Buildings that float in the water
„“For decades, we’ve done everything we can to keep the water away. Now we have to learn how to make better use of it for ourselves,” says Koen Olthuis from the Waterstudio architects’ firm in nearby Rijswijk. Olthuis is an architect, but like many of his colleagues he also does interdisciplinary work. He calls himself a visionary in the realm of “floating cities.” Examples of what he means can be seen in the newly created urban district of IJburg in the east of Amsterdam. Here, along the Ijsselmeer, Olthuis’ team has created the Waterwoningen project, a settlement of about 60 buildings ranging from bungalows to three-story apartment houses. Even the buildings that are 18 meters high float securely in the water and resist storms with a wind speed of 12. The construction, which is similar to a massive drilling platform, shows that it’s possible to build large-scale settlements on the water. “People like to associate Holland with picturesque houseboats,” says Olthuis, “but we want to think further ahead and create new kinds of urban living.”
Treating water not as an enemy but as a friend by nature—this approach is increasingly gaining ground in the Dutch mindset. Koen Olthuis, who regularly receives delegations of experts from all over the world, advocates a fundamental change of perspective. He believes that the water from the polders—the areas surrounded by dikes that are so characteristic of the “Land of Tulips”— does not have to be pumped back into the sea. In the future, flooded regions could be settled—through the use of flexible amphibian platforms. “Such platforms adapt themselves to the water and could even be pushed around so that they could dock in other locations,” Olthuis explains.
“Instead of keeping water away with dikes, we should use it to create new ways of living”
The head of the Waterstudio architects’ firm designs floating environments for living and working
This paradigm shift is taking place on a broad front throughout the Netherlands. It’s not only port cities that are receiving support from the authorities. In recent years the general public has realized that the network of rivers in the interior is a crucialcomponent of the country’s sensitive ecosystem. It has also become obvious that land reclamation and the straightening of watercourses have magnified the risk of flooding rather than decreasing it. This is a problem that many countries are struggling with. Ten years ago, the Dutch launched a government program based on the principle of creating “Room for Rivers.” The effects of this program are now visible to everyone, for example along the Waal River near the city of Nijmegen.
Three youngsters are having fun swimming near the riverbank. On the opposite bank an elderly lady and her grandchild are walking their dog. Joggers run over the new bridges. Andrea Voskens, an architect, takes in the view of the Waal. “This program has totally changed our concept of the river,” she says. “Formerly there wasn’t very much going on here; now it’s a real leisure paradise.” In the catchment area of Nijmegen, which has 170,000 inhabitants, water sports are now possible. They used to be inconceivable because of the river’s current and its shipping traffic.
The reconstruction of the Waal, the southern arm of the Rhine in its river delta, was one of the 30 measures of a country- wide flood-control project. Voskens supervised the local implementation of the “Room for Rivers” project as a stakeholder manager for the Nijmegen city council. In Nijmegen the Waal takes a 90-degree turn and its width narrows from 1,500 to 450 meters. This bottleneck was the cause of high water and severe flooding in the Nijmegen region and in southern areas along the river in 1993 and 1995, with 250,000 people having to be evacuated. This experience led to a rethinking of the problem: Instead of building ever higher dikes, it was decided to give the rivers more room.