/ Floating Frontiers


Archipelago City
Drift & Drive

Brazil, a nation who relies on ethanol for forty percent of its fuel supply has also, in recent years, become one of the largest oil producers in the world. The latest oil discoveries in the Campos and Santos Basin, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, are destined to put Brazil in the coveted top ten of oil producing nations globally. The Tupi and Jupiter oil fields (discovered in 2007 and 2008) have recently been surpassed by the Libra oil field, which is estimated to hold as much as fifteen billion barrels of oil. Approximately 114 miles off the coast of Rio, Libra and newer discoveries are tending to be located further into the sea.  Not only is this oil becoming difficult to access from the coast, it is also deep below the water’s surface under the pre salt fields. Despite these difficulties, in September of 2010, Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, raised over $70bn to develop the field in the world’s largest public share offering to extract this petroleum.

Early discoveries of oil in Brazil involved land-based urbanism for refining, processing and distribution. Macaé, located 180 kilometers northeast of Rio de Janeiro has served as the center for the offshore petroleum industry. Referred to as “Cidade do Petroleo” (City of Petroleum), Macaé could be termed a ‘Petropolis’, or a city developed from resource extraction. ‘Booming’ growth, a characteristic of most Petropolises, is easily witnessed in Macaé, which boasts a six hundred percent growth rate over the past ten years. Despite being situated on land, for most oil workers in Macaé, commuting to work is done by helicopter to reach distant offshore oilrigs. Increasingly, workers are living on these rigs for weeks at a time, creating a new type of micro-city at sea.

The newest findings in the Santos Basin are challenging the notion of land-based urbanism associated with oil production. Several “offshore” cities are emerging off the coast of Brazil to harvest this oil in response to greater distances, existing out of the feasible range of helicopter transport.  These ‘floating frontier towns’ (termed Floating Production Storage & Offloading vessels, or FPSO) are hundreds of kilometers offshore, floating approximately a mile over the sea floor. New ‘island hubs’ are being investigated to bridge distances and allow for efficient movement of people as well as storage of materials. These hubs would allow workers to be transported by boat to land, and connected to various rigs via helicopters. Operating as logistics centers, these hubs incorporate dormitories for workers and are beginning to include amenities such as auditoriums, gyms, and libraries.  As these frontier islands take on more programs outside the production of oil, they start to act as micro-cities. Yet, several of these cities are conceived in service of production instead of as a new type of urbanism.  For instance, early FPSOs were built from decommissioned oil tankers with few amenities for workers. While often developed as temporary settlements, in reality these cities exist for at least twenty years. Plans to make these hubs operational by 2017 provoke an investigation of how these new cities could be designed to account for social and environmental ecology as well as resource extraction.

Floating Frontiers is a research and design project which aims to develop a new type of water-based urbanism focused on the floating frontier city. Instead of conceiving these cities solely in response to oil production, the project examines the projective potential of integrating these floating cities into a larger and more diverse set of networks that these developments could potentially transform.

The research and design work focuses on the following key questions:

— How can future floating cities be designed to account for social and cultural concerns while simultaneously addressing environmental challenges and economic opportunities?
— How can new architecture and infrastructure be integrated to make the collective public realm more robust and sustainable?
— How can these cities operate completely autonomously from outside services by harvesting food, water, and energy from their local environment?
— How can negative ecological effects of oil extraction be addressed in the design of these cities to leave no footprint once extraction is complete?
— How can these developments be conceived with long-term, holistic planning to create a healthy environment and culture for resource extraction?
— How can we design a symbiosis between resource extraction and sustainable urbanism?

Currently eight-six fixed and forty-six floating rigs serve as workplace for over 45,000 people.  It is evident that these new cities are neither temporary nor small and need to be examined by designers to understand how both the networks and islands can be deployed in a sustainable manner. Petrobras is currently estimating that at least fifty new island platforms will need to be constructed in the upcoming years, making this the opportune moment to question and project a new system of sustainable water-based urbanism. Finding such symbiosis would position Brazil as a sustainable leader in offshore drilling and continue the legacy of sustainability embodied within ethanol production.

Just as Hugh Ferris’ Metropolis of Tomorrow both catalogued an existing reality and simultaneously worked within its logic (the new zoning plan of New York) while projecting new innovative urban organizations, the Petropolis of Tomorrow responds to the economic and technical realities of the oil industry without succumbing to them. To this end, on one hand we can speak to themes of scheduling, construction, servicing, phasing, etc. embedded in the economic/ technical realities of the industry. Simultaneously, however, the three proposals here are also embedded in disciplinary conversations revolving around the role of the Archipelago, Logistics and Harvesting. Archipelago City is a reexamination of Archipelago Urbanism and builds upon Ungers and Koolhaas’ Berlin as a Green Archipelago proposal. Drift & Drive investigates the role of harvesting (of oil and well as green energy and food) to formulate a robust efficiency within a logistical network. Lastly, Frequencity questions and develops Team 10’s Scales of Association and how this concept would be readapted in a water-based environment. Questioning the role of timing, scheduling and phasing, it formulates a new type of urbanism that is only conceivable on water. Unlike the series of floating cities proposed by the Japanese Metabolists, these proposals attempt to reconcile utopian design tendencies with the real-life constraints of the oil industry. Key to this is the acknowledgement through visualization that the apparent tabula rasa of the sea is in fact a complex and varying medium comprised of several soft networks and hard nodes.