Artikelsamling - med Hans Peter Hagens egne skriverier om arkitektur og byplanlægning

Water dwellings - in bays and rivers, on lakes and coasts

By architect Hans Peter Hagens and anthropologist Louise Sylvest Vestergaard

The storms and hurricanes Bodil,  Gorm, Urd, Egon and Allan are indelibly imprinted in the memory of anyone Dane. Torrential rain and increasing wind speeds are giving cause for concern around the country. Extreme downpours, flooding, melt water and precipitously rising water levels and tides are becoming increasingly urgent everyday phenomena in Denmark and around the world in areas close to coasts, straits, bays and inlets, lakes and rivers. Incorporating positive human and architectural approaches as integrated responses to the challenges posed by the water is a sign of relevance and the ability to turn a threat into an advantage.

Denmark is a sea with many islands, the waterways defining the horizon for no fewer than 406 islands in addition to the peninsular region of Jutland. Around 79 of the islands are inhabited, and the geography, climate and local traditions of the individual islands have shaped Denmark’s geography and the varying ways in which we have used the water throughout history. It is time to pull the Danish islands off the shelf, one by one, so let’s begin here. With new canal and water dwellings on pillars, floating homes in a wide range of different versions, adapted to the natural characteristics and cultural history of the individual landscape.

But first, let’s take a look around the world before we return to the Danish islands and rural districts with an experience base that we can put to active use.

Asia is historically renowned for its unique construction principles for building on water. Millennium-old traditions for floating structures and structures on pillars have created enduring architectural qualities that still serve as eye-openers for Western architecture in 2017. Our present focus aims to highlight the quality of these waterways – on any scale – in order to demonstrate the potentials of contemporary climate-adapted and eco-friendly constructions that interact with the element of water, and which can be applied both in low-lying areas in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic region and anywhere in the world that is faced the aggressive onrush of water.

In order to preserve the original cultural characteristics of the individual countries we have to take an interest in the history of the site when we establ-ish new settlements near or on the world’s waterways. In many places, there is an obvious schism between new and old. Experience shows that traditional local building customs are often discarded and replaced by Western approaches, without regard for any architectural or functional shortcomings. Air-conditioned concrete buildings are thus popping up everywhere from Asia, Africa, the South Pacific and the Middle East to the Caribbean and Latin America – as more prestigious and sought-after structures than those based on local customs. Notwithstanding that the traditional buildings are often carefully adapted to the local climate and weather conditions through ingenious solutions that can often be technologically upgraded by simple means.

In West Africa, people dream of moving out of their traditional mud-brick houses, just as Asia’s houses on water are viewed more as a matter of necessity than as a dwelling form offering specific benefits and qualities. The elegant latticework of the South Pacific Region holds no attraction outside the museum sphere, a view that increasingly applies to the Chinese hutongs too.
Only new robust, durable and weather-resistant construction principles, environmental initiatives and improved sanitation – combined with a clear focus on original qualities and characteristics – will be able to turn this trend around in a more positive direction.
In-depth knowledge and understanding of the local communities – whether in Denmark or abroad – and the integration of optimizing environmental features such as solar cells, solar panels, small wind turbines and carefully selected vegetation for decoration, produce, flowers, fruit, shade and so forth will thus be crucial elements in the interaction of the individual dwelling with its green and blue environment. Summarized in goals for landscapes, architecture and, not least, human needs that result in settings that allow for both privacy and community.

This calls for us to use water as a key factor and a facilitator of ways of life that we need to go back centuries to appreciate in a Nordic context. From the seaweed houses on the island of Læsø, overgrown with a wide variety of wild flowers and grasses , the rorbuer (wooden huts) built on pillars in the sea and used for winter fishing off the Lofoten islands in northern Norway, or the wooden cabins and boathouses on the coast in the Swedish archipelago.

Based on Asia’s diverse traditions for building on water we highlight a range of inherent functional, social and technological qualities of water dwellings. This is mainly based on the authors’ studies and registrations in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam with the river city of Can Tho as our base; a place where the region’s thousands of river houses built on pillars or stilts or kept afloat by oil drums and pontoons – in countless variants – sprouts up on every tiny patch of land in the delta.
Expanded through interviews with the Vietnamese locals living along the nine fascinating main branches of the Mekong, their tributaries and countless related canal systems – Cay Be, Can Tho, Chau Doc and others – to summarize the qualities of water dwellings along with concerns and drawbacks that we, naturally, need to learn from.

With the examples of water dwelling principles that have regained a high degree of currency the intention is to pave the way for economically viable reinterpretations of environmentally and climate-appropriate trial settlements on water, including family homes, preschools and schools, medical clinics, small local markets, mini-hotels and holiday/guest homes. A closer look at these examples reveals greater potentials for architectural and human qualities – in Asia as well as in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic region, since the mutual exchange of experiences offers obvious benefits. The key words for the broad target group, which includes communities all over the world close to coastlines, bays, lakes and rivers, are thus local adaptations and environmental sustainability. Now, a few specific examples to examine living aspects and architecture in the Mekong Delta.

Fishermen’s homes on stilt in the Mekong

Fishermen’s homes on stilt in the Mekong near Chau Doc with shaded patios, hammocks, antenna networks and boats for delivering goods, fishing and family transportation needs. Watercolour: architect Hans Peter Hagens.

Asian water dwellings are typically built according to one of two main construction principles: either floating on empty oil drums/pontoon-like materials or standing on stilts made of bamboo/slender Cajeput trees that can last up to 100 years. On this base, inventive plateaus in simple wooden constructions are built above the water level, designed to accommodate high and low tides as well as rainy and dry seasons, which lead to variations in water levels of several metres over the course of a normal year.
The climate screens – facades, gables and roofs – are normally made of steel sheets, tin, wood, bamboo, rush, palm fronds and supplemented with poetic features, such as the widespread miniature Buddhist prayer niches suspended from ceiling and wall constructions. Also, rows of sparkling TV sets and cabinets, chaotic electrical outlets, antennae, satellite dishes, generators, fans and mobile phones, lest anyone forget that these are modern-day dwellings.
And, not least, the wonderful bridges/walkways/stepping surfaces in wood, bamboo and steel leading from house to house or to land and, always, linked up with ramps and steps leading to the water surface of the river, lake or sea itself.
From here, the individual household’s fleet of motor, rowing and sailing boats, variants of fishing vessels, kayaks and canoes that take the residents to work, into the city, to market, to school, to preschool, to the doctor or simply out for a cup of coffee in the daily engagement with the outside world. Mekong boats have beautifully painted eyes to ward off evil spirits and ensure safe navigation.

The facades of the water dwellings are often constructed to allow the wind to pass through and commonly feature different types of latticework, slats and rush walls that make everyday life more comfortable when day-time and night-time temperatures can vary by as much as 25–40 degrees Celsius. In several of the anthropological interviews, locals underscore the benefits of this feature, which the Dungs, a family of boat engineers, describe succinctly: ‘To us, the most important benefit of living on the water is that it’s pleasantly cool to sleep in the house on the water, thanks to the wind on the Mekong River.’

One-third of the water dwellings are estimated to have toilets/septic tanks, while the remaining two-thirds dump their waste directly into the water underneath the houses. This is an obvious health hazard, as water from the river is also used for bathing, laundry and cooking. Hence, it would be a key issue to address to promote construction principles with improved environmental and health properties.

The stilt houses of Chau Doc in Cambodia’s border region are up to four storeys high and contain intense concentrations of the above-mentioned parameters, not least the water dwellings’ structural strength and tectonics, which are pushed to their limits here with regard to density and the performance of the simple houses. And not without reason, as these Piranesian motifs are not far from one of the primary water sources of the Mekong River, the biggest freshwater lake in South East Asia, where the summer monsoon expands the lake to cover an area that is six times bigger than it is during the dry season.

Asian water dwellings normally open up to boats/vessels passing by on the rivers, tributaries, canals and coastal waterways in order to utilize the potential for trade. All the waterways have intensive boat traffic, mimicking the millions of scooters and other vehicles on the roads. In the region’s renowned floating markets, goods are bought and sold or bartered directly from the boats, which have regular trading spots on the busiest river junctions.

In addition, the water dwellings are home to numerous domestic animals, including dogs, cats, chickens and fish with the DNA for rapid growth, the latter bred to be sold in local floating markets or in the nearest urban centre, where classic market streets offer supplemental venues for trade.

Overall, the structures and materials are simple, but composed in unusually intricate combinations, with the water as the setting for human life. The universal attraction of the water therefore seems obvious to bring up.

Now, we’ll yield the floor to a few of the region’s locals. First the Kim family, who run a floating restaurant that is strategically placed a few minutes by boat from Can Tho’s busy river market with hundreds of boats laden with fruit and vegetables from the Vietnamese larder, as the Mekong Delta is often called. The Kims have a pragmatic assessment: ‘Life is easy on the water. You don’t spend much money, and we don’t pay taxes. Only a modest business tax. Also, it’s cooler, thanks to the wind, and there are fewer mosquitos. If we had to move on land, we’d have to go somewhere else. We wouldn’t own any land, we wouldn’t own any property.’

The Thi family, which owns a cluster of floating homes connected to their fish farm and a total of seven houses with cages with catfish and piranhas  – are more focused on trade in their assessment: ‘The most positive thing about living on the water – apart from the fact that it’s good and convenient for trade – is that it’s cool due to the wind, and there aren’t many mosquitos. Also, the market is close to the fish farm, and it’s easy to invite family members to spend the night in the other houses when they pass by on the Mekong River. It also makes it easier to check on and look after the fish, so we can sell them.’

The Kims add a more curious observation: ‘People who live in houses on the river have many children. Because they’re always home ...’ This brings a different set of impulses and images to mind. Whether there is any science to back this up, the statement gives an impression of the close relations and sense of community that come from living on the water.

Something that we might consider as a universally attractive value, causing us to rethink our views, not least in those parts of Denmark where the water is not always behaving in a way that brings joy.
With the ever more frequent Danish skybursts, hurricanes and rising water levels, why not test the ideas and the knowledge developed over generations, whether they are of a practical, business-related or more emotional nature?

That leads us to our Danish example, which is only one possibility among many in the country. On the island of Lolland, an obvious Danish reinterpretation of the Asian approaches described above would be the Fehmarn Belt Canal Towns, where the scheduled tunnel construction under the Fehmarn Belt is already resulting in major local changes.
Not least the large-scale landscaping and excavations that offer added ‘green’ and ‘blue’ bonuses that could make it possible to revive parts of the long-since drained bay that once formed the beautiful setting for the town of Rødby. And why not also add canals and water locks to provide access from the water to the homes on these new potential water-adjacent sites?
Like many other Danish islands, Lolland has been drained of jobs and functions, and thus, the outlined vision is also about refusing to accept the current tendency to simply write off these peripheral rural districts.

In addition, the area around Rødby still contains elements of low-lying wetlands and drainage canals, which are culture-historical traces of the draining of the bay that reclaimed the land for farming. Re-establishing previous landscape qualities would reconnect Rødby and the nearby villages to the sea and the related waterways, with everything that this entails in terms of sailing, fishing, canal gardens, grazing for animals, footpaths for hikers, small inns, trade and tourism.
Bringing the Mekong River – and the Asian frame of reference – into play with Lolland’s and Rødby’s own fascinating history thus gives rise to new perspectives for the rural districts of Denmark.

Canal Towns Model v3 birdseye 780px

Femern Bælt Kanalbyer (Fehmarn Belt Canal Towns) between the Danish side of the Fehmarn Belt tunnel and the old Danish town of Rødby. Parts of the currently drained Rødby Fjord (Rødby Bay) will be re-established to form public waterways, so the first clusters of Danish water dwellings could be built here. Architectural model:, Hans Peter Hagens.

In this connection it should be underscored that the water dwellings on Lolland are designed to be homes with multiple ‘lives’: their ‘first life’ during the years when the Fehmarn Belt tunnel is under construction, as good homes and small communities for the thousands of workers involves. And their ’second life’ as attractive family and holiday homes on both sides of Fehmarn Belt. Instead of the usual temporary container homes for the workers, the idea is to create sustainable and attractive homes with enduring local value.

Each cluster of water dwellings is to include green areas, a communal dining hall, a café and a TV room, facilities for renting kayaks, boats and bicycles, land for cultivation, access to fishing etc. – facilities that will make life less monotonous, first for the construction workers and then as recreational options for permanent residents and holiday-makers.

As we saw along the Mekong river, the homes will be constructed in simple and rational modular building systems, broken down into units that are easy to transport, so that they can be constructed by the locals themselves. The units are then installed, first on the above-mentioned site by Rødby and next on the German side of the Fehmarn tunnel on sites selected based on local culture-historical traces.
Each housing cluster will be sited directly next to the water, on the water or as a floating structure on the new canals and waterways, in keeping with the Asian traditions. The canals will then be linked up with existing communities, not least Rødby, which is thus recreated as ‘the town on the water’, a role that historical maps and photos document was once a part of everyday life here. Why not?

One thing is Lolland – and the island of Samsø, which is already rich in local initiative. Step by step, island by island, the concept of increasingly irrelevant peripheral rural districts will be abandoned and replaced by positive initiatives and new life. In tune with the changing climate.


In addition, the vision described here formed the basis for a travelling exhibition titled :
Water dwellings – on coasts, bays, lakes and rivers/ Huse på vand – langs vores kyststrækninger, fjorde, i  søer og på floder, which was shown in Denmark, Hanoi, Saigon and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. The following foundations and partners enabled the project: CKU – Center for Kultur og Udvikling (Danish Centre for Culture and Development); the Danish embassy in Vietnam, CDEF – Cultural Development and Exchange Fund, ambassador John Nielsen;  Margot og Thorvald Dreyers Fond; Danmarks Nationalbank’s Anniversary Foundation of 1968; the Danish Arts Foundation’s Committee for Architecture Grants and Project Funding; Vordingborg Libraries; LAG (Local Action Group) Lolland, rep. by Erhardt Tonnesen; architect Ly Thai Son in Can Tho; and architect Nguyén Húu Thái in Saigon.

The present op-ed was printed in a slightly edited version in the Danish newspaper Politiken

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