Archipelago City

Building a series of floating frontier cities in the sea revolving around the oil industry is challenged by the lack of cultural diversity both of living offshore and of globalized generic oil infrastructure. Archipelago City examines how to build a city from a series of points, imbuing each nuclei with a specific programmatic type that transcends into a culturally specific identity. Each program is opportunistic to its geographic location within the larger networks of the oil industry, politics, economics and ecologies, yet each point is also part of a larger territorial constellation. This constellation uses these points to define a legible surface and network. Fabricated only from distinct moments of the city and its networks, Archipelago City proposes an emergent form of urbanism for the oceanic megalopolis.

It is useful to begin a study on archipelago cities by first examining a precedent that has been both influential and debilitating to urbanism — O.M. Ungers and Rem Koolhaas’ study of Berlin in 1977. For Ungers and Koolhaas, the future planning of Berlin had to respond to depopulation without adjusting the overall footprint of the city, or “jeopardizing the general quality of the urban environment.”1 The European city’s shrinking population in the post-war period had devalued the fragmented city fabric, and an overwhelming amount of generic infill had begun to deteriorate the city’s critical cultural neighborhoods. Instead of addition, the project was born from selective subtraction from the existing generic fabric to remove under-performing spaces and replace them with a neutral field. This act of urban amputation was viewed to strengthen the preserved neighborhoods by intensifying their contrast to the field between them. This Berlin of distinct islands, each with an individual morphological identity, was held together with a green field condition. For Ungers and Koolhaas, the city could be reduced to these strategic islands and connected by a ‘green glue’ that stated the limits of the urban megalopolis. However, nowhere in the drawings do Ungers and Koolhaas suggest how connection between the islands occurs. Each island, surrounded by its own space of production and pleasure, effectively imagined the city as isolated pieces floating within a green “ocean”.

Two lessons can be extracted from the Berlin as a Green Archipelago project; firstly, that a city can be reduced to a series of distinct nodes, and severing and isolating such nodes could in fact produce a more healthy series of islands. Secondly, that the field condition to host the nodes is just as important as the nodes themselves, if they are to be part of a larger whole. Such an ocean, defined simply as a universal solvent, however, cannot hold islands together unless deliberately designed. As such, this field would ultimately transform the swatch of ocean contained in the archipelago from a neutral to an active field, defined by its networks.

The experience of offshore living can be characterized by tremendous disorientation coupled with a lack of cultural identity. Ungers and Koolhaas provide a template for urbanism — that in the case of offshore oil industry is additive rather than subtractive — which is made up of distinct points. The offshore oil basins are analyzed through political, economic, logistical and environmental lenses to separate the oil infrastructure into a series of distinct islands. These islands become programmatically unique, which is argued to be at the root of cultural distinctions that will occur through time. While manufacturing urbanism from a series of discrete nodes harkens to the Green Archipelago project, Archipelago City invests in the field condition itself — the networks and territory that allow these nodes to be simultaneously connected yet remain distinct.

The network between these islands is defined by a series of supply boats as well as a civic and leisure boat calibrated to the fourteen-day work cycle of the oil industry. These boats (or ‘mobile islands’) allow for a logistical connection and movement of supplies and goods through the network while still allowing the islands to remain as distinct elements. The islands and network are used to define a territory — the islands standing as artificial mountains, while the network creating vectors of connectivity. Together these form a territorial constellation, which provides a model of urban legibility across a vast landscape. The archipelago’s form is not an icon, but rather provides a sense of orientation within the larger network and oceanic landscape. The raw elements of identity ‑ nodes and a connective network ‑ unified through a territorial constellation forms this complex template of urbanism in offshore environments.

Project Designers:  Alexander Gregor, Joshua Herzstein, Libo Li & Laura Williams
Project Advisor: Neeraj Bhatia
Rice University, School of Architecture