“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up” | Aircraft Carrier, the heterotopia par excellence.


From foreground to background: HMS Illustrious, USS Harry S. Truman, and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower

Not so long ago, we published an article about the Seadromes, focused on its relationship on architectural thinking and the conception of floating space. Now, we have seen a renewed interest on these kind of megastructures, some times utopian and, in other situations even dystopian and very close to science fiction. The raise of the megastructures in the 1960s was described as:

The megastructuralists’ urban visions were determined by ‘Möglichkeitsdenken’ [notions of possibility], boosted by the prosperous economy of the 1960s, suffused with a belief in the liberating power of automation. The plans can be seen to reflect the processes of social revolution sweeping through Europe in the 1960s as well as the predicted rapid population increase.

As a counterpoint, we can say that in the current times this “notion of possibilities” emerges from the difficult sociopolitical and economical moment, when the desire of utopia is back. If Hans Hollein designed the Aircraft Carrier City in 1964, we can still feel his influence in projects like the Research Cruise-Ship or even the Port Of London Authority, where James Wignall proposes an “inverted-infrastructure” which moves through the rising water, so the state infrastructures are washed out of London’s urban fabric and float above the old city. Wignall points that this project is in fact a generator to reconfigure our cities and create new altered urban models.


Inverted-infrastructure. From Port Of London Authority


The Fallen Icon. From Port Of London Authority

In 1971, Hall Moggridge started a research for his Sea City, inspired by the fact that only a quarter of our planet is dry land; the rest is ocean. According to this, the point was that “We have to find a new place to live if we are to survive. There are three choices: on other planets, underground, and on the sea. The last of these seems the easiest choice.” And what is easier than to use an existing infrastructure to inhabitat the sea? Michel Foucault wrote that the ship is the heterotopia par excellence and he added, “In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up.” So maybe the need to create this utopian enclaves mentioned by Fredric Jameson on his book Archaeologies of the future, is driving architectural thinking to work on this concepts again, to revisit the potential of ships as floating cities and try to create new urban futures.

The poetry behind big floating infrastructures like the aircraft carriers or cruise ships that we can see in archives like Maersk tumblr-blog, makes easier to understand Foucault words:

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development [I have not been speaking of that today], but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination.

But further that using the aircraft only as an architectural object, we can go on wondering about its political implications and how they’re reflected in urban and architectural issues. There has been an historical relationship between politics and architecture that we can’t deny, and this fact is reflected in the project Aircraft Carrier, where the aircraft is precisely the leitmotif for the Israeli Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, but not as an architectural apparatuses but focused on the American influences on the Mid-East region, and specifically on Israel, after 1973, and they points: “The American involvement soon brings ideas that radically transform Israeli economy and society. As a result, new kinds of architecture begin to appear.”


The Japanese Imperial Navy carrier Hōshō [circa 1924]

“Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State. Source: AirCraftCarrier

Following this relationship between this architectural object and its political implications, we just read yesterday through a tweet by @rubodewig that the Spanish government is considering taking the Principe de Asturias aircraft carrier out of service. We can read:

Technically these vessels are to be left in ‘restricted activity’ with the hope that in the future they can come back into full operation, but many experts consider this is in fact the first step to their scrapping. They say that as there is no likelihood of any improvement in budgets anytime soon, and because the ships would deteriorate quickly if they are not used because of their age.

An interesting fact behind this news is to see the spontaneous reactions it caused and how some ideas were born about possible projects to reuse the aircraft carrier. On a tweeter-conversation we were able to read about some related projects and it was mentioned the idea of using the soon-to-be-abandoned aircraft carrier as a floating city on the offshore of the Spanish coast, which could become an extension of territories flooded by the rise of the sea. Although if we can think that building a floating city reusing an aircraft carrier it’s not possible or at least, difficult; some of the endless inspirational projects of the avant-garde started from the idea of “impossibility” and they are still alive, inasmuch as we’re still rediscovering the utopian-thinking.


Príncipe de Asturias aircraft carrier. Source: Poder Naval

In 1952 the idea of building a “floating airport” seemed almost impossible. On those years, building aircrafts for the moment “when the inevitable crash occurs, it will be on open water and not a crowded city…” was developed by engineers and military, with the main task of building floating airports to make air travel safer and save our cities. In the current times, the idea of reusing such megastructures emerges from the motivation of young architects and activists, aiming to give new life to decommissioned ships. On his book The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa talks about The City of The Eye and The Haptic City: on the first one, “the temporary city is the city of the eye, one of distance and exteriority”, while in the second one, “the haptic city is the city of interiority and nearness”.

We can read also on the Pamphlet Architecture 28: Augmented Landscapes, that Smout Allen describes the concept of “augmented landscape” as an hybrid environment, a utilitarian topography, a sustained artifice… where the panoramas represented the desire to discover and understand the horizon in the perceptual world.

We want to think that utopia and critical thinking are immanent on this kind of spontaneous conversations, where we are trying to get this perceptual understanding. On socio-economic and political times when the term “crisis” is overexposed and overused, we reinforce the idea of going beyond, while trying to transform the city of the eye into the haptic city, with a provocative and optimistic attitude. This projects of inhabiting aircraft and floating city can become even dystopic sometimes, but at least, as Warren Chalk once wrote [1] about their Archigram’s projects: “The disintegrated gesture of the Cybernetic Forest, Environmental Pole, or the self Destructing Happiness bath are excercises in getting the message into a lot of heads, and is important, increasing the amazement brain.”

We are in the beginning on getting the message.
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[1] Architectural Design 39. August 1969: “Owing to Lack of Interest, Tomorrow has been Cancelled” —Warren Chalk.

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