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Living on water: welcome to a shedboatshed world

About the author
Ken Worpole is an author and policy adviser.

The choice of Simon Starling as the winner of Britain’s premier visual arts award, the Turner Prize, was a triumph for ideas, if not aesthetics. Starling’s signature installation, Shedboatshed: Mobile Architecture No2 is a large wooden hut which the artist bought in situ in Germany, dismantled and reconstructed as a boat, rowed down the Rhine for a few miles, then reassembled as a shed. In this reconstituted form it has become a prizewinning work of art.

Ken Worpole’s most recent book (with the photographer Jason Orton, designed by Steve Parker) is 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (ExDRA, 2005). It costs £15 (including postage) from ExDRA.

Ken Worpole talks illuminatingly about his work and his Essex journey to Mark Thwaite on the literary website ReadySteadyBook

Also by Ken Worpole in openDemocracy: “Essex shores, Essex lives” (September 2003)

In other times this would not have seemed as prescient a work of the imagination as it does today, particularly in the year of the New Orleans floods. For around the world, settlements and communities living close to water are having to think again about adapting to climate change and the increasing volatility and destructiveness of the sea. For many this means rethinking how to build close to water, if not on water itself, and thinking hard about settlements and forms of architecture which might be called amphibian. Shedboatshed imaginatively embodies these questions.

In southeast Asia in particular there is a long tradition of living in floating settlements, sometimes permanently linked by piers, jetties, gangways and pontoons, at other times in independent houseboats or riverboats, which come and go as needed. Such communities may of course fare disastrously in the event of a tsunami, but in other less violent conditions, usually cope with abrupt changes in the weather and sea conditions pretty well.

In most of Europe and north America, ideas about creating communities close to or even on water are fairly new, though the Dutch have been doing it for centuries – not surprisingly since more than half of the population live below sea level. But with floods and tides becoming even more unpredictable, other countries are having to learn fast. For example, in the Thames Gateway close to London, currently being described as the largest housing and regeneration project in Europe, much of the land proposed for building is particularly vulnerable to flooding. There is a Thames Barrier to protect the city and the upper river. Built in anticipation of closing on three occasions a year, in 2001 it closed twenty-four times, and in 2003 nearly as many again. The weather is getting more unpredictable, and so is the sea.


Pool Spar Marker, Thames River is taken from 350 Miles, a collaboration between the photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole. The visual essay and literary narrative capture a journey they made along the entire Essex coastline in early 2005.

The problems are not just technical. A number of Dutch architects have designed and built floating homes – there are forty-eight amphibious houses at Maasbommel, south of Arnhem, designed by Factor Architecten – and more are being designed. The bigger problem is a matter of topography and aesthetics. Coastal edges and river meanderings create difficult sites for developers and road planners who today only think in straight lines and flat sites.

Ken Worpole is an author and policy advisor. Among his books are Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in 20th Century European Culture (Reaktion Books, 2000), Last Landscapes: the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (Reaktion Books, 2003).

His website is at www.worpole.net

Ken Worpole’s writing on openDemocracy includes:

“Stockholm Woodland Cemetery” (January 2003)

“Death in the Luxembourg gardens” (October 2003)

“There is nothing, then there is something, then there is nothing again” (May 2005)

“The world’s first environmental blogger” (August 200 )

Saraband: from Dalarna to Dallas, and back” (November 2005)

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Building close to water requires a different kind of architectural imagination, and one not evident so far in the Thames Gateway. It also requires a new way of learning to live with water, rather in opposition to it. More and more environmentalists, and even planners, are agreed that in future flood defences can no longer rely on higher and higher concrete walls, barriers and levees, but will need to think about ways of re-aligning traditional sea defences, creating new wetlands and flood plains. This means taking an organic rather than mechanical approach in responding to worsening weather.

Essex’s floating world

Such approaches have been pioneered in Essex, in southeast England, on the River Blackwater. It is one of the stories told in 350 miles, a book produced by the photographer Jason Orton and myself, just published. In the early months of this year the two of us walked or cycled most of the length of the Essex coastline, including the Thames, trying to understand and capture the landscape and environmental particularities of this much-derided, though often little-visited, length of post-industrial coastline. I have a personal interest in the subject, as our family lived on Canvey Island at the beginning of the 1950s, and luckily moved a year before the floods of 1953, which killed hundreds on this part of the East Anglian coast (including several of our former neighbours) and thousands in the Netherlands.

One thing that strikes the chronicler of the Essex shoreline is the number of small houseboat communities still surviving in isolated creeks and estuaries, as well as the habit of using old boats on land as sheds and huts. There is a strong local tradition of make-do-and-mend, and boat-owning and boat-repair is still very popular. There is already a culture in some of these riparian and coastal villages of living as good neighbours to the tides and the sea, which planners and architects could learn from. Not surprisingly, still most local boatbuilding uses wood. It is this that made me think of Simon Starling’s artwork.

Water – in the form of its shortages and excesses – is likely to become a dominant political issue in the 21st century. Too little of it in many parts of the world; too much in others. Both shortages and excesses in large part derive from unsustainable forms of development, and hostile forms of architecture, civil engineering and settlement.

There is no point in abandoning coastal areas and moving everybody inland, since it is our relationship with the sea – and sea-borne trade – that historically brought about so much human progress, as historians such as Jared Diamond have shown. But a real change of mindset is needed in future about building and living close to water, particularly tidal water. In future all development should start with a respect for the terrain.


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