Seasteading, the concept of building floating cities that are independent of the government, is a big, expensive idea that would require billions of dollars and decades to see to completion. It's hard to even imagine what these communities would look like. But a design competition for architects has done some imagining for us — and the resultant array of cities are dreamy, technotopian, and wildly impractical.
The Seasteading Institute, a group founded by Peter Thiel in 2008, views seasteading as the ideal solution to the government's inability to "innovate sufficiently." It's a movement that has grown up in the tech world, attracting interest from libertarians and techies alike (it was famously parodied in the second season of Silicon Valley, too). In a seminal story on seasteading that Wired published in 2009, the concept is described as the urban planning equivalent of Linux: "a base upon which people can build their own innovative forms of governance."
This spring, the institute announced a competition that invited designers and architects to visualise these floating cities. It's not so much that the group is ready to build them (lol) — rather, it seems like the competition was designed to drum up public interest. A picture of a floating city, replete with pools, yachts, gardens, and luxury housing, is worth a thousand words. Judged by architects, scientists, engineers, and seasteaders themselves, the competition wrapped up this month — and the results were recently posted online.
Let's suspend our many lingering questions about the engineering at work here and take a look at what they propose.
Seasteading often mixes concerns about the government with concerns about extreme weather, and one of the competition's winners reflect it: It's named after a famous Bachelard quote from the Poetics of Space: Storm makes sense of shelter.
The architect, Simon Nummy, proposes a three-story floating "buffer" surrounding the community to shield it from storms and rough waves. One technical problem with building communities in the middle of the ocean is that ocean life is concentrated on the sea floor and near coastlines — not at shallow depths in the deepest seas. This proposal would use huge tubes made of strong fabric anchored to the ocean floor to create ecosystems where harvestable sea life could theoretically flourish.
Yep, I'm on roaming.
Another winner — titled, inscrutably, Artisanopolis, by a team of three architects from Roark 3D — -imagines a circular series of wavebreakers surrounding modular floating piers, where PVs and wave-powered turbines collect energy to power the island. "In this age of limited governance options, we intend to suggest an alternative model that allows new communities to form beyond the limiting jurisdictions of existing nation states in order to promote freedom and competition in the marketplace," say the creators.
Nice yacht placement here.
Yachts are big with most of the entrants, actually.
But while it's easy to criticise the entrants to the competition for focusing on the glamor of the concept rather than the practicalities of building self-sufficient communities that float, it's still an interesting glimpse into the lifestyle that seasteading promotes. These structures have a lot in common, architecturally, with the reigning aesthetics of Silicon Valley and the tech world at large.
Take the geodesic-inspired "biodomes" of the second island. If they look familiar, it's because Amazon is building similar domes for one a new building in Seattle.
Top: Seastead. Bottom: Amazon.
And what about the tessellated facade of the this image, from the third place winner, Matias Perez? It seems to borrow the glass curtain walled tessellation the Google proposed for its new Mountain View headquarters. You could also compare it to Nvidia's modular HQ.
Top two images: Seastead. Middle: Google. Bottom: Nvidia.
Even the first proposal echoes the office architecture of Silicon Valley. Just compare its doughnut-shaped structures to Apple's own mothership:
Top: Seastead. Bottom: Apple.
Are these designs realistic proposals for engineering self-sustaining communities? Not really. But do they illustrate the hyper-utopian design ethos of the tech world in 2015? Absolutely.