In 2016, Bjarke Ingels and his wife Ruth Otero bought a 26-foot-long decommissioned ferry boat. They saw it as an opportunity to take on life aboard and the challenge to transform the discarded shell into their private home. For BIG, several projects have effectively become floating structures, but one would have never imagined he would apply his unconventional architectural ideas into every aspect of his life.
Certainly, Ingels forms part of a new generation of architects with a specific metamodern sensibility, developing his design approach within a balance between idealism and practicality. With his houseboat, he is again turning towards architecture on water, proposing the blue land as the locus to counteract the effects of over-population and climate change.
Four years later, the ferry boat – now called the SS Ingels – remains docked in Copenhagen’s port. From the outside, it still looks like the transportation machine, but with the interiors entirely transformed.
With a rooftop terrace, the chimneys stack and navigation bridges converted into a glass-enclosed pavilion for the main bedroom, the driveway for cars into a living space with terraces, and below deck into a playroom enveloped by a continuous curved surface.
The spaces inside seem to have always belonged there, yet the transformation was more of an empirical process than a straightforward method. For Otero, “living on a boat is a learning curve.
Over time, it becomes clear what the spaces want to be.” Ultimately it is a typology, both with a specific form and structure, indicators of how to proceed in the design, not the other way around. For Ingels, the houseboat is the result of context-aware preconditions transformed into creative forces.
Intrinsic to the typology, the architect notes how “part of the project was restoring that symmetry along both axes”, stripping away unessential additions, complying with the structure’s inherent proportions, harnessing light from east to west and embracing the views of the surroundings from north to south. Its privileged position, surrounded by open space yet in the heart of the city, allowed for design actions that would be otherwise impossible to perform in the old town.
Indeed, the houseboat has become a testing ground for the architect to expand his avant-garde ideas. For Ingels, architecture is all about producing reality through desire, knowledge and technology, “to turn surreal dreams into inhabitable space. To turn fiction into fact”.
What sets his architecture apart is his capacity for a pragmatic utopianism. This contradiction surprisingly achieves a balance between the impossible and the realizable, turning problems into challenges.
Materials and construction
Compared to his incredible megastructures, the houseboat’s architecture is much more subtle as it primarily depends upon details within the existent shell. The main focus goes into blending the interior and exterior as a whole continuous space; in Ingels’ ideal world, they are separated by as little material as possible using the clearest glass with the most minimal frames possible.
The insulated windows supplied by Sky-Frame provide this unique ability to disappear, “[they] are so transparent that you feel as though you can float right through them”. Inserted skylights and porthole windows add to this connection by framing the sky, the water and the surrounding city harbour. Subtle actions turn into a boundless architecture that, far from being a single building, understands the place and the environment in which it exists.
The boat’s free length creates interior extended spaces with multiple functions on each level. Their particularities are made apparent through highly expressive materials, textures, and colours. As a result, a combination of original nautical features, innovative objects by Ingels and other designers, craftsmanship from diverse cultures and recollections from the couple’s travels worldwide.
Ingels has been a strong proponent of floating architecture, which he defines as “the most resilient architecture,” resting on the fact that “as sea levels rise, so will houseboats.”
Besides being an ideal solution to flooding, it is an alternative to crowded cities and unaffordable housing by allowing cities to expand without scattering even more suburban developments and make the use of this new land more democratically inclined.
Even more so, floating architecture seems to have a more positive effect on the environment compared to the significant consequences of building on land. With its own electricity, heating, water, and plumbing scheme, it all becomes a tiny self-sufficient ecosystem.
Simultaneously, the floating structure becomes an anchor point to create aquatic habitats and help foster biodiversity. The fact that the SS Ingels is a recycled structure is just the icing on the cake.
As a response to the housing shortage, houseboats arose during the early Industrial Revolution when rivers were the main paths for transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods, a short-lived moment of glory before the rapid development of railways. They functioned as shelters, predominantly for temporary workers and socially excluded people.
With the advancement of technology, many functional and self-sustainable floating structures exist nowadays, a long way from the 18th century’s precarious cabins.
For Bjarke Ingels, the ultimate goal goes beyond single floating buildings and towards constructing entire floating cities able to withstand natural disasters, highly efficient ecosystems channelling flows of energy, water, food and waste⎯a pragmatic utopia.
Following what the architect calls hedonistic sustainability, architecture and the local environment find total equilibrium, offering a bigger picture that diverges from the standardized narrow-minded responses to climate change.