Drift City: Architecture’s Reaction to Sea Level Rise
For the last 2.5 million years, the earth has participated in an ecological dance with the massive continental ice sheets covering the northern hemisphere. This dance entails a constant oscillation between ocean levels and frozen water deposited in the glaciers—a give-and-take ballet that has instigated fluctuations in water level by more than 500 feet (150 m). “Shorelines have moved landward or seaward tens of miles as a result.” Rising water level is not a recent phenomenon; it has been an unceasing operation over the history of the earth. What is urgent for us today is that water is approaching major centers of population and capital. We humans are the third, and somewhat awkward, participants in this environmental dance. For the first moment in earth’s history, sea level rise is encountering a densely developed edge condition, putting millions of lives, thousands of buildings, and hundreds of cities at risk.

This is the situation of the rising: water is breaching established thresholds and invading the city, architecture, and constructed landscape. The breach is no longer an anomaly, but rather a common occurrence, and is forcing us to rethink the built environment’s relationship with water. Is it possible to build mechanisms to keep the rising water out? If so, how long will these devices protect us? Should we flee, surrendering home and culture to the forces of nature? If so, where do we go? Is it possible to imagine an amphibious architecture? Can we build environments that have the ability to withstand or adapt to fluctuating water levels?

Drift City is an urbanistic, infrastructural, spatial response to this condition of rising sea levels. It is a city that floats. A city that bridges. A city that migrates. A city that transforms. A city that redistributes. A city that reconfigures the complicated relationship between water and people. It is a city structured by three operations: defense, retreat, and adaptation.

The ark, as a response for survival, has become the paradigm for humanity’s response to ecological disaster: construct a mechanism for deliverance. Drift City is the continuation of this subsistence exercise. It is a floating, linear city that simultaneously defends, retreats and adapts to the rising sea. It is a city that materializes in response to the hydrological crisis prompted by climate change. It is a city that marks the edge of land and water, then migrates in both directions. Drift City is the ark of the 21st century. It is a mechanism that enable’s the control of, escape from, and adaptation to water’s ominous presence.

In the wake of an escalating global crisis with water, this project is a critical evaluation of innovative design solutions to address the rising of sea levels. Drift City is a hybrid solution—a solution that says yes to defending, to retreating and to adapting. It is a city that acts as a defense wall. Yet it also instigates and enables mobility for retreating populations. However, retreat may not be permanent, but rather a form of temporal adaptation. Drift City fundamentally questions the condition of static building and offers a new way to live that is sensitive to the fluctuations of water.


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