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Revealed: Finalist visions in Portsmouth ‘elephant cage’ sea defences contest

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Three teams of young designers chosen for an international and multi-disciplinary competition to brainstorm ‘enlightened and informed’ sea defences surrounding Portsmouth have revealed their final visions

Participants in the innovative ‘elephant cage’ contest – organised by Project Compass and Netherlands-based Architectuur Lokaal – presented their conceptual schemes to civic groups and representatives of Portsmouth City Council (PCC) last week (25 November).

The competition, which was open to UK-based architects, engineers and landscape architects aged under 40, sought ‘integrated’ proposals to rethink and enhance the city’s newly proposed £60 million ramparts.

Selected UK participants developed their ideas alongside Dutch counterparts during a collaborative, international and multidisciplinary design charette based on the ‘elephant cage’ concept, which placed designers in competitive teams.

The island city of Portsmouth is almost entirely flat and so at risk from flooding amid rising sea levels caused by climate change. The historic maritime settlement is home to a major port and naval base, and has a population of 205,400 with a greater density than that of London.

The city’s existing sea defences are reaching the end of their life expectancy, and proposals are being developed for a £60 million package of replacements. Early plans indicate new defences could include 3m-high walls in some places to separate the city’s coastal open spaces from the sea.

Concerns have been raised over the walls’ potential impact to the island’s prominent southern frontage, which stretches from Old Portsmouth and Southsea Common to Fort Cumberland and features 40 listed monuments. There are fears that the new defences could limit views of the sea, block an entrance to South Parade Pier and also interfere with ceremonial events such as the Royal Navy fleet review.

Team A’s ‘Awake, Asleep, Dreaming’ scheme proposed three separate walls – one under the sea, one on the waterfront and a final barrier further inland.

The first would promote ecology and deliver a calm family-friendly sheltered lagoon; the second would deliver a new inhabited infrastructure featuring kiosks, beach huts, a swimming pool and road tunnels; and the third would feature a series of soft undulations acting as a last resort for flooding incorporating gardens, amphitheatres, play spaces and skate parks.

Team B’s ‘The New Common’ vision proposed a super dike intended to protect the site from once in 4,000-year events such as super storms.

The huge structure would require raising the level of Southsea Common, providing an opportunity to deliver new subterranean car parking on the waterfront and to free up new development sites in the city centre.

Pedestrian and cycle routes would be integrated into the defence levy while a new beach would also be created using material dredged from the nearby harbour.

Team C’s ‘Dancing Coastline’ project mooted the possibility of a dynamic waterfront harnessing natural processes to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels. Heritage assets such as Portsmouth’s coastal forts would be protected and allowed to become islands during storms.

PCC city development manager Claire Upton-Brown said: ‘It’s absolutely great that there are these ideas and this enthusiasm and we will be looking at how we engage going forward and how we shape this to deliver the environmental, social and economic outcomes we need to achieve for the city.’

Zane Gunton of the Eastern Solent Coastal Partnership – which is developing the flood defences for the region – added: ‘This has been an amazing exercise it’s like a microcosm for what goes on for last eight years of our project, all in two days.’

‘Everything you are saying is what we are looking to take forward, we are getting funding just for the flood defence but it is forums like this which show how much opportunity there is to do more than the defences and to make something really interesting out of the seafront.

‘Every single group has had some really interesting ideas and it’s been a pleasure to be able to pop in a see this happening.’

The Anglo-Dutch competition, backed by Project Compass and Architectuur Lokaal, sought ‘better and more integrated solutions’ to the sea defences’ public realm that could add value to the investment, boost local support and attract private enterprise. The ‘elephant cage’ procedure – developed in the Netherlands – places designers together in competitive teams ‘to elicit a creative ferment of new, fresh and informative design ideas over a short time’.

Three UK architects, along with three UK engineers and three landscape architects, were selected to participate in a two-and-a-half day charette in Portsmouth alongside an equal number of Dutch competitors. During the event, several teams composed of mixed expertise and nationality worked together to develop schemes in response to a detailed brief.

Three UK and three Dutch specialists were on hand to provide advice, together with masters’ students from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Architecture who had already completed technical, social, environmental and contextual research on the project.

Participating UK specialists included Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects – which completed the London Eye and i360 – and flood defence experts Nick Clarke of Ramboll and Sophie Thompson of LDA.

Mentors from the Netherlands meanwhile included Martin Knuijt of landscape architects OKRA, Matthijs Bouw of One Architecture – which was part of the ‘Big-U’ competition-winning team for New York’s new flood defences – and Frank de Graaf and Alexander Lee of engineering firm Haskoning.

All proposals from the event will feature in an exhibition and were also presented to local stakeholders and city representatives inside the Portsmouth School of Architecture on 25 November. Following the charette, participants will be invited to visit the Netherlands next March to present their findings to Dutch experts, and witness various sea defence projects in the country.


Marit Noest (DELVA)
Kirsty Baker (LDA/Littlehampton/Tipner Park/Park Sadovniki Moscow)
Stef Bogaerds (urban designer, architecture Local)
Richard Harrison (SNUG/Milford Sea defenses/Gavin Gray Award)
Judit Gaasbeek Janzen (urban/Civil Engineering/Delta Interventions)
Gina Hodsman (Ramboll / flood risk / coastal and fluvial defense)
Matthew Tear (student)
Craig Wheeler (student)


Inge Hoekstra (Wageningen, landscape architect, Terra Incognita)
Colum O’Connor (AECOM/100 Resilient cities)
Ramon Scharff (Richer Dykes, AvB, Arc16 Young Talent Award)
Fabrizio Matillana (AA / Farshid Moussavi / Marsh condenser Essex)
Robbert Jongerius (Arcadis, LOLA)
Jeremy Littlejohn (Boskalis/Offshore Renewables/Dredging / Coastal Defence)
Adam Ellwood (student)
Alex Paul (student)


Stein Brunschot (Buro Lubbers,AvB landscape / IJsselmeer)
Marion Preez; (Founder UrbanPioneers / Netherlands / Denmark / UK)
Afke Laarakker (DUT / Mexico / Cambodia / Border Conditions),
Miguel Kerkstra (TU Delft engineer)
Howard Clapp (MottMacDonald / Red Hook, NY / coastal engineer)
Saroj Tamang (student)
Paul Srienz (student)

Q&A: competition organiser and first-round judge Walter Menteth of Project Compass

Why are improvements needed to Portsmouth’s proposed sea defences?

The uniquely distinguished Portsmouth frontage is to be protected by much-needed new coastal defences to address climate change-induced rises in sea level. Government funding for sea defences is ringfenced to the defences themselves, without mollification. Where they stop they do so along much of their length with a shear wall on the landside which, when viewed from the city, will be over 3m high in some locations, with irregular and constrained access. The wall will also sever access to the Victorian pier. As the city’s population rises the overall implicit severance of the city from the sea has the potential to diminish the seaside economy, amenity and leisure potential of the popular seafront. There are a growing number of international examples of how more naturalised landside landscapes can be considered to address such public-realm barriers. The aim of the exercise is to explore all these and other new and as-yet unthought of potentials.

How will the ‘elephant cage’ process produce a better outcome?

The ‘elephant cage’ is a unique process because it has an international dimension, drawing together collaborative teams of architects, landscape architects and engineers from the UK and the Netherlands, who may be mentored through the procedure by specialist expertise, which in this case covers the design of water management, coastal interventions and landscapes. The teams, supported by students, work in competition against each other to develop distinctly different responses. There is no one solution as each team develops different scenarios in competition, giving a depth and breadth to the design outputs and allowing the public a choice in the consideration of the opportunities. The competition returns to the Netherlands in March to allow engagement with further Dutch expertise and examples of coastal design strategies, along with the presentation of the Portsmouth work there.

What sort of designers are you hoping will apply?

We hope that young talented, and emergent design architects, engineers, and landscape architects apply, so they may contribute creative, innovative and original design thinking towards the growing impacts of a prescient climate-change problem. This is now and the future, but we are still struggling with what the best design solutions are. This is an important opportunity for participants to engage, network, embed and acquire knowledge and skills, which it is hoped will inform the city to adopt better-value solutions. Moreover it provides an opportunity to develop exemplary skills having equal application in other parts of the UK.

Which other important commissions might a competition structure like this be appropriate for?

This competition process is ideally suited to testing option scenarios, exploring complexities with a wide-scoping, developing innovative speculative thinking, and fermenting progressive development that can contribute towards enhancing a brief and setting aspirations for better value.

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