wouldn'thave buildings with more than three or four levels, becausenobody wants to walk up more than that. But with elevators, wecan climb 20, 30 even 40 flights."

Olthuis's firm has designed plenty of floating homes in TheNetherlands and is laying plans to start building an entirelynew floating neighbourhood with 1,200 homes.

It has projects in India and China and has begun preparingthe lagoons for a holiday resort project in the Maldives, achain of islands in the Indian Ocean that is one of the world'smost endangered nations due to flooding from climate change.

"We started thinking seriously about designing a wholefloating island when we got a request from the Maldives, whichare threatened in the long-term by rising sea levels, and theyare looking for new development opportunities."

In response, Olthuis's team and building partner DutchDocklands designed an estate of 185 luxury floating villas,called The Ocean Flower, part of a larger development acrossfive lagoons, including a conference centre and a golf course.

The islands are designed to move with the waves and sealevels but because they are so stable, Olthuis said being on oneof his artificial islands is like being on normal land.

"You do not feel any waves."

The islands will be connected to the seabed with the samesort of cables used in offshore technology, for oil rigs, whichlets them stay in one location and not drift away.

"The development in the Maldives is for a happy few who canafford to buy their own floating holiday home," Olthuis said.

But he said that building luxury resorts for the rich helpsto refine a technology that can in turn be used to benefit thepoor in places such as Bangladesh, where flooding regularlydestroys lives and livelihoods.

"So we let the rich pay for the innovation for the poor,"he said.

Olthuis said future designs could see floating structuresdetached and moved to new locations, or new cities, put togetherlike a puzzle, responding to particular urban needs.

For a man who was told as a young trainee to "forget abouthouseboats," Olthius's focus on water has had a resoundingimpact on the way he looks at space and the environment.

"I am a Dutchman, and for me, Holland is an artificialcountry. It is all fake. We live below sea level and it takestoo much effort and money to keep the pumps working 24 hours aday," he said.

Olthuis said that within 50 years, it won't even be possibleto pump all the water back to the sea and reckons it is time forthe Dutch to forge a new relationship with water.

"We need to learn to live with it rather than fight it. Weshould let the water come back, and then build on it."

(Reporting by Roberta B. Cowan, editing by Paul Casciato)