Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Copenhagen tries out a novel concept for a bleak-looking future.
The future of affordable housing is floating metal boxes. You might reach that conclusion, at least, looking at a new building project from Bjarke Ingels Group in Copenhagen. Called Urban Rigger, this new development uses interlocking shipping containers to create affordable studios for 12 student residents. So far, that may sound like another familiar exercise in container urbanism, but for one key detail: Urban Rigger doesn’t rest on solid earth. Its units are tethered to a floating platform, now moored on the quayside at the mouth of Copenhagen’s inner harbor.
It’s Copenhagen’s particular challenges—familiar to many cities—that have seen them float up in this direction. Land in the city is scarce and expensive, meaning there are few viable places in which to construct new affordable housing. The city’s harbor still offers ample unbuilt space (though this too is steadily being nibbled into) even if it is of the watery kind. This pilot project is thus able to offer studios for just $600 a month very close to the city’s heart.
The location isn’t Urban Rigger’s only boon. The design also adapts thoughtfully to its site. A North European harbor mouth is hardly the least weather-beaten location you could choose for housing, but while windows in Urban Rigger’s outer walls (insulated with aerogel) offer stunning views, their inner sides are carefully sheltered.
The containers are stacked in two storeys so as to provide a triangle of courtyard, the gaps between glazed to let in light but seal off wind. This courtyard provides an attractive communal space complemented by rooftop sun-lounging areas, while solar panels and a heat-recovery system allow the whole design to be carbon neutral. Add on the model’s ability to rise and fall along with sea levels, and it’s no wonder the architects are optimistic that the concept could be taken up by many waterfront cities with a student housing shortage.
But while the project is imaginative, there’s still something about it that makes the heart sink. This is what a utopian contemporary solution to housing shortage looks like: a souped-up collection of narrow cargo boxes made water-borne so as to adapt to a slow-drip, watery apocalypse. It promises affordable housing in the city center, but in Copenhagen the long-term reality is that it’s current central site will exist only in a narrow window between the port’s industrial obsolescence and its imminent redevelopment as a site for luxury housing. In adapting to the contemporary realities of metropolitan Western Europe, Urban Rigger also tacitly acknowledges that affordable housing can no longer hope to put down inner city roots, but merely to rent a brief mooring.
Bjarke Ingels Group didn’t create these conditions, of course, they merely responded to them with an idea that added sparkle to a make-do-and-mend solution. Still, if this is the future towards which we are floating—albeit in a nicely insulated, sun-decked container—we should also be thinking hard about how to change course.