Have You Seen a State that Likes Mobile Structures? Exploring the Boom and Bust of Technically Feasible Floating Settlement Ideas since the 1960s

Stefan Huebner, National University of Singapore Asia Research Institute

Large, mobile, floating settlements have the potential to destroy real property value and related legal regimes, could allow to switch jurisdiction by moving to different cities, counties or states, and many older proposals looked like replications of architectural modernism’s state-sponsored, functionally separated city planning disasters that made people commute 1-2 hours to their workspaces or commercial areas. Such earlier ideas to build technically feasible, large, mobile, floating settlements suffered from multiple layers of problems, ranging from the actual designs to the broader political and environmental philosophies attached to them.

However, this paper demonstrates that they had one common denominator, which was lack of state support or insistence by state officials to strongly change central ideas. Architects, engineers, and designers such as R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), John P. Craven (1924–2015), Kiyonori Kikutake (1928–2011), and others in that sense all failed with their plans for mobile, floating settlements, which boomed and busted during the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of the construction of aircraft carriers and semi-submersible offshore platforms.

This paper’s main point is that their central idea, mobility, drastically conflicted with the millennia-old sedentary operating system of states that after the agricultural revolution and, much later, the industrial revolution legally or economically tied the vast majority of people to (immovable) agricultural land and factories. My examples show that Fuller’s, Craven’, and Kikutake’s respective ideas to disconnect a floating dwelling (a dwelling normally being an immobile fixture tied to immovable land) from a plot of land or rather water utterly failed against proponents of state-guided legal regimes of real property. I contrast this to the much more rapid spread of suburb-replicating, non-autonomous floating houses with much reduced mobility. The paper is based on a qualitative analysis of historical source materials obtained in Asia, North America, and Europe.

Keywords – Floating settlements, Failure, Mobility problem, Real property problem, Megastructure problem

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Stefan Huebner (Hübner) is Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. By training, he is a historian who is currently writing a book on the global history of ocean industrialization and colonization projects since the early 20th century. He was U.S. SSRC Transregional Research Fellow at Harvard University, Fulbright Scholar also at Harvard, History and Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and postdoctoral/doctoral fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington, DC and the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo. He received his Ph.D. from Jacobs University Bremen, Germany, in 2015. His most recent articles are: “Tackling Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Ecosystem Destruction: How US-Japanese Ocean Industrialization and the Metabolist Movement’s Global Legacy Shaped Environmental Thought (c. 1950s–Present)” Environmental History 25,1 (2020): 35-61—and a shorter piece in YaleGlobal.

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