It looks like an enormous cubist bug, heaving itself out of the water of Boston Harbor. Maybe something out of a horror movie?
No, it's a proposal for a floating block of residences — a whole floating community, really — on a site in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
When I first saw it, I didn't take it seriously. It seemed like just one more in a stream of sometimes silly fantasies that were being offered by architects and architecture students as solutions to the problem of rising sea levels. But the more you look at it, the more interesting it is. Like a lot of good ideas, this one is just crazy enough to make sense.
It's the brainchild of architect Brian Healy, the director of design in the Boston office of the national firm of Perkins + Will. Healy worked with developer Ed Nardi of Cresset Development, best known for the Liberty Wharf complex in South Boston.
They call their design Floatyard. Recently, it won a prestigious national award for good design from the magazine Architecture.
Floatyard is a kind of civic square of residences. Three stories of living units are arranged along the four sides of a central courtyard. You'll get a pretty good sense of Floatyard if you imagine a helicopter hoisting up one of those small residential squares in the South End and dropping it down on the Charlestown waterfront. The entire complex floats, but it remains in place. It rises and falls by sliding up and down on vertical mooring posts, the way a ring slides on a finger.
Floatyard, admittedly, isn't going to be built anytime soon. This is the kind of design that's meant to stir the imagination, not to be immediately practical. The goal is to explore new ideas and stimulate a conversation. Often, in the history of architecture, utopian designs like this have been influential. I hope Floatyard turns out to be one of them.
We live in a city, and in a world, where everyone seems to want to live by the water, but where sea levels and storm surges are predicted to rise to increasingly dangerous levels. There's a need to invent new ways of living with water.
What's so impressive about Floatyard is the breadth of issues it raises. It's just as much about creating a sense of urban community as it is about dealing with changing climate.
The central courtyard, for example, has been imagined as a new kind of space. Like any good city courtyard, it's both a children's playground and an adult meeting place. Overlooked by numerous stairs and balconies, it's a setting for social encounters. But it also contains a water garden that seeks to re-create in miniature the tidal marsh landscape of the original harbor, encouraging the return of native species. This is a place where land and sea meet as friends, not enemies.
Equally inventive is the proposal for construction. New structural materials, such as lightweight concrete, now make floating buildings more practical. But the Floatyard proposal is much more ambitious than that. Healy and Nardi suggest that the building could be fabricated elsewhere and pulled by tugboat across the harbor on barges, as was done with huge sections of the Big Dig tunnels. Much larger chunks of architecture — maybe even entire buildings — can be transported by sea than by land, thus saving costs.
If that concept caught on, they argue, it could stimulate a revival of activity in the Boston seaport's once famous shipyards, now languishing in places like Hull, East Boston, and Quincy. Boston Harbor would be re-industrialized: It would manufacture housing where it once made ships. The water would once again be home to a vital, real-world mix of maritime uses.
As for Floatyard's appearance, nobody's bothered to fuss much yet with the architecture. There are 100-plus living units in several sizes, with ground-floor space for shops and recreational amenities. Nearly all the dwellings enjoy open ocean views, and all are entered from the common courtyard. Some units push out from the facade with angular bay windows, while others recede behind private terraces. The result is to make the building look as if it's inhabited by a diverse population. This is architecture that's doing its job, not shouting for attention.
Floatyard will face plenty of obstacles if and when its creators decide they want to turn some version of the idea into an actual building. Massachusetts waterfronts are heavily guarded by design regulations, a fact we should all be grateful for. The state's Chapter 91 law, which is famous among city planners and dates to 1866, sets out stringent rules for just about everything you'd want to build on or near a waterfront. Floatyard appears to violate it — or let's say challenge it — in more than one way.
But laws and their interpretations evolve in a changing world. And the process is just beginning. Developer Nardi doesn't yet have control of the Navy Yard pier he's selected for this demonstration design. He admits that any future permitting process will be tough. But he thinks it may be possible.
Floating housing has been successful in other parts of the world, notably the Netherlands. And the houseboats in places like Sausalito, in Northern California, are treasured. It doesn't always work. People don't want to feel isolated or surrounded in a world of water. But Floatyard is firmly attached, like a dock, to the land and its utilities. It's just another traditional Boston finger pier that happens to float.
Global warming is a reality and so is the rise of sea levels. Nobody knows how high they'll go. If Sandy had been aimed a few degrees farther north, it would have swamped much of Boston and environs. Someday, another storm surge will do that or worse.
In principle, there are three ways for waterfront cities to respond to rising sea levels. They can pick up and move to higher ground. They can wall themselves off from the water with dikes and barriers. Or they can reach out to welcome the influx of water and, like Venice or Suzhou, China, find ways of living with it and, perhaps, even enhancing the quality of life.
We'll see all three approaches in the coming years. The third is the most interesting and the cheapest. Boston has a long history of reinventing its relationship to the sea, often in radical ways. This is no time to stop.
Is Floatyard a pie-in-the-sky idea? Of course. That's where good ideas begin. My guess is that we haven't seen the last of this one.